Set, very specifically, in the period that The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) lies in a coma in Atlanta, this LA based spin-off shows the creeping dread and realisation that, indeed, the dead are walking amongst us – and gathering in numbers.
As a six parter Fear the Walking Dead is very much a tale told in three acts – Act One is the realisation itself, the reveal, that the dead are returning, hungry, and that the world will never be the same again. Act Two shows how “humanity” copes with this dawning apocalypse and tries desperately to retain the norm in an ever increasingly crazy world, and Act Three takes us bang into The Walking Dead territory where our heroes must act rather than react against the situation they find themselves in.
Like The Walking Dead, it’s shown through the eyes of every-men, people who are unremarkable until the End of Days, and how they evolve to cope. Die Hard 4.0‘s Cliff Curtis plays Travis Manawa, a Joe Doe English Lit teacher trying to fuse his estranged family and new life together with his girl friend, guidance councillor Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) who herself is a widow with two teenage kids, one of whom, Nick, is a heroin addict. This in itself is the making of a pretty intriguing kitchen sink drama, but from the drug addled dens Nick finds himself waking in comes something far worse and far more insidious. It’s Nick’s on machinations which lead the family to discover the horrible of the impending zombie apocalypse. “When it happened, it happened quick,” Shane told Rick in TWD, and here we see it. One minute Travis’s son Chris is on a bus with his iPod on, the next he, his dad and mum (Liza, Travis’s ex wife, played by Elisabeth Rodriguez) are trapped in a barber shop as Walkers creep into the streets of LA, ignored mostly by a rioting mob. Thrown together, this is the story of Travis’s two families, the barber’s family (the Salazars) and the world they discover in the cold light of the next day. They’re own pasts and the people they all secretly are in revealed in stark relief.
As with The Walking Dead, the allegory of the walking dead being both Walkers and human survivors isn’t lost here. There’s clearly a message that, whilst Rick’s group have to become less than human themselves to survive, Travis’s hang onto that gestalt humanity with everything they have, Travis himself being almost blindly happy to follow the government’s rules for the end of the world. He can’t bring himself at first to accept that zombies exist, and they kill and then you join them. No more so is this illustrated than in a scene where Maddie contemplates killing a neighbour, already turned, and Travis is horrified at the thought of it. What if there’s a cure? What if there’s a way back? It’s a neat conceit and lovely parallel with Rick Grimes – himself a figure of authority who accepts the situation and what he has to do far quicker than the much more reluctant Travis, despite both of them trying to do the right thing.
The series is a lot slower than The Walking Dead – it allows us time to soak in the characters and culture before peeling that facade away – but it’s no less violent or bloody when it has to be. The other big contract is the urban setting, so different from the countryside of Atlanta and Georgia, where the infrastructure of humanity itself – whether it be the buildings, the rules, the police, the army or even the electricity everyone takes for granted – become as much of a trap than the Walkers themselves.
Act One is fantastic and ramping up the unbelievable horror – think Episode 1 of The Walking Dead as Rick spoke to the zombie girl, or watched them shamble towards him before Morgan saved his life. Act Two dips a bit with the creeps and horror but is the main thrust of the story – who actually are the walking dead, and who should be feared the most? And episode 6 is the spectacular season finale which is as close to its sister series as we get.
Stylistically it’s very similar to The Walking Dead, but in a way that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is similar to The Next Generation; the tropes are all there, just seen through different eyes, and it helps that the writers play with the conceit that we as an audience know more that the characters do. It takes place in the first ten days of the outbreak (Rick was in hospital for two months) but despite being set over a longer period than season 1 of The Walking Dead (which took place over three days after Rick wakes up), it feels shorter, and leaves more questions than answers for what I hope is an extended season two. One can’t help wondering what becomes of these characters and if, ever, we see them a year and a half later, bumping into Rick, Daryl and the others.
For a boxset, the extras are pretty lame, it has to be said. A couple of minutes of talking heads about the series in general and another equally short one about the characters themselves. And despite an obvious nod at the webseries in the series proper, this is conspicuous by its absence in this collection.
Verdict: 8/10 for the series – starts well and ends strongly, but dips a little in the middle
2/10 for the extras – nothing you can’t see on You Tube, no commentary, no documentaries, no webisodes
Fear The Walking Dead: The Complete First Season is out now on Blu-ray™ and DVD, courtesy of entertainment One