Nothing to fear: ‘Walking Dead’ spinoff can’t resurrect zombie genre

Aby Sobotka / Staff Illustrator

As someone who thought they couldn’t get enough of the AMC television show “The Walking Dead,” watching its Los Angeles prequel companion series, “Fear the Walking Dead,” is the definition of the phrase “more is less.”

In its first episodes, “The Walking Dead” thrust us into a freshly human portrait of a zombie-infested post-apocalyptic world, despite its cliche beginning with the main protagonist, Rick Grimes, waking from a months-long coma.

“The Walking Dead” premiered on Halloween night in 2010 during a surge of adaptations of fantasy-themed books and other media. The “Twilight” saga, in particular, put classic monsters back on the map in a new and sparkly way, which started a pop culture phenomenon welcoming of adult versions of classically childish monsters like vampires, werewolves and zombies.  “The Walking Dead,” which is based on the comic series that had already been in print for five years before the show debuted, came to life in this world, unlike its kid sibling “Fear the Walking Dead.”

The public’s interest in monsters and mysticism was at its peak when Rick woke from his coma. But now that cultural titans such as “Twilight” (2008) and “Harry Potter” (2001) have concluded, the era of monsters feels like it’s coming to an end. “Fear” is an attempt to resurrect this infatuation.

Despite positive responses from audiences, “Fear the Walking Dead” hasn’t lived up to its predecessor. Works such as “Warm Bodies” (2013), “Zombieland” (2011) and of course, “The Walking Dead” dampened the anticipation for a zombie remake. A new zombie series, even one tied to a show with as successful a reputation as “The Walking Dead,” is not only five years too late — it’s stale.

“Fear the Walking Dead” places us in Los Angeles just as the contagion takes its debut. At first, there are isolated cases not disclosed by the police, but by the second episode, we know that anyone who coughs is a dead man. Our prior knowledge from “The Walking Dead” makes watching our new zombie-killing protagonists difficult and frustrating. Will somebody please tell these newbies that you shoot a zombie in the head to actually kill it?

What “Fear the Walking Dead” does have going for it is a web of complex backstories tying each character to one another through familial ties that the original didn’t attempt.

Instead of following the disjointed perspective of individuals, the family-oriented focus adds an extra dimension of urgency and loss. It follows guidance counselor Madison (Kim Dickens) and her teacher boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis), as well as Madison’s overachieving daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) and junkie son Nick (Frank Dillane). Travis’ ex-wife and biological son are also involved as extra sources of tension to Madison and Travis’ relationship, which will make the origins of these ill feelings and Travis’ divorce interesting, as long as the plot doesn’t get any more convoluted.

What makes “The Walking Dead” so appealing is the interactions between survivors. Sure, there’s zombie-smashing action each week, but all major conflicts deal with people versus people. Rick’s group has maintained a sense of altruism through “The Walking Dead” — they help who they can when the opportunity arises.

“Fear the Walking Dead” seems to go against this idea. For instance, just two episodes in, Madison, the guidance counselor, refuses to help her neighbor fight off a zombie attack. If a guidance counselor’s instinct to help others is already compromised, what other character development do we have to look forward to?

When “The Walking Dead” debuted, it strapped us to our seats with its shocking skull-bashing scenes, setting ratings records each season finale. It reintroduced zombies in the public consciousness the same way “28 Days Later” did for vampires. All of a sudden, the movie-monster genre wasn’t trapped by the confines of old, cheesy props and bad acting — it was legitimately scary again. “Fear the Walking Dead” can’t possibly recreate the same shock value that “The Walking Dead” did in its six seasons, instead serving as our zombie-smashing fix during “The Walking Dead” offseason.

I have no doubt that “Fear the Walking Dead” will get better as it progresses, but one show about the zombie apocalypse, especially one as original and well-crafted as “The Walking Dead,” casts a large shadow over all others — even its own prequel.

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