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The premiere of The Walking Dead: World Beyond fails to come alive

Hal Cumpston, Aliyah Royale, Alexa Mansour, and Nicolas Cantu in The Walking Dead: World Beyond
Hal Cumpston, Aliyah Royale, Alexa Mansour, and Nicolas Cantu in The Walking Dead: World Beyond
Photo: Sarah Shatz (AMC
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People in The Walking Dead: World Beyond love to give speeches. Rarely does more than a minute go by before someone is earnestly monologuing at someone else, usually about how difficult this life is, and how they’ve got to be brave and carry on. One would think that, ten years into the zombie apocalypse, such thoughts would have long ago become part of the furniture; here, they’re treated with the kind of gravitas and urgency that makes it seem as though society collapsed mere weeks ago. But even if they’re fitting thoughts for the present circumstances, it’s a hell of a lot of speechifying. And that’s World Beyond in its opening hour: a lot of talk, and not much to show for it.

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The first installment of World Beyond suffers from a lot of the usual problems that plague pilot episodes: struggling to introduce a new world and new stakes in an efficient yet compelling manner, sketching thin or even near-nonexistent characters, shoehorning in clunky exposition that doesn’t trust the viewer to figure it out for themselves...they’re all here to a greater or lesser degree. But the biggest issue with the show thus far is how it makes the rookie mistake of treating its clear mission to be more YA-friendly as an excuse to be more simplistic. The teenagers tend to speak in that overly mannered way that comes across like an older person’s idea of how a precocious kid would talk. Characters are constantly telling each other what they’re like, rather than letting actions do it for them. And nearly everything is spelled out more than once, as though the series is worried its audience will be too distracted to register anything unless it’s hammered home repeatedly, with blunt force and even blunter language.

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We’re introduced to the campus colony, a compound in Nebraska where the people seem to live a life more or less well-insulated from the zombie hordes outside. They’ve got electricity, running water, and a tripartite alliance with the city of Portland and the mysterious “Civic Republic,” a powerful but shadowy organization that has choppers, a regimented military, and seemingly vast resources, yet refuses to reveal basic information about where it’s located or what’s inside. Of course, the colony’s resources don’t end up mattering much, because by the end of the hour CR military representative Lt. Col. Elizabeth Kublick (Julia Ormond, one of the few cast members who seems perfectly comfortable in her character’s skin) and her squad of masked CRM soldiers has liquidated the city and its residents. If only the episode did as solid a job introducing its heroes as it does villains.

Illustration for article titled The premiere of iThe Walking Dead: World Beyond/i fails to come alive
Photo: Zach Dilgard/AMC
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Iris and Hope, the sisters who form the backbone of this story, have a relationship that sometimes feels believable, and sometimes resembles two people who are just giving each other periodic updates on daily life. The rough patches in their exchanges will presumably smooth out as the show progresses, but right now it’s undercooked. Still, the idea that they’d both want to go find their missing scientist dad rings true, given the deceptions of the CRM and the warning notifications they receive from his secret transmitter. Again, though, if only the script (credited to showrunner Matthew Negrete and the wider Walking Dead universe Svengali Scott M. Gimple) trusted its audience to understand these things. Instead, Nico Tortorella’s exasperated security head and ersatz older brother/guardian Felix is forced to deliver halting lines about how their father “risked a lot” to set up this means of communication from within the Civic Republic. These are the sorts of obvious expository clunkers that keep dragging “Brave” down.

It’s tough to say how much of the clumsier character beats are the fault of this script and how much are actors struggling to find the souls of these as-yet undeveloped people, but whichever the case, it makes for some painful viewing at times. Poor Annet Mahendru, so good in The Americans, seems especially defeated by the material, trying to sell Huck’s jocular ease but mostly seeming like someone pretending to be easygoing and failing. “People call me Huck. Long story,” she says while introducing herself to Kublick. Why the need to say “long story”? It’s a perfectly normal name. World Beyond keeps saddling its protagonists with lines meant to tease future reveals about them, and nearly all of them feel forced.

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The idea that this town would celebrate its “Monument Day” holiday in which they mourn the dead by having Iris deliver the equivalent of a high-school valedictorian speech is odd, but no less strange than the people on the dais letting her rip into their guest of honor without so much as a “hey, maybe not the time for this?” But honestly, given the constant monologuing between friends and family members, at least this speech has a proper setting and a podium from which to deliver it. By the end of it, viewers could be forgiven for wishing they, too, had a strong glass of Hope’s bootleg liquor that Felix confiscates.

Illustration for article titled The premiere of iThe Walking Dead: World Beyond/i fails to come alive
Photo: Zach Dilgard/AMC
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And Elton and Silas, the two kids who end up accompanying Iris and Hope on their 1100-mile mission to New York to find their dad, are flip sides of the same coin, examples of overwriting and under-developing characters in equal measure. Silas fares slightly better, simply by dint of being an absolute cypher about whom we know nothing—and understand even less. (The fact that the first dialogue of the series is a couple of extras muttering about how Silas should be locked up, a situation never to be referred to again, is a great example of the awkward table-setting on display here.) At least he doesn’t have to spout endless speeches like precocious Elton, who succeeds as a character only because Nicolas Cantu’s earnest charisma rescues him from twee intolerability.

Hopefully, a lot of these problems will be corrected once the show is underway and it can stop feeling like an anxious and overeager attempt to do something new in the Walking Dead universe. The four kids are en route to New York, Felix and Huck are in pursuit, and the colony’s been destroyed by the obviously malevolent Civic Republic Military. And given that Kublick was searching for “the girl” (almost certainly Iris), there’s little chance that our nefarious helicopter-flying bad guys won’t be back soon. With any luck, they’ll return to a much-improved series.

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Stray observations

  • Honestly, so much of the character traits were sketched in by the awkward monologues, I didn’t even mind the paint-by-numbers use of Iris’ therapist to do the “Let’s just say your entire history and character motivation out loud so everyone watching at home has zero questions.”
  • I will say, nice use of PJ Harvey’s “The Devil” as the soundtrack to the opening and closing sequences.
  • “Felix is, like, the worst guardian ever.” This line made me cringe a little.
  • A lot of the world-building contained nice touches. The metal bars on the door of the soon-to-be-dead therapist was a good example of the thought put into making this reality come alive.
  • Huck ending her heart-to-heart with Hope with the phrase “and that’s my blow line” was another strange one.
  • Are Silas and Elton buddies? Did they hang out prior to this? Who knows?
  • When Elton said it would be an 1100 mile journey, and they’d need to get to their destination before it gets cold, I thought there was no way in hell this is feasible. So I did some math; turns out, walking at around 3 miles an hour, and accounting for sleep, weather, and uneven terrain, they could probably be there in three and a half months. Still, that’s some real optimism when it comes to finding food.
  • Welcome, everyone, to the recaps of The Walking Dead: World Beyond! I look forward to watching and discussing with all of you—and hopefully, things will improve quick.
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Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.

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