Though it is gruesomely addictive, AMC’s hit horror drama “The Walking Dead,” which returns for a sixth season in October, has been known to sometimes walk in circles.
The story of Rick Grimes and his band of survivors spent too long at tedious war with the governor of the survivalist utopia called Woodbury; other fans of the show seemed perturbed by the amount of time it spent early on at the bucolic refuge known as Hershel’s Farm. All of these complaints are usually addressed — and made obsolete — with the onslaught of a fresh horde of zombies, who remind both the characters and the viewer that there can be no real measure of progress in the midst of this apocalypse. Major players die off, and the group moves on to another morally fraught circumstance.
“Fear the Walking Dead,” an inevitable and highly anticipated spinoff series that begins a six-episode run Sunday night (another 15-episode season is already on order), seems to have an artistic aim beyond finding a way to tide over the millions of zombie fans who’ve made “The Walking Dead” one of cable TV’s few true ratings successes this decade.
This version is no mere second course. “Fear the Walking Dead” wisely dials back a few years to a prequel state, depicting the very beginnings of the zombie pandemic in Los Angeles, where the zombie outbreak occurs more or less at the same time as “The Walking Dead’s” ruination of Atlanta and, presumably, everywhere else.
Even though this new series is just as bereft of medical explanations as its predecessor (what caused zombie-ism in the first place?), “Fear the Walking Dead” does seem to offer more insight into how society first reacted to this bizarre and terrifying health crisis.
The answer is that society reacted pretty much as you think it might: confusion, weirdness and, at first, an astonishing degree of nonchalance. One neighborhood couple is more upset about all the no-shows to their daughter’s afternoon birthday party. (They even rented a bouncy house! Soon enough, another neighbor wanders over to eat — and he’s not looking for cake.)
It takes a while to get that point; perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Sunday’s 90-minute first episode is that it has relatively few zombies. This is the story of a slow build toward full outbreak, which I suppose might disappoint fans who tune in primarily for “The Walking Dead’s” relentless gore. On the other hand, “Fear the Walking Dead” has something I’ve always longed for more of in the original series: a sense of what life was like in those days and hours before the whole world fell apart.
By the end of the second episode next week, it seems more or less clear that once civil collapse begins, it doesn’t take long to crumble all the way. It seems fairly certain that there will be zombies aplenty by the time this first arc concludes.
What’s also different about “Fear the Walking Dead” — which is created by Dave Erickson and Robert Kirkman (the original author of “The Walking Dead” graphic novels) — is that it’s more tightly focused on one family and whether or not they can overcome their fractured relationships and work together to survive.
Madison (Kim Dickens of HBO’s “Treme” and “Deadwood”) works as a high-school guidance counselor; she’s recently taken her relationship with an English teacher, Travis (Cliff Curtis), to the next level — he’s moved in with Madison and her petulant daughter, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), who is straight out of the Cable Drama Series Book of Usual Characters: she’s the disobedient teenager who, even in the middle of a zombie outbreak, simply will not comply with the easiest request, such as: “I’ll be back — don’t leave the house, it’s very dangerous out there.” (Mere seconds after her mother leaves, Alicia announces she’s going over to her boyfriend’s house. Somewhere in Georgia, Carl Grimes rolls his eyes.)
Travis, meanwhile, has part-time custody of his own too-troubled teen, Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie). Father and son are having problems mending the emotional rifts left in the wake of Travis’s unhappy divorce from Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez), who interprets a panicked, possibly zombie-related phone call from her ex-husband as just one more ploy to amend their custody agreement.
But the real joy in Travis and Madison’s tentative attempts to somehow form a family (sorry, “Brady Bunch” lyricist) comes from Madison’s drug-addicted son, Nick (Frank Dillane), who has just turned up in a local hospital.
Strapped to a gurney, Nick is babbling about something he witnessed in an abandoned church frequented by him and his fellow junkies; he swears he saw a woman messily devouring dead bodies. That his account is dismissed as hallucinatory raving is pretty much on par with all of the early zombie encounters that surface in “Fear the Walking Dead.” Save for one of Madison’s students — a smart, bullied, pimply faced teen who begs to have his confiscated knife returned so he can prepare for the wave of undead he’s been reading about online — no one in L.A. seems to have the time or inclination to believe something terrible and altogether new is happening.
Instead, the zombie crisis is perceived as just further evidence of the Great American Meltdown. One of “Fear the Walking Dead’s” more relevant moments comes when a crowd of protesters in downtown L.A. reacts with horror when police officers shoot and kill what appears to be a disturbed but unarmed person. From 100 feet away this looks like another day of injustice on the news feed. From five feet away, it looks like the beginnings of a what “The Walking Dead” considers a feed.
Separated by chaos, Madison and Travis come to the same conclusion: To survive this, we are going to have to stick together as a family (ex-wife included) and get the hell out of here. The performances are somewhat strong; whether starting a New Orleans restaurant after Hurricane Katrina in “Treme” or pummeling a zombified school colleague to death here, Dickens is at her plucky, determined best when the odds are highly stacked against the characters she plays. What’s less clear is whether Madison or Travis or their bad children are the kind of people we want to hang out with through the arduous seasons ahead.
It may be unrealistic for the creators to build “Fear the Walking Dead” around a metaphorical and physical premise of family cohesion, especially if the story hinges on all of them living through every scrape that awaits. If “The Walking Dead” has taught us anything about zombie survivalist techniques, it’s that humans have almost no control over group dynamics or twists of fate. Just when you ally yourselves and promise not to become separated — that is when your group is most likely to be split apart, perhaps permanently.
It’s difficult to believe that Madison, Travis et al. can or will survive together. There’s a lot of horror in store — and if they survive, their only reward may be the existential crisis currently being experienced by Rick and the others over on “The Walking Dead,” in which they’ve begun to realize that the years of fighting zombies have psychologically changed them into something more fearful: dangerous, damaged humans.
In some ways, “Fear the Walking Dead” has the potential to become an illuminating and nuanced companion piece. It could be less like a video game (at its most reductive, “The Walking Dead” is mainly about working forward, through increasingly difficult levels) and more like a novella, a global crisis told in microcosm and finer detail. The new series is compelling in its own way, but it will take a while to see how it congeals. Or, more aptly, if it coagulates.
Fear the Walking Dead (90 minutes) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.