In the late 90s, “Did it sink?” was the question my father asked after every viewing (and there were many) of my double VHS copy of Titanic. Contrary to what my then-12-year-old-self would assume, Leonardo DiCaprio was not the reason the film was so popular. At least not entirely. James Cameron created a three and a half hour long movie about an event of which literally everyone watching it knows the ending. But what the film was actually about had nothing to do with a sinking ship, because Cameron smartly spent the first two hours of the film developing characters and plots and complications that by the time the iceberg came around, the doomed voyage became a device for the world he had already created. It was the fictional journey leading up to the real-life tragedy that made that movie.
The lasting success of The Walking Dead would take an afternoon to dissect, but it can all be whittled down to the triumph of its pilot. As Rick was thrust into the desolate, ravaged Georgia landscape, as were we. Creator Robert Kirkman once said that The Walking Dead is “about us. It’s about how we respond to crisis,” and that’s never clearer than in that first episode. The audience learned about this world along with Rick. We failed with him and succeeded with him and were introduced to the terror of walkers with him. We projected our fears, anxiety, and experience onto him. Rick was our touchstone for comfort in this post-apocolyptic world; if he was okay, so were we.
About a year ago, when I first started binge watching The Walking Dead, I was about three episodes into the first season when I posted a Facebook status about how much the show stressed me out (in the best way, obviously). A friend that had watched the show from its inception commented that when he watches it he doesn’t feel that way anymore, that the walkers aren’t as frightening as they once were for him. A mutually agreed conclusion we reached was that perhaps it’s the show’s shared experience that numbs you to its panic. We are exposed to the dangers of this world along with the characters and as they become increasingly unfazed by the undead, we do too.
Now that we’re five seasons deep, when walkers are no longer the primary cause for concern, the achievement of The Walking Dead is that its showrunners have created diverse, fully-developed characters that we legitimately care for. Even more than we care about the characters individually, we care about them in relation to one another. The new panic of the show is the situations in which the characters are placed and where the walkers are just props. The new panic is generated by the relationships that have been fostered for half a decade, because when something happens to one of them, it happens to all of them, and there’s never anything as soul crushing as when Daryl Dixon cries.
Watching the pilot of a much beloved show’s spin-off is like watching the movie adaptation of a book you love, because it’s impossible to remain impartial. Your focus is less on what you’re experiencing and more on the thoughts that are popping up in your head, since what you’re actually doing is actively judging the shit out of it. By the premiere of Fear the Walking Dead, our expectations are high, walkers aren’t scary anymore, and we don’t care about these characters. (At least not yet.) The new panic is rendered useless because by design this show is oblivious to the world that we’re already very familiar with. To the fan of its predecessor, this spin-off is one big Alexandria, and it’s impossible not to be mildly annoyed.
But all of that doesn’t mean that Fear the Walking Dead is going to be bad. The pacing of the pilot was, by comparison, slower than one would expect of a world in which dead people are coming back to life. Sure, it lacked the thrill of The Walking Dead‘s pilot, but it’s also an entirely different story. To arrive into a world of chaos after several months of unconsciousness is inherently electrifying, and to begin a story in a world where chaos has yet to develop at all is inherently subdued. While a 90-minute premiere may have stretched the introduction of this show too far, the correct way to begin this show was to be true to its place. That place just happens to be a world in which nothing really happens yet.
Maybe we already know too much about these new characters. I’m typically inclined to think the less you initially know about a character, the better; that it tends to pay off more in the long run to learn about them as the story develops. Wasn’t it more fun to see a glimpse of Michonne’s backstory after we had already gotten to know her a little? Or to know just enough about Daryl’s “before” that it was captivating to hear him divulge it all in the fourth season? The first episode of Fear gave us everything we need to know about the personalities, relationships and interpersonal dynamics of Madison, Travis, Nick, Amelia, et al. without any work at all. Some intrigue could have helped in rousing up enthusiasm for this new venture.
Expectations and indifferences aside, the casting of Fear will work in its favor. Kim Dickens (Madison) has the natural sternness of Andrew Lincoln, and I don’t think it’s solely because her eyes are in a constant state of squinty-ness or because her lips always seem pursed when she’s not talking. She has an innate sense of power and control that could prove beneficial for her character when this world eventually goes to shit. Frank Dillane’s frantic Nick was the most enjoyable thing about this episode for me. It’s not easy to empathize with a character you hardly know, even one as tragic as a drug addict, but to have one character on the audience’s side when no one else believes his story gave us someone to root for.
If Fear the Walking Dead can transfer the variables of its acclaimed forebear, in which situations create the panic and characters enliven the situations, and steer clear of making the fresh-looking walkers the centerpiece of action, it definitely has a shot at standing on its own. Above all, we’re going to need to care enough about these characters and their journey so that we don’t get preoccupied with what we already know. At best, Fear can enhance a world already revered by The Walking Dead. At worst, we still have The Walking Dead. I may be more patient than most viewers, but I think the value of this show can only be determined after these first six episodes. The key is to manage expectations and give the show the benefit of the doubt until it proves itself otherwise. I may already know that the ship sinks, but I also know the fun is in everything leading up to it.
And hey, if it doesn’t work out, AMC could always fabricate another spin-off. Sterling’s Gold, anyone?