Please note that this entry contains potentially MAJOR spoilers for Fear the Walking Dead, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, LOST, and Better Call Saul. Please also note that this is entirely subjective in nature and is not intended to offend or inflame anyone who holds these shows near and dear.
I was thrilled when I first heard about a new companion show to The Walking Dead. For me, few programs have ever approached the amalgam of success that The Walking Dead has fostered and improved upon during its run on AMC. The characters are engrossing as they are written but even better are the performances by their respective actors; the dialogue is often meaningful and thought-provoking--the special effects and settings are inimitable; and the action sequences are among the best television has ever produced.
With that said, I had the highest of hopes for Fear the Walking Dead before it began and now, after the past few weeks of painful squirming, I feel like I am on the verge of tapping out. I can count the number of shows that I've bailed on on one hand, which makes this all the more disappointing. I don't watch a lot of television to begin with and so the shows that I watch I usually get behind early and remain an ardent supporter of even through their often untimely demises (Playmakers, Tilt, Invasion, Jericho, Firefly, and the Whispers to name but a few).
Upon further reflection, I feel like the overarching reason that spurs on my bowing out of viewership of a given show is simply this: a drastic departure from the initial driving conflict or style. The shows that hook me do so without any flashy gimmicks or over-the-top premises; instead, I find myself compelled to care about one thing or another--sometimes the characters, the circumstances they find themselves in, or even the time or setting of the show. When one or more of those things change for the worse then I find myself questioning whether or not I am wasting my time; I have reached that point with Fear the Walking Dead.
To provide a final preparatory example--I remember being excited to hear that Under the Dome would be coming to television. Admittedly not one of Stephen King's best stories (or at least not one of his strongest endings), it was still compelling enough to render me intrigued. I hopped on board from the premiere episode and, though concerned by some of the creative liberties taken by the show's writers and producers, I felt like it was worth sticking with. Then, as has happened with so many shows of late, things took a bizarre turn and the show transmogrified into an unrecognizable shell of itself; in short, it lost sight of its original direction.
For me, LOST is still the greatest show I've ever seen (Breaking Bad was a better show but because I watched it after its television run I missed out on the week-to-week cliffhanging aspect along with the communal discussion that followed each episode of the two shows) but it wasn't without its warts. Most of the things that bothered people about the show didn't perturb me in the least. The reason for this is simple: the things that I was interested in learning about I knew wouldn't come until the very end. Again, many people griped about how things concluded but I was satisfied because I understood that a) not every answer would be hand fed to the viewers and b) it didn't feel like a cop out.
Part of what made LOST stumble in the middle of its run is also at the heart of what has been making Fear the Walking Dead almost unwatchable. The characters, at times, have been running in circles--recordings looping ad infinitum. Think about LOST and those two seasons or so where, in every episode, one group of characters went into the jungle looking for another character or group of characters. It seemed like every episode repeated this trope as if signaling that the writers simply didn't know where to take the show; I feel like the same thing is happening on Fear.
How many more times will we have to hear Madison and Strand argue? Or Madison and Travis? Or Travis/Madison/Strand with Daniel? How many self-indulgent emo moments will Chris subject us to? I hated Nick in season one because of the repetition but he's arguably the only one who is interesting in season two! He's changed enough to warrant our buying into.
Here's the problem: Fear the Walking Dead was pitched initially as a prequel of sorts to The Walking Dead. The primary draw was being able to see the devolution that fans of the latter missed out on by way of Rick Grimes' comatose state. We were promised to see the gradual unraveling of society with an emphasis on how these everyday people would first encounter and then ultimately cope with the unthinkable. It would likely be a far more psychological and emotional source of terror that these characters would face as opposed to the corporeal horror that has captivated us for more than half a decade in the world of The Walking Dead.
Now, admittedly, it's incredibly difficult to build the necessary amount of tension in only a six episode season (as season one was) BUT--and this is an important but--it is hardly impossible. One need look only a day and a time slot ahead to Better Call Saul to see a show that did not allow its length to limit its storytelling ability. Some fans of Saul expected to see Jimmy McGill's transformation be complete by the end of season one if not season two but the fact that (*SPOILER ALERT*) that hasn't happened yet is a testament to the storytelling abilities of Gilligan and Gould.
Think for a second about what these two have managed to do: they took a minor character from arguably the biggest show in history--one whose outcome we already know--and have managed to make a compelling narrative not about what happens after Breaking Bad but what happens before and presumably during it.
For Saul's writers the intention was at the beginning and continues to be the transformation of Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman. The assumption is that this will occur at some point but the purpose is the journey not the end result. Fear the Walking Dead could have and should have taken a cue from this.
In only six episodes of Fear they ran through the entirety of what they wanted the show to be about. Again, I understand that they weren't sure of whether or not there would be future seasons but neither did Into the Badlands! They told enough of the story to end it on a compelling note but left MANY doors wide open to keep the narrative going. And what did Fear do?
They took us out to sea.
Seriously? The show was supposed to be this insightful slow burner that brought us into the heart of society's collapse and instead we're stuck in season one with Madison whining about Nick multiple times an episode, Travis trying too hard to be the good guy and to do the right thing, and Chris and Alicia rendering themselves incapable of being rooted for as the angsty, too-old teens. At times the performances were competent and the moments captivating but until Strand and Salazar entered the fray the show was, at best, treading water.
