Oli Davis (@OliDavis) reviews the debut episode of Fear the Walking Dead…
Directed by Adam Davidson.
Written by Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson.
Fear the Walking Dead’s drug-addict protagonist Nick Clark is played by Frank Dillane. He’s the son of Stannis Baratheon actor Stephen Dillane from Game of Thrones. Because when Stannis isn’t burning his kids at the stake, he’s passing on his supreme acting genetics.
Dillane is excellent. Which is pretty damn thankful, because he plays the show’s only endearing character (conspiracy theory kid Tobias not withstanding). He looks as though someone put Cara Delevingne’s eyebrows onto James Franco’s face.
It’s hard not to compare Fear’s first episode to it’s older sibling, The Walking Dead. Fear’s USP concept – that it takes place in the blank space of Rick’s coma in WD – sounds interesting on paper; that we get to actually see what society falling apart during the first days of a Robert Kirkman zombie epidemic looks like. But, in that set-up’s inherent nature, we don’t jump in right on the action.
WD opened on a gunfight, followed it up with a full-blown zombie-infested world, and then had its lead character ride into Atlanta on horseback to fight the undead. And there was a tank.
Fear has, um…Travis the step-dad (Cliff Curtis) fixing a pipe? A drug addict being hit by a car? Lots of iPhone 4-based texting? Though serious points for respecting WD and Fear’s shared 2010 outbreak timeline.
The lack of action wouldn’t matter if the show had a sparkling cast of characters. A domestically abused Carol, an increasingly dubious Shane, the steely, 100-mile stares of Daryl or the old-man wisdom of Dale. But Fear has none of these people. It only has Nick.
Nick’s mother Madison (Kim Dickens) is hindered by a limiting maternal role. Any nice-guy credit Travis builds up is quickly dashed by horror cliche (“I’m just gonna investigate the drug den at night where my girlfriend’s son said someone was eaten.”) And Nick’s sister, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), looks jarringly older than her high-school chums.
Where Madison and Travis fail most, though, is the episode’s concluding scene. They’ve just found the reanimated corpse of the drug-dealer their heroin-addicted son shot and then ran over with a truck. Twice. But rather than selling it big, they look like they’ve just, well…they look like they’ve just finished the pilot episode of Fear the Walking Dead.
In WD, Rick had his Midwestern values and charm. In Fear, the dysfunctional problems of a middle-class family in L.A. just doesn’t feel as empathetic. That’s not to say it’s the wrong approach. Again, on paper, it’s a terrific set-up. An average, urban family having their own internal conflicts put into perspective by a zombie holocaust. It’s just the first episode’s characterisations and writing fail the premise.
What did succeed, however, was the direction. Adam Davidson managed to imbue a sense of unease in every frame. Whether it be the distant, but ever-present, sounds of police sirens firing, or helicopters hovering overhead, a constant threat lurks in the background.
Even more subtley than that, though, was how each scene’s shot pacing was structured. New set-ups rarely opened owith an establishing shot. Instead, they begin with a close-up, of someone’s hands on a bed, or an actor looking off-frame. Refusing to give the space room to breathe adds a choatic claustraphobia to the show – a tone heightened by the occassional establishing shot L.A.; frames crammed by houses and buildings, the horizon two thirds of the way up the screen. Looking at those wides, only one thought comes to mind. Damn, that’s a crap load of potential zombies.
So Fear didn’t have the strongest beginning. Recalling the episode, only the opening church scene and the concluding drug dealer killing are particularly memorable. It needed at least two other great scenes.
At one point, Nick beside the old man in hospital seemed to be that scene. The first half of the episode appeared to be building towards it. Nick laying restrained in a hospital bed, a guy near-death wheeled into place beside him who moans occassionally. Surely, it’s leading towards a tense stand-off between old zombie dude and restrained, drug-addled hero? Nope. Nick has his restraints removed and the old guy is taken away as soon as he seems to turn. Chekov’s gun shot a blank.
But, at the end of the day (or should that be ‘the end of days’), trust in Kirkman. Walking Dead is both a terrific show and sublime comic book series. Hopefully, looking back in a season’s time, this pilot episode will reveal itself as a the start of a majestic slow build, based around characters that took a few episodes to fully ‘get’. On first impressions, though, this was a lucklustre beginning.
Oli Davis is one of Flickering Myth’s co-editors, curator of its Super Newsletter and Lead Producer of Flickering Myth TV. You can follow him on Twitter @OliDavis. Check back here every Monday for his episode-by-episode reviews of Fear the Walking Dead Season 1.