Fear the Walking Dead Sundays, 9 p.m., AMC.
The universe of The Walking Dead could continue indefinitely. As with daytime soap operas, showrunners could replace stories and actors while still preserving the essential premise (in this case, the fallout of a zombie apocalypse). Fear the Walking Dead, AMC’s new spinoff series, is a test of this longevity. While Fear stumbles into the same rut that mars the original series, it has the potential to frighten us in different, despairing ways.
Fear the Walking Dead takes place in the first weeks of the zombie outbreak, a period when ordinary people still trust that infrastructure will not break down. Travis (Cliff Curtis) and Madison (Kim Dickens) are a newish couple who work as a teacher and guidance counselor, respectively, at an LA high school. They both have teenage children from their previous marriages. As the series begins, Kim’s junkie son Nick (Frank Dillane) escapes from a zombie attack. He tries to explain to others about what happened to his undead girlfriend, and even though there are strange reports of a sickness spreading through the city, no one believes him.
This series banks on its audience internalizing the dread that most everyone on the show will die, or suffer horribly. We already know it won’t work out for anyone. The curiosity, then, is just how society unspools. Unfortunately, the first episode is workmanlike to a fault: It sets up its characters, throwing in some forgettable, tedious character moments so we can care about them.
Fear the Walking Dead doesn’t really kick into gear until Travis and Madison realize that the world has gone wrong. There are large-scale moments of panic—including riots and zombies without the usual rotting flesh—along with smaller moments that are terrifying in a quieter way. We see one character hoard water, for example, while another dimly notices that the tap is no longer so reliable. These shrewd details all suggest the worst is yet to come, so the series may surprise us with civilization’s rapid decline, which is a more intense, immediate fear than accepting its grim aftermath.