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The pre-release chatter from the Fear The Walking Dead producers was eager—almost worried-sounding—to distance the spin-off from its birth mother and namesake, The Walking Dead. “It’s a family drama,” said showrunner Dave Erickson, which was pretty clearly coded language for “Don’t expect a whole bunch of zombie attacks.”

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And indeed, the pilot episode does not deliver a whole bunch of zombie attacks, and it does introduce a slightly unorthodox family and their drama: mom Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), her boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis), and her two teenage kids. And then, besides relatively brief scenes that involve early-onset zombies, “Pilot” almost plays like an after-school special about the dangers of PCP. Seriously, clip just a few seconds here and there, and it feels like a cautionary tale about drug addiction, right down to Frank Dillane’s character asking his drug dealer whether laced heroin might’ve caused him to hallucinate his girlfriend eating somebody. That’s actually a pretty smart move, hopefully foreshadowing the confusion that will surely follow once the sickness spreads.

Unlike The Walking Dead, Fear starts slowly, dragging its feet like the slower rotting corpses that can’t stay away from Rick Grimes. A show without a popular mythology already in place probably wouldn’t have taken the chance on scene-setting that this episode does, slowly introducing the characters—none particularly interesting just yet—and barely hinting at the mass-scale horror to come. The virus that will later destroy civilization has barely made its way into the public consciousness, with only one of Dickens’ students starting to freak out.

The best course for Fear The Walking Dead would be an examination of how a densely populated place like Los Angeles will deal with what’s coming: How will regular people react immediately? How quickly will martial law be declared? How fast will people turn into survivalist monsters—and against each other? What lengths will these parents go to keep their own children safe? It’s the Contagion-like aspects that interest me most, though I’m fine with a bunch of setup as long as there’s some eventual payoff, either with the promised emotional resonance or some truly frightening action. Hopefully it’s both, and hopefully the latter won’t be sacrificed in the interest of not looking too much like The Walking Dead.

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There wasn’t enough payoff tonight, though. Some scenes were stylish and scary—I liked that the opening minutes in the church evoked ’70s horror, right down to the borderline-cheesy music—but the show didn’t need to spend nearly as much time as it did setting up Dickens’ son’s heroin addiction or her daughter’s relationship with her boyfriend. It’s an error in pacing, really: Fear The Walking Dead isn’t a novel (or even a comic book), so it needs to find a better way to balance its scares and its interpersonal relationships. In the first episode, we could’ve done with one more scene like the terrifying police footage of an early walker, and one less scene about Cliff Curtis’ estranged son, who pops in via phone call for just a minute.

Still, I don’t want to judge the show too harshly based on this decent but dull pilot. I’m not tired of zombie worlds yet, and Fear The Walking Dead has at its core a great premise—the start of the undead apocalypse that we’ve only seen the aftershocks of. How will these nice people (and their selfish, whiny junkie of a son) react to the news of this unknown, horrible force? How will they survive, and who will be betrayed in the name of survival? Those questions aren’t even hinted at in the first episode, which spends its time more on personality quirks—the daughter can’t wait to get to college—than on the horrors to come. It’ll get there, presumably, and it ought to get there ASAP.

Stray observations:

  • In one high school class, the lesson is that “nature always wins.” In the next, the kids just happen to be learning about chaos theory. It’s a good day for vaguely zombie-apocalypse-related lessons!
  • A mass epidemic of any kind is one of the scariest situations imaginable, and I hope FTWD makes the most of that far-too-possible terror.
  • From what we know about the walkers in The Walking Dead, this epidemic can’t happen too slowly, or surely it would have been contained, right?
  • Will FTWD offer any insight into how the virus got started? Surely it’s not a bad batch of heroin.
  • The ending struck me as a little off: “What the hell is happening?” “I have no idea.” Wouldn’t you freak out just a little bit more if your son’s friend took a gunshot to the belly, a truck-ramming, and a big fall, and just kept coming? This is no time to chill out, Kim and Cliff. It’s time to fear the walking dead, not shrug your shoulders at them.

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