About halfway through the series premiere of Fear the Walking Dead, Travis, played by Cliff Curtis, leads a high-school class in a discussion of Jack London's classic short story "To Build a Fire." This is, if you don't recall, a short story in which a man gets trapped on a trail in freezing weather and is forced to fight for survival.
"What is London trying to teach us here?" he asks. He wanders around the classroom responding to students, using their names, and then zeroes in on a student, Russell, asleep at his desk. "I don't care about building a fire," the student says while eye-rolling. Travis responds by plopping down in a desk and then Socratic-methods him into saying London is trying to teach us how to survive.
"Nailed it," Travis says. "Man versus nature. London is trying to teach us how to not die."
While the class titters with laughter at the sleeping student, we titter with laughter because we know where this man versus nature conflict is going—zombies are coming and all these high-schoolers will probably be dead and eaten in like three episodes.
Fear the Walking Dead is a spin-off of AMC's wildly successful series The Walking Dead, which is itself based on Robert Kirkman's comic book series of the same name. Season five just wrapped up, and The Walking Dead continues to dominate television ratings, with an insanely high 7.3 average Nielson rating among adults 18 to 49, four times higher than the same night's second place show. The fifth season has 14.2 million viewers overall; AMC airs a talk show called Talking Dead; and the cast shows up annually at San Diego Comic-Con.
Kirkman is back in the driver's seat for Fear the Walking Dead, which is part of its appeal—a return to its own roots, both in the storytelling sense, and the fact that Fear is a prequel to The Walking Dead. The good news, assuming you are AMC: With 10.1 million viewers, Fear the Walking Dead had the biggest cable premiere of all time. The bad news, assuming you were one of those 10.1 million viewers: It's really boring.
Zombies alone aren't enough to make a compelling narrative because their villainy is predictable and limited
There was a time when the phrase "The Walking Dead" and the word "boring" would not have appeared in the same sentence. In 2010, I and gorehounds like me were foaming-at-the-mouth excited for the premiere of The Walking Dead. There weren't any dramatic horror shows that reveled in blood, guts, and nihilism above all else. Existing horror shows were typically toned-down and a little campy (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural) or sexy (The Vampire Diaries, True Blood). The Walking Dead sold itself as a true genre show, counting on the strength of its narrative to draw in a wider audience, instead of recent offerings, which used the supernatural as a framing device to tell stories that anyone could relate to.
Still, zombies alone aren't enough to make a compelling narrative because their villainy is predictable and limited: There's a lot of them, they destroy whatever's in their path, and they're driven by hunger (generally), not evil. Zombies don't really make interesting narrative choices, or surprise the protagonists with some unexpected decision. They're fun and cool to look at, but they're closer to a natural disaster than most horror-movie baddies.
As such,The Walking Dead hit a wall around season two. It became clear that the show had hit a holding pattern where boring characters would be introduced and then killed, and then all of the slightly more interesting characters would have to run from zombies. The show became an endless cycle of, "Oh, shit. I thought we were safe, but now everywhere is full of zombies" this, and, "Oh, shit. Zombie got my wife/kid/lover/sibling/friend, now they're a zombie" that. I watched all of seasons one and two, and when season three rolled around, I just didn't tune in.
The acting wasn't great, either: Andrew Lincoln's overacted performance of Rick Grimes and varying pronunciation of his son Carl's name was so stilted and awkward that it led to its own meme. Carl was consistently running away from the group, creating easily-avoided conflicts that actor Chandler Riggs wasn't quite able to sell. Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker, Guardians of the Galaxy), a great almost-villain and excellent source of group conflict, was dead by the end of season three. The characters sat around and talked for entire episodes and somehow didn't develop at all. Not even Daryl Dixon's (Norman Reedus, The Boondock Saints) tortured introversion and crossbow skills could keep me watching.
