Fear The Walking Dead, Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot”
Written by Dave Erickson and Robert Kirkman
Directed by Adam Davidson
Airs Sundays at 9PM ET on AMC
The real appeal of Fear The Walking Dead is getting another look at the world of its hugely popular sister show and how it all began. Instead of jumping into a world where everyone understands the rules, we get a look at characters who are forced into a world that is rapidly ending around them. Instead of a dead world, we get a dying one. In fact, as the first episode of Fear begins, the world is anything but dying. The show is smart to open in a manner that is reminiscent of Rick’s awakening in the hospital in The Walking Dead. It’s a suspenseful start, and it sets a tone that comes to pervade the pilot. It’s a helpful tool, one that allows the low-key plot of the pilot to keep the audience engaged.
The show’s first hour and a half is concerned with a slow build, one which does not force any main character to confront the zombie threat we know is coming until the final scene. Instead, we get character establishment. We come to understand the beginnings of a dysfunctional family, one forming because Madison (Kim Dickens) and Travis (Cliff Curtis) have started dating.
The thrust of the action comes from Nick (Frank Dillane), who is the character we begin the episode with, as he comes down from a high and sees his close friend eating someone’s face off. Travis and Madison spend the majority of the episode searching for Nick, who escapes from the hospital after being hit by a car and eventually shoots down his drug dealer in a fit of paranoia.
What works in this pilot comes largely from the show’s superb direction. Suspense has always been the most impressive part of The Walking Dead universe, and even without the ability to pull out the constant threat of walkers as readily as the original show could, this one still creates a consistently suspenseful tone because we understand what’s coming.
Even without the suspense, though, the pilot shoots Los Angeles wonderfully and does a great deal to put us in Nick’s head. The sound design forces viewers to understand the instability of Nick’s reality, and his constant questioning of whether or not he can trust the things that he sees and experiences. He is the first to come across the walkers in the show’s world, but because he is an addict, he himself is unsure whether or not what he has experienced is real.
Dillane’s performance is also worth noting. As the drug-addled Nick, he creates perhaps the only moments of real emotion that the pilot has to offer. Nick feels terrified, and Dillane’s performance is visceral, even if he may overplay some key moments. The rest of the cast is disappointingly flat here. Dickens, who usually does stellar work in small roles, is underwritten. She’s a protective mom, and not much more. Curtis deals with the same problem, and can’t overcome the weaknesses of a script that essentially asks him to do little more than tell Madison how willing he is to make their family dynamic work.
This is not a new problem for The Walking Dead world. It took that show years to find characters that were interesting and complicated, and it seems, sadly, that its companion series may follow suit. The most interesting thing this show can do is explore a world that is falling hard and fast. An exploration of this nature will allow the show to, hopefully, get inside the mind of people who are forced to watch the world around them crumble and deal with the realities of a rapidly established “kill or be killed” existence.
The pilot does not fall completely flat. It just fails to excite. Fear could still become must-watch TV, but the pilot exists, largely, in varying degrees of bland. The show relies heavily on our understanding of the horror that is impending. It almost demands that we watch The Walking Dead first. It takes advantage of our existing fear of walkers, and our readiness to wait for them to attack, as we know that they eventually will.
We shouldn’t want just a lower-key Walking Dead, though. If we did, we would just watch season two of that show. Instead, we should get to see a world that is confused, one that dissolves into chaos. The series can be a thrilling one, sure, but we should want more than that from this show. We should want it to show us how humans react to a world-changing crisis, and how their actions become motivated by aggression and fear. Fear The Walking Dead may actually fear The Walking Dead, but if it ever wants to be great on its own, it can’t.