And so we find ourselves in season two on a boat--the characters as lost on turbid water as we are as viewers of a show that is clearly adrift. There is little beyond a superficial level that is worth rooting for in these characters and their often overwrought performances (Madison as moralizer, Strand as the aloof pseudo-villain, Nick as the detached antihero). This of course falls on the writers and producers of the show and not the actors who are clearly doing the best that they can with what they are given.
Again though: this was supposed to be a show that we would get behind emotionally because of our ability to relate to the characters and their predicament. We root for who we do in The Walking Dead because those characters exhibit the aspects of ourselves that we suppress but secretly wish we could employ. We have been given reasons to root for these people over several seasons! Remember Carol early on? Most people couldn't stand her! Then, at least until the last few episodes of season six, she was arguably the best character on a show with Daryl Dixon and Rick Grimes!
The problem with Fear the Walking Dead is that it was rushed through the exact thing that made it interesting in the first place. In only six episodes we're basically where we start off in The Walking Dead. Worse, in only a few more episodes, we find ourselves nearly caught up to speed in terms of the mindsets that Rick and company have taken literally years to develop.
Stay with me on this: at the beginning of Fear the Walking Dead, Madison is a high school guidance counselor with a sordid set of circumstances at home. She exhibits a willingness to defend her family at all costs but hardly the acumen becoming of a postapocalyptic survivor--even when facing the recently-risen familiar faces of a coworker and neighbor.
Fast forward to tonight's episode and, BARELY THREE WEEKS LATER, she is *SPOILER ALERT* leading the charge on a rescue mission with gun in hand to retrieve her husband and daughter.
Think about that: in twenty or twenty-one days these people are supposed to have gone from completely normal (and clueless about the undead I might add) to fucking cold blooded experts!? Connor, the presumed antagonist only an episode ago, seems to have managed to arrange an intricate pirating gig for himself despite being a normal, everyday person less than twenty days earlier. I'm all for suspension of disbelief when it comes to my fiction...but that's pretty fucking ridiculous.
Again, I understand that art imitates life only to an extent and so, in theory, it's plausible that these people could undergo such drastic changes in such a short amount of time...except for one thing: the whole point of the show was supposed to be normalcy not evolution. It was supposed to be about the journey that these characters took to reach the point of Rick and the Atlanta survivors at the beginning of The Walking Dead. Twenty days simply doesn't cut it!
I remember when Hurricane Sandy hit our area. We were without power for six days but a few of the neighboring regions went much, much longer without it. During that time of being off the grid there were lootings and a general sense of unease but the entire fabric of society managed to stay intact. Even in the places that were the hardest hit (like Staten Island and southern Brooklyn) people managed to retain their humanity. No one became a bloodlusting murderer or an Anton Chigurh-inspired pirate. There were no primal orgies in the streets or inversions of societal norms. There were ordinary people coping with extraordinary circumstances with the intention of returning to a previous way of life.
Fear the Walking Dead is based on a far more calamitous premise and yet these characters go from being utterly clueless about their circumstances to exerting their wills in highly unlikely fashions. You've got Nick becoming a secret agent of sorts--Madison the gun-toting superhero. Strand the not-so-bad-guy. Arguably the only character who might have performed such a feat on The Walking Dead was Shane and he was a goddamn sociopath!
And therein lies the rub: these characters have become caricatures of themselves--almost completely unbelievable to varying degrees. Give me a break!
Everything has been rushed and now it's all falling apart. This show's staff are attempting to cash in on the success of The Walking Dead by surreptitiously transforming its own plot and performers into pathetic mimeographs of the already established ones of note. We were promised a show that would focus on the rise and fall of the undead and society and instead find ourselves in nearly the exact environment that The Walking Dead took literally years to establish only in a few weeks instead.
We have had eleven episodes of Fear the Walking Dead so far. How many main characters have we lost? My current total is 0.75 because Eliza was hardly there enough to count as a full character and Mrs. Salazar was ancillary at best. In the first eleven episodes of The Walking Dead we lost Ed Peletier, a slew of Atlanta Camp Survivors, Andrea's sister Amy, Jim, and Otis.
Would a main character death help or save Fear the Walking Dead? I can't say for sure but it would certainly help! I'd hate to see Strand, Madison, Daniel, or Nick go but as for the others? Chris and Ofelia are undeniably expendable, Alicia has at least been engrossed more in the plot, and Travis could go either way. In all that's eight characters that this show is dragging from one episode to the next! EIGHT!
You want eight from The Walking Dead?
Rick, Carl, Carol, Daryl, Michonne, Maggie, Glenn, and Sasha.
Pick any ONE of those and put them up against even the best that Fear the Walking Dead has to offer. There's just not enough substance in the latter to warrant an attachment like the former has engendered throughout its run.
Without some sort of emotional manipulation I feel like this show will squander what interest it has managed to sustain to this point. If the initial build up was supposed to be towards the very early days of the end then what the hell are we supposed to look forward to now? Some impossible reunion or crossover with characters from the main show? A happily-ever-after story by way of Baja? It's not a rhetorical question--I genuinely have no idea just what it is that we're supposed to care about.
I'm willing to stick it out through the end of this season but I have a bad feeling that this might be AMC's first dud for me--a premium channel version of Under the Dome that had the utmost promise but became ultimately nothing but sweet nothings whispered into our ears.