The problem with Fear the Walking Dead is it doesn't introduce anything we don't already know. There's no mystery to the series—I know how it ends. It ends with the first episode of The Walking Dead, in Atlanta, with goddamn, motherfucking Carl-mispronouncing-ass Rick Grimes riding into town on a horse. Until that fateful horse ride, we've got our Jack London fanboy a.k.a. English teacher Travis trying to rebuild his relationship with his son Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie). Meanwhile his partner, the kind but practical high-school counselor Madison (Kim Dickens) is dealing with her addict son/zombie witness Nick (Frank Dillane, who looks like a knockoff of Matthew Grey Gubler from Criminal Minds), and annoyed and alienated teen daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey).
The best character on the show, the wholesome teen Calvin, played with finesse and charm by Keith Powers, is a "former" friend of Nick's, fully trusted by his parents, who later turns out to be Nick's heroin dealer and wears a ridiculous leather baseball hat. As of this writing, however, Calvin is a zombie.
Zombie media is defined by the money shots, a.k.a. shots of zombies doing cool, gross shit. AMC knows this, and gave us our first glimpse of a zombie in the very beginning, when Nick sees his heroin buddy Gloria eating the face off some poor sucker. (This happens in a very golden-lit church. I feel like I've seen that scene before. Oh, right, I have, in 28 Days Later, when Jim (Cillian Murphy) encounters a zombie priest in a church.) Our second zombie encounter is crushingly underutilized Calvin, who finds Nick and his parents in a tunnel, and stands there ominously silhouetted and slouched in the rearview mirror of the car. I feel like I've seen that scene before. Oh, right, I have, also in 28 Days Later, when Jim's car gets a flat tire in the tunnel and zombies appear, silhouetted and slouching in the back window of the car.
The show builds us up to these appearances, dropping in references to lots of kids out sick from school, and news footage of a guy who won't die after being shot. There's even a cringeworthy scene where Madison (or "Ms. C" to her students, how charming) tells a frightened kid that if there was a problem, the authorities would totally tell us! Build-up is meant to make the reveals more shocking, but we already know what The Walking Deadzombies look like. There's no excitement because there's no revelation. Fear the Walking Dead might as well be a show about the weather.
The best recent zombie films tweak the mythology to stand out—in Pontypool, the disease is transmitted by sound. In Maggie the infected swing in and out of human consciousness before they go full zombie. In Warm Bodies you can be un-zombied by the power of love. Fear the Walking Dead tells a story that doesn't need to be told because it doesn't offer any unique insight into the existing Walking Dead universe; its characters aren't compelling; and its zombies are only different because they're less decomposed.
I don't want to be in on the joke—I want to be scared
It makes sense from AMC's perspective to double-down on the sure thing that is Walking Dead because the current TV-horror landscape is fairly desolate. American Horror Storyseems puzzled by its own bizarro blend of magic and ghosts; The Strain was crippled by weak writing and a very poorly designed Alpha Vampire; and Supernatural is on season 11 and repeating the same narrative arcs over and over. NBC got close by giving us Constantine, doomed for being too esoteric and (probably) for reminding people of a very bad Keanu Reeves version of the title character, and the critically-acclaimed Hannibal, itself doomed for being too arthouse and too gruesome, cancelled after three seasons due to disastrous ratings. The best horror shows right now aren't airing on America—take Les Revenants, the French drama that inspired the bad and cancelled FX show The Returned, and Black Mirror, the Channel 4 horror-sci-fi miniseries of standalone episodes. Maybe if we're lucky in 2016, Showtime's Twin Peaks revival will right the ship. But for now, it truly is Walking Dead or nothing.
Fear the Walking Dead seems to know it's bulletproof, too, and it plays with the audience's expectations. After Madison watches Travis teach his kids about Jack London and not dying, she steps into the teacher's lounge to speak to a colleague. The uplifting, atmospheric score seamlessly becomes ominous as the camera slowly zooms in on the back of her colleague's head, where he's hunched over in a chair. The music builds. She says his name a second time, and he turns around. We gasp! But he's not a zombie, just distracted.
It's a nice little gag. But I don't want to be in on the joke—I want to be scared. Fear the Walking Dead isn't the road to nowhere a good zombie show should be: Instead, it's an ambling stroll back to The Walking Dead. If y'all had been watching Hannibal instead, it wouldn't have come to this.