In a scene from the most recent episode of AMC spin-off Fear the Walking Dead, sad-sack dad Travis and his incipient-serial-killer son Chris drift down a deserted road until they come to a car. Eager to get inside, Travis smashes one of its windows with a crowbar. Then, in an emblematic mess-up that’s easy to miss, he opens the door without ever reaching inside to unlock it.
Walking Dead watchers are familiar with this formula: an act of violence diverting the viewer from a combination of clumsy editing and a protagonist doing something nonsensical. Even if you never watched or long ago gave up on The Walking Dead and its Hardwick-hosted aftershow, though, odds are that the Dead-industrial complex is still subsidizing something you like — a less successful comic, maybe, or a critically acclaimed TV show that depends on The Walking Dead’s ad dollars. After three showrunners and six uneven seasons, the record-setting AMC series is still sailing along, retaining an NCIS-esque audience unmatched by any other scripted series on cable.
Drafting in The Walking Dead’s wake worked well at first for Fear the Walking Dead, which had the highest-rated series premiere and (abbreviated) first season in cable history. But as its 15-episode second season heads into the home stretch, the show is testing the extent to which the Walking Dead brand guarantees great ratings.
Through the first nine episodes of its second season, Fear’s ratings had fallen almost 40 percent from its first-season average, and the ninth was the least-viewed of all. Even after that dramatic reduction, Fear’s ratings are still solid. Most showrunners would give their right eye for its audience, and the show was renewed for a third season shortly after its second-season premiere. Still, the spin-off’s declining numbers are now nowhere near the original’s; if we were to plot the ratings for The Walking Dead’s sixth season on the same scale, all but three episodes would be off the chart. That decline has occurred for a reason. The Walking Dead halo effect might obscure some of Fear’s flaws, but the spin-off still doesn’t stand on its own.
The Walking Dead did its audience a favor by fast-forwarding past the sequences we’ve seen in countless other on-screen apocalypses: the rumors of the dead dining on the living; the first horrific encounters that dispel all doubt; the spiral into anarchy as order breaks down. As a series set in the epidemic’s early days, Fear drew the difficult storytelling assignment of depicting that downfall for the umpteenth time. Instead of lingering in that liminal period for a full-length season, though, Fear hit the usual marks and moved on, blowing up Los Angeles in Episode 7.
Maybe there wasn’t much new material to mine from another “end of civilization” scenario. In deciding not to draw out the death rattle, though, Fear destroyed any distinction between it and the flagship show (other than the distinction of being “the worse Walking Dead”). By its second season, Fear was Walking Dead on a boat, which turned out to be boring. Now that the crew has abandoned the boat, it’s The Walking Dead with a less likable cast. Not only has the show failed to establish a breakout character in the class of Daryl, Carol, or Michonne, but at least half the recurring characters have lower favorables than whatever walking corpse is currently trying to kill them.
Since its midseason break, the show has borrowed The Walking Dead’s tactic of splitting up the cast and devoting whole episodes to one or two leads at a time, with similarly mixed results. It’s an ensemble not even Kim Dickens can save, dragged down by the wishy-washy Travis and not one, but two troubled teens — including Chris, a relentlessly sullen lost cause who smolders with generic rage. While wandering around Mexico, the characters recycle the same exchanges we’ve watched on The Walking Dead: whether to move on or stay put; whether this is the end of the world or just a blip before the rebuilding; whether surviving means becoming a cutthroat killer. Thus far, Fear hasn’t made any of the first series’ feints toward finding a cure — we’re too well versed in the way The Walking Dead universe works to fall for false hope. We know what’s in store instead: several more seasons of the same circular discussions, occasional cullings, and confrontations with tyrants in outwardly safe settlements that are clearly too good to be true.
Fear also suffers from the same plausibility problems as the original series, most of which can be traced to the walkers’ weakness as adversaries. Cocreator Robert Kirkman’s Romero-esque zombies are loud, slow, and stupid, like nightmarish toddlers who never nap. They can’t climb, run, or open doors, which means that an able-bodied adult can elude any number of the limping, decaying undead just by walking away. The real danger comes from huge hordes that can cut off every exit and win a war of attrition, but huge hordes are expensive CGI rarities typically reserved for premieres and finales.
To generate the requisite suspense (and give co-executive producer and effects guru Greg Nicotero enough gore to fill his free time) both editions of The Walking Dead fall back on two budget-friendly solutions: zombies that break the rules, and characters who act irrationally. Whenever the story calls for a crisis, the script serves up ninja-like walkers that make no noise, or survivors who drop their guard, insist on splitting up for no reason, or decide they’ve lost the will to live. In the series’ most recent quasi-scare, Dickens’s Madison and a once-intriguing grifter named Strand — two of the spin-off’s most capable characters! — hole up in a hotel bar. Persuaded that they’re safe after a cursory scan of the area, they get drunk in record time, shattering shot glasses and pounding on a piano. It’s hard to muster much sympathy when the walkers arrive, drawn by the cacophony, and even harder to feel relief when the duo makes a miraculous, off-screen escape.
Fear has compounded its problems with plotting and plausibility by doubling down on a device that the comics and the original series have (until recently) employed sparingly: using corpse parts as camouflage. The first time The Walking Dead trotted out this technique, the show went out of its way to make it look like a painful process: Walker guts were gross, and worse, the rain washed them away. Multiple seasons went by before the writers went back to that well. In Fear, the other troubled teen, Nick, wears walker the way Sam Malone wears cologne, not even sparing his face as the comic’s characters do. As Nick and a new companion prep for a routine supply run in a recent episode, they apply their camo so casually, and with such complete confidence, that they walk and talk without worry.
The Walking Dead franchise takes great pains to point out that the walkers aren’t the only enemies in a lawless world. But to believe in the breakdown of all social norms, we have to buy that the walkers are a credible threat. Nick’s lack of concern in the courtyard reminds us that they’re extras in makeup. As a commenter on one of the many online threads devoted to The Walking Dead’s wearing/not-wearing of walker guts observed years ago, “This isn’t a 2hr movie, it’s an ongoing series so making every scene safe would be boring.” Fear proves him right. Corpse camo has the dual effect of suppressing the tension whenever Nick is on screen and increasing our frustration whenever other characters elect not to follow his lead in easily escapable spots. If they don’t mind hugging blood-covered clothes, they shouldn’t mind wearing them.
As pointless as it seems to police the plausibility of a show about zombies, the absence of emotional stakes reduces Fear the Walking Dead to a survival simulator. From the comfort of our couches, we wonder, What would I do? And when most of the characters act in ways we wouldn’t, we stop suspending disbelief. Under these conditions, the deaths we do get look as silly as the steamroller scene from the first Austin Powers.
When Fear the Walking Dead debuted, it appeared as if AMC had pulled off its plan to ride Kirkman’s coattails year round. Lately, the ride has grown a bit bumpy. It’s not too late for the show to pull out of its stall, but it would take time and considerable restructuring to fix a cast of disposable characters, suspense-sapping plotting, and the sense that we’ve seen this before. For now, fear is the last thing the show makes us feel.