I’d warn you that there are spoilers below, but who are we kidding?
Whenever I watch “The Walking Dead,” I spend most of my time rooting for the zombies, who are often more appealing, prudent and rational than the bewildered survivors led by that emotional wreck, Rick Grimes. So, I was prepared to do the same with the six-episode spinoff, “Fear of the Walking Dead,” which mercifully ended last Sunday. It promised to provide a blood-drenched apocalyptic demise of Los Angeles—and who couldn’t get into that, right? Yet, until the finale there were basically no walking dead, no humans worth hating, no storyline worth caring about, and no compelling drama. Nothing really happened.
The biggest problem with the series, despite much of the criticism, isn’t the zombie-less episodes—you don’t need the undead sneaking up on the living all the time, as readers of the masterpiece “World War Z.” The tension of the early episodes comes from knowing that an awful even will befall the sprawling city (where, incidentally, the only person smart enough to foresee impending catastrophe is doughy high school freshman—and boy, would following that kid’s adventures have been a lot more interesting). But it turns out to be a phony tension, propelled by the viewer’s assumption that he will see Los Angeles disintegrate.
He never does. The show, inexplicably, skips the most intriguing aspect of this story. For three episodes we watch cast members drive around the city (that town can be hell) ignoring every sign of the Armageddon until a downtown riot tells them it’s time to freak out. The extended family, which revolves around the chemistry-deprived couple of Madison and Travis, promises to head our east and turn the show into The Walking Desert. Which would have been great.
Instead they go home. The army shows up. The very next episode we catch up with the entire group weeks later, stuck in a militarized zone (guarded by some callous soldiers) around their own house, insulated from any chance of running into an interesting situation, or a walking dead person or a captivating live one. What happened to the city? We don’t know. The world? No idea. For the most part, the cast sits on their roof and stare out at the country’s largest city— where, presumably, more exciting things are materializing in more aesthetically interesting neighborhoods.
Now, it’s true, that Rick awoke after the fall of Atlanta—a less visually unique place, no doubt. But it worked because the Walking Dead thrust Rick right into the action, on a quest to find his family and understand his environment. The show was about survival, not explaining events. The “Fear the Walking Dead,” though, could have taken a lesson from “World War Z.” We already know what’s going to happen. Why take us to the final stages of modern society if you can’t show us how the infrastructure falls? Or how government unravels? Or how our cherished institutions end? How do people turn on each other? Instead we spend time with the whiny kid, the spoiled drug addict kid, the obtuse sister, the pretty but emotional fragile young woman, and a bunch of really clueless neighbors.
What a waste. And if you’re going to focus on characters, they better be riveting. Let’s face it, the best acting performance on the show was given by that middle-aged Asian woman who turned undead stuck in that weird garden area. I was hoping she’d get one of those kids.
All of this was, of course, was unbearably boring until the finale, which appeared to written by folks who sensed the show was a disaster and, to make amends, crammed every zombie-movie cliche known to man into a single episode. Walkers everywhere. Cornered in the hallway. Last second escape. Anarchy. Beautiful shots of a post-apocalyptic Southern California. An escape.
And someone familiar was going to die.
“The Walking Dead” has an annoying habit of knocking off its best characters, but did you care who the zombies got here? I didn’t. Liza probably made some sense, since her survival would have complicated family dynamics for next season. Bitten by a walker during her escape from that makeshift army base/hospital/jail, she asks Madison (Kim Dickens of Deadwood, who is wasted here) to shoot her in the head (“you never liked me that much anyway”) before she dies and turns. Soon enough, Madison’s husband and Liza’s ex-husband Travis (Cliff Curtis, who is wasted here), happens upon this scene and feels strangely compelled to shoot her himself. I gotta say, he didn’t waste a lot of time talking it over. I was wondering why they didn’t just whistle for the former death squad guy, Daniel Salazar (Ruben Blades, who is wasted here), since he’d been itching to kill someone anyway.
In any event, as “The Walking Dead” is wont to do, even during its most tedious seasons (the Hershel’s farm/lose of innocence arc), just when I tell myself I’ve had enough, something about the promise of the next round baits me.
Generally, I’m loyal to shows I believe have unrealized potential. (I may be the last person in America who still holds out hope that AMC will have the good sense to bring back the almost-great “Rubicon” and almost-ok “Halt and Catch Fire.”) “Fear the Walking Dead” was not that show until I met Victor Strand. The few glimpse of the smooth salesman with the utilitarian attitude was enough. He’s loaded. Or we think he is. He’s got a huge yacht that might be his. They’re going to sail. He’s probably a sociopath. “The only way to survive in a mad world, is to embrace the madness,” he explains. All of this is very promising.
Here’s how Allahpundit puts it:
… I’m tuning in for episode one next season solely to see what they do with their new Mr. Fix-It, a man so cool under fire that even the zombie apocalypse can’t put a wrinkle in his suit jacket or a bead of sweat on his forehead. He’s a cross between Winston Wolf and the “hello, ladies” guy from the Old Spice commercials. I’ve never seen a character like him in a zombie drama. And the thing is: It shouldn’t work. It’s ridiculous. It’d be like casting Cary Grant, suit and all, in the Charlton Heston role in “Planet of the Apes” and somehow having that be compelling. The reason it works, I think, is that, after 67 episodes of “The Walking Dead” and six more of this one, the audience is bored to (un)death with the “decent person falls apart as the world falls apart around him” character arc.
It’s possible “The Good Man”—and I’m not sure who the good man was supposed to be in the finale—may have saved “Fear the Walking Dead.” At least for one episode. Maybe for another season. Or, perhaps, like so many of you, I should stop kidding myself and acknowledge that I’ll be back for Season 3 even if Season 2 turns into Gilligan’s Island.