What do you do when you have the most popular show on television but the demand is greater than your feasible output?
Well, if you’re AMC, you spin off your enormously successful zombie show into another zombie show set at a slightly earlier time period and in a totally different part of the country.
Fear the Walking Dead premieres Sunday, and I’m not gonna lie: I’m pretty excited. See, I really like the parent show—as do millions and millions of others—and another avenue to quench my unwholesome bloodlust is quite welcome.
But I’ll admit, I have some reservations. How often are cheap cash-grabs any good? I mean, we all loved the popular British soap opera Hollyoaks, but did anyone really care for Hollyoaks Later? (I don’t know, actually. Maybe?) But AMC has a precedent for this kind of thing—a recent one, even.
Just this past February, I wrote about Better Call Saul, a spinoff of one of television’s greatest ever dramas, Breaking Bad. I was excited for Saul, but I also knew that the perils involved in revisiting such a heralded institution run deep. Turns out, these concerns were mostly unfounded; the show was pretty great. It wasn’t Breaking Bad, sure, but it was never supposed to be. It lived on its own as an enjoyable, ambitious piece of television, borrowing only the barest of its father’s atmosphere and ambiance to nudge it from the nest. And Fear the Walking Dead can do that, too.
Set in pre-outbreak Los Angeles (or, you know, beginning-of-the-outbreak Los Angeles), FTWD chronicles the lives of a high-school English teacher, his guidance counselor fiancé, and the guidance counselor fiancé’s two grown-ish children as the whole mess begins. I know that the son is a junkie and there are some zombies involved. Beyond that, I’ve intentionally kept myself a bit in the dark because why do we have to ruin everything for ourselves nowadays?
If you’re a fan of the franchise—and I suppose that’s technically what it is now—seeing the collapse of civilization from the beginning is a whole new experience. When The Walking Dead began, primary protagonist Rick “I’m the Sheriff” Grimes was waking up in a hospital after the decayed and putrefying shit had already hit the fan. (Well, pretty much. I think he was actually in a shootout with a suspect at the very beginning, right? But he was in a coma within minutes.) By going this route, the story really missed out on the foreboding sense of impending doom that most certainly would have pervaded society as a whole. Instead of watching the disaster unfold like a discount Gap sweater, we were plopped right down into Desolation Central.
By starting at the beginning, we get to know the characters first, and see how they react, after. As panic and confusion spread, we’ll see people we got to know on normal, rational terms devoured by insane, brain-eating monsters. This makes things more personal, maybe. If there’s one thing the original sometimes fails at, it is making us care for the characters. Removed from the humanizing “constraints” that accompany typical character development, we’re often left with little besides being annoyed by Coral, disgusted by Andrea, fatigued by Rick. Sometimes—and I KNOW I’m not alone here—we even actively root for their death(s).
An emotional investment in the pre-pandemic people may curb this disillusionment and restore some semblance of humanity to what can often be an inhumane display of rampant brutality. Or, you know, it’ll just make it weirder to watch them get eaten.
Regardless of what kind of emotions FTWD might elicit from viewers, I’m willing to bet it’s going to popular. In the end, isn’t it all just about watching people like just like us slaughter hordes of undead brain-munchers? I think there will probably be plenty of that, too.
Fear the Walking Dead premieres Sunday on AMC at 8PM CT.