Fear The Walking Dead episode 1 review: Pilot

Fear The Walking Dead's pilot may not quite match up to the original, but it has great tension and some stellar cast chemistry...

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 Pilot

The Walking Dead hasn’t given the viewing audience much information about how the world became overrun with the shambling cannibal corpses that make up the population of the mother series. We got Rick getting shot in the head and waking up in a world already fallen, but not much in between. There was a scene in the second season where a bomb was dropped in Atlanta, and we saw Michonne’s home life as her family fell apart in the wake of the zombie attack. But aside from these very rare glimpses, The Walking Dead has been more about survival than looking back at the past.

The immediate change for Fear The Walking Dead, after the cold opening, is that we’re in a vibrant, living, breathing world full of the living, not so much the dead. We open with Nick Clark (Frank Dillane) waking up in a ruined church building surrounded by detritus and sleeping bags and other paraphernalia. Is this another Rick Grimes situation? Are we opening up in a world of the dead this time, too?

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Well, if you’ve read anything about the show, you know that’s not true. After a nice, suspenseful wander around the church looking for Gloria, there’s a great reveal. First, Gloria isn’t a member of the human race anymore, but one of the titular walking dead we should fear. Second, after Nick runs out of the church, he finds out the hard way that LA traffic isn’t kind to jaywalkers after being hit by a car. Ouch!

From the car smashing into a junkie to the palm trees straining skyward, we’re in a completely different place for the Walking Dead community to explore. The show doesn’t waste much time getting to the point of fleshing out the cast, either. In the opening 10 minutes, we’re introduced to no less than ten characters, beginning with Nick and going out through his extended family, step family, and family friends.

His mom – or ‘mum’, depending on where you’re reading this from – Madison Clark (the awesome Kim Dickens) is a guidance counselor at daughter Alicia’s (Alycia Debnam-Carey) high school. Her boyfriend Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis) is also a teacher at the high school, and he’s also got his own estranged family, with ex-wife Liza Ortiz (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and son Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie). As if that wasn’t enough, in the next scene we meet Principal Art Costa (Scott Lawrence) and a troubled student named Tobias (Lincoln Castellanos), who brings a steak knife to school and mutters ominously about Doomsday and how the government is lying about a flu bug going around.

As the viewing audience, we know it’s more serious than that, and that’s what adds so much tension to what is otherwise just soap opera. Every shot of a weird old person or a homeless person shambling down the street could be another face-eating zombie. When the principal is leaning over to listen in on teacher classroom discussions via the intercom system, and given the way that everyone’s been getting sick, it’s possible he might be a zombie. When a car heads down to the LA River, there might be zombies waiting in the dangerous-looking underpass. That dramatic irony really helps keep the material interesting, even as the show throws characters and plots at the screen.

Of course, it’s not going to measure up to the original series’ pilot, but it’s not exactly fair to compare Adam Davidson, a TV director, to Frank Darabont. There’s no real iconic moment like Rick walking to the “Don’t Open Dead Inside” door or riding a horse into Atlanta, but it’s fine. There are some good jump scares and Davidson and co. make good use of the landscape to counterbalance the sunnier aspects of LA with the grittier underbelly used to great effect in other properties. There isn’t a ton of flash, but Nicotero’s special effects team is as good as ever, and while you only see a few zombies during the episode (or what we assume are zombies), they look great.

It also helps that the leads, particularly Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis, are really good actors who have a good chemistry (with one another and with problem child Nick). I’m not so sure how a character going through withdrawals is going to play out, but Kim Dickens is great and she and Curtis really help to ground the more soapy stuff in this episode. There’s a lot of plot elements hitting the screen immediately, and I guess that’s writers Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson’s response to the criticism of the way Walking Dead tends to drag its feet on plot points. They’re introducing a lot of stuff early and getting things moving fairly swiftly.

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Except, of course, for the zombie apocalypse. Opening and closing with zombie action is great, and it’s going to make an interesting next chapter for the show, provided they don’t get bogged down in some sort of discussion of what these things are. I’m not actively looking for zombie slaughter yet, but I also don’t want a lot of hand-wringing and blame-gaming about the fact they may or may not have committed a murder. There’s potential for drag, but there’s also potential for a lot of fun set-ups as shown several times in the episode.

That’s the rub. Fear The Walking Dead might be great, or it might bog down in the worst instincts of the parent series. This premier does both, but it leans far more towards the good than the bad. It’s a new part of the country, a new set-up, and a whole new series with a new cast. I will also attempt not to compare it to the parent series and judge it on its own merits, though that’s going to be as difficult for me as it will be for the hungry hordes in the viewing audience.

US Correspondent Ron Hogan is kind of sad that only the first episode of Fear The Walking Dead is going to be shot in LA. Then again, it’s always cheaper to shoot in Vancouver, the Hollywood of Canada. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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