We are not a patient people any more.
Too many words on the page? Not gonna read that. Song goes over three minutes. Off goes the radio. TV program doesn’t have three deaths, an epidemic, alien and zombies by the gigazillion in the first two minutes … well “Hello!” one of the other 400 and something scripted dramas on TV that do offer that.
And yet in an age where attention spans have shrunk down to near infinitesimal size, one new TV show has dared to go against the tide and take things nice and slowly.
Yep, nice and slowly. Who saw that coming?
Fear the Walking Dead, whose executive producers include Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead, and fellow TWD alum Gale Ann Hurd and Greg Nicotero, has always been intended as a show about family first, zombies, oops, I mean “The Infected” second.
And so it was.
Instead of the full-blown, near-ubiqiuitous threat of death by the undead in the show’s parent – Fear the Walking Dead, naturally enough, is on AMC as well, for a first season of 6 episodes and 15 in the second – what we got was the threat of something brewing.
Something ill-defined, out there, and yet to be realised in anything like its final form.
For most of the characters, reports of people rising from the dead and “acting violently” to others was the stuff of urban legend, the ravings of ‘net-obsessed conspiracy theorists; in fact at one point, high school guidance counsellor Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), one half of the couple whose family anchors the show, sagely, and as it later turns out wrongly, tells knife-carrying, highly worried (and we all know he should be) A-grade student Tobias (Lincoln A. Castellanos) that it’s all make-believe and hearsay.
Ah, wouldn’t that be nice if the zombie apocalypse was whole lot of nasty daydreams and nothing more?
Alas for people like Madison, and new live-in boyfriend, fellow teacher Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis), who are doing their best to blend their two mutually antagonistic families together – Madison’s son and daughter, drug addict Nick and golden child with a chip on her shoulder Alicia (Frank Dillane and Alycia Debnam-Carey respectively) and Travis’s son, resentful of the divorce Christ (Lorenzo James Henrie) – it’s all too real.
But to the credit of Fear the Walking Dead‘s producers, this great and gathering storm of living death, airily dismissed by the media eager to move onto the next Kardashian clip as “the flu”, is left to slowly burn somewhere out in the ether while the new thrown-together family is left to deal with their newly-complicated ordinary everyday life.
We all know “The Infected” are coming, that the end is night and civilisation is toast, but they don’t, and it’s impressive how Kirkman et al. are happy to let it all slowly unfold, devoting much of the movie-length premiere to getting to know the people with whom we are no doubt going to be spending an inordinate amount of time.
And it’s a smart move.
Not only is a lurking sense of dread established – for Nick it’s rather more than that thanks to a frightening opening scene in an addict flophouse; events he puts down, initially at least, to the aftereffects of a heroin high – but we are given the chance to really get to know Madison and Travis, Chris and Alicia, delve deeply into their world, and understand why losing all this, even the bad stuff like the arguments and sniping, is going to be a Very Big Deal.
No, there aren’t a lot of zombies – there’s that word again! – but when they are used, it’s carefully, and with great impact, especially at the end when Travis, Madison and Nick collectively realise that something utterly, unnervingly catastrophic is in the offing.
While they’re not entirely sure what it is, even after witnessing one of “The Infected” go full flesh crazy, they know it isn’t good, and it’s going to be the ruin of everything.
And that, in a master stroke of “Leave ’em wanting more” storytelling is where Fear the Walking Dead, teetering metaphorically on the edge of the end of the world as they know it, with the audience hanging on their every shocking realisation.
The drip feed of unusual out of the ordinary events is what really make this slow burn strategy work.
A news report of a possibly drug-crazed man going all cannibal on paramedics and the police near a major freeway who is killed by a bullet to the brain, which naturally goes viral in no time flat – no pun intended; actually it totally was – is sandwiched inbetween events on an average school day.
Nick’s nightmarish experiences in the drug slum, which he increasingly realise actually happens, particularly after Travis and Madison go there and find everything just as Nick described, and a man dying near him who presumably goes zombie not too long after, fall in the middle of routine hospital rounds and parent visits.
Harbingers of the coming apocalypse are everywhere if you know to look for them but that’s the scary thing – no one but people like Tobias, dismissed as overly paranoid Cassandras, know that’s what they are.
For everyone else, including the blended family at the heart of this undead tale, it’s all very weird and strange and nothing more.
Until it’s too late, and then unless you’re quick on your feet, you’re zombie chow.
Fear the Walking Dead has struck a brilliant balance between what is coming and what is now, drawing us effectively to the edge of the apocalyptic abyss into which everyone is about to tumble whether they know it or not.
- Behold the promo for the next episode “So Close, and Yet So Far” …
And a sneak peek …