Fear The Walking Dead S1E01 “Pilot” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on AMC
Writers: Robert Kirkman & Dave Erickson
Director: Adam Davidson
Essential Plot Points:
- People are turning into zombies but not many people have noticed yet…
- …Just a tubby geek and drug addict – Nick Clark – and nobody listens to them
- Meanwhile Nick’s sister is clever and sassy but sulky while…
- …his divorced teacher mum is dating another teacher neither he nor his sister like
- Nick kills his pusher when his pusher tries to kill him in LA’s famous storm drains (Terminator woz here!)
- Nick’s mum and her unliked boyfriend (who’s actually seems like a sound guy but he’s probably got some dark secret) come to Nick’s aid and they end up having to kill zombie pusher
“The Walking Dead with fewer zombies” was presumably not how Fear The Walking Dead was pitched to AMC but let’s be brutally honest – that’s what it is. The show has loads of things going for it: a brooding sense of growing tension, solid acting, an uncompromisingly flawed set of characters who feel uncomfortably familiar from real life and a backdrop of the less glamorous side of LA: drugs, crime, sulky schookids. All great meat for a gritty contemporary drama, sure. And you want to be impressed with it. And you are, to an extent. But… is it always going to be as zombie-lite as this pilot? is the nagging worry in the back of your head.
It’s a problem inherent in this spin-off. Being a prequel set right at the start of the zombie outbreak – before the world has cottoned on to what’s going on – there are going to have to be fewer zombies. If they were everywhere, this would just be The Walking Dead with different characters. So, wisely, Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman and co have forced themselves to set Fear in a situation which means it has to be different to it parent show. This, it’s made pretty clear in a number of ways in this pilot (metaphor, foreshadowing, the dysfunctional central family) will a show not about survival but break down.
Not that you can imagine the Clarks being able to break down any further than they already. They are about as dysfunctional as dysfunctional gets. Drug addict son. Uncommunicative daughter. Both hostile to mum’s new boyfriend who’s own son hates him. Mum and boyfriend seem to be in the first flush of love but there are signs they don’t actually communicate or agree on crucial issues. The cliché in this kind of scenario is “tragedy brings them together” but as the tragedy seems on a slow boil, they could end up killing each other before the zombies do.
None of them is particularly likeable so far, which feels odd for a show that will necessary rely of them heavily to provide he human interest. Nick is worst; he’s some LA idea of “kooky” druggy, played like someone doing Captain Jack Sparrow cosplay who’s forgotten his costume. He’s actively annoying. The others are a little bland. Hopefully they’ll grow on us as the show progresses.
What works well with this pilot is the way the zombie infestation is happening on the fringes of the action: in news reports, on the next road along, just over there The show plays on this cleverly. Is the guy in the next bed to Nick in hospital of not? Will we ever know? Is Alicia’s boyfriend late because he’s become a zombie? It all adds to a effectively cloying sense of paranoia that only the audience is in on – the characters are blissfully unaware. Well, except one lone teen who for once has a right to look sulky that, “Nobody understands me!”
Fear will have to be careful with this kind of “we know you know” trick, though. The reveal of LA in the first scene – all bustling and alive and zombie–ignorant – only has any clout if you were expecting the post-apocalypse in the first place. This kind of things will work as the show sets up this new world where the dead start walking but once the characters become aware it’s a technique with a rapid expiration date.
It’s a decent enough pilot with a lot of atmosphere and a lot of potential. There are just so few surprises in it. There are shocks, sure, but none of those moments that define great US TV drama at the moment when the script delivers a complete swerveball. It’s not predictable but neither does it challenge your expectations either.
Except in that it has surprisingly few zombies.
- Wonderful, low-key, building of tension
- The first proper zombie scene is well worth the wait
- Lots of tantalising hints of what’s happening just off-screen
- Great production values
- It all feels unsettlingly real and plausible
- Frank Dillane is far too mannered as Nick; he even limps theatrically. It’s a self-consciously “actorly” performance that pulls you out of the realism of the rest of the show
- The effectiveness of couple of moments rely on you knowing the parent show. If you didn’t they’d just be slightly odd longueurs
- The Clark family are just a tad too dysfunctional; they have a created for TV feel
- Some of the soap – if you took away the zombie element – would be a little by-the-numbers
And the Random:
- The diner towards the end of the episode (where Nick meets Calvin) is also seen in Pulp Fiction.
- Two thing about the following screenshot. First, it’s an iPhone 4s, which was introduced in 2011. The Walking Dead TV series began in 2010, so it must have been set slightly in the future. Secondly, “You’d better be dead”? Bet she’ll soon wish she never texted that.
- With one teacher giving a lesson on Jack London’s man vs nature classic To Build A Fire, another teacher giving a lesson on chaos theory and graffiti like the one in the screengrab below, you do wonder if Fear The Walking Dead is laying on the foreshadowing just a little too thickly.