The Walking Dead and Fear The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead (2010-    )
Fear The Walking Dead (2015-    )
Type: Spin Off

   Based on the acclaimed comic book series of the same name, The Walking Dead tells a zombie apocalypse story in a way it has never been done before.

   Up until then zombie stories were fodder for horror movies but not TV shows. I mean, who would watch a zombie TV show, right? (Well, as it turns out a whole lot!) Films by their nature are a much more short form type of storytelling. A movie lasts maybe a couple hours. Your typical horror film clocks in at under two. Zombie films are usually even shorter.

   Limited length meant no zombie story ever got too involved. Typical zombie movie, the story starts fairly soon after the dead start to rise. A few hours in. Maybe on day two of the zombie apocalypse. Sometimes further in. Then the audience needs to be quickly introduced to the cast of potential victims. Not much time to work with so the characters are usually broadly drawn "types": a hero, a coward, an idiot who thinks he's tough, a group like a family or such who are more concerned with themselves than with the whole extended group... characters where you get who they are quick and easy. Then usually the plot encompasses a short span of time in the film's reality. An evening. Maybe a couple days. Not very long though. Nobody in movies live long enough to see where the zombie apocalypse is headed. Until The Walking Dead.

   Both the Walking Dead comic and the show approach the zombie apocalypse with the idea of, hey, screw "day one" of the madness, what's day 30 like? What has the world and mankind come to a year into it? The Walking Dead goes so far as to skip over the beginning days of the zombie apocalypse that every other story focuses on. The story starts with our hero, Officer Rick Grimes, being injured and laying unconscious in a hospital just before the world goes to hell. He sleeps right through the downfall of society to the dead. He wakes up in an abandoned hospital having to piece together what the hell is going on.

   Another choice The Walking Dead makes is to never actually use the word zombie. They call them walkers, biters, growlers, Toby who I used to know from camp (poor Toby), but not zombies. Truth be told at this point I'd like to here it just once though because, come on, eventually SOMEBODY would say it. Maybe have it turn out there's a bet going on among the survivors with the loser being the first one to say zombie. But I'm getting off topic. And silly.

   The show follows the continuing story of a group of survivors over a long stretch of time instead of just a few days. This means characters with more depth, a chance to really explore what that situation would really do to people, how it would change them. An early example of this is when Rick meets up for the first time with another survivor, Morgan. Morgan is holed up in his house with his son. His wife has turned and wanders the streets outside. It seems some bit of who she used to be still exists in her because she always wanders back to their house. We see that every day when she comes, Morgan sits in an upstairs window with a rifle and takes aim. He wants to shoot her through the head and put her out of her misery. We watch the anguish on his face because he can't pull that trigger. He can't shoot the woman he loves.

   Week after week we watch as the world situation warps and changes the characters' values and as characters either toughen up or break. And we watch a lot of characters die. And it's almost always a stronger gut punch than a zombie movie death because these are characters we know better.

   The show was a ratings monster. It did so well that A&E who aired the show decided to create a spin off. Fear The Walking Dead was designed as a prequel. While The Walking Dead skipped over the start of the zombie apocalypse Fear The Walking Dead would focus on how it started. Right off the bat that decision confused me. The original series made such a specific decision to skip over that part and hit the ground running with the story already rolling. But, to be fair, they still weren't going to do what the movies did. Fear The Walking Dead was going to start when the zombie plague was still spreading almost unnoticed in the population and then take it's time tracking the rise of the zombies and the breakdown of society.

   The zombies start appearing slowly with the population mistaking them for sick people or crazies. We follow a number of families as things go bad. As things get worse the military declares martial law. That way the zombie outbreak could build slowly as a danger lurking in the shadows while civilization going to pieces and the military itself could pose a more immediate threat.

   The problem though was that while on paper that all sounds good, on screen all that was boring as hell. The zombie incidents were scary but too infrequent. The military stuff was also slow to build. Meanwhile the family drama taking center stage was only so so. The original series started feeling really smart for skipping over this part of the story.

   For me there was one truly unforgivable mistake. The original series existed in a harsh unforgiving world where people had to be tough, strong, or hopefully both. The dumb and the weak died and the audience learned to have little patience for them. They would actually make me angry. Fear The Walking Dead had too many dumb and weak characters. In particular by the end of the first season I was actively hoping for the death of Travis Manawa.

   Travis was engaged to Madison and they were two of the central characters. Each had their own children and they were trying to blend their families. Madison Clark was a strong smart woman, the type likely to survive once things got going. Travis was an idiot.

   Early on Madison started kind of figuring out what was going on. Travis was in denial. But, okay, while annoying I can get past it. It makes total sense that most people would in no way believe zombies were taking over the world. But while it makes sense in the real world, as an audience we know the threat is real. So his disbelief is annoying but forgivable.

   So things start falling apart and the military rounds up survivors to live in gated safe areas. Madison is okay with this but nervous and suspicious. Travis is less suspicious and predisposed to be very trusting of the military. On this I was less forgiving. Not that you shouldn't trust the military. But with society going in the toilet and the military protecting people by locking them into camps, tempering your faith in the military with a good dose of concern and fear only makes sense. Not to Travis. Ugh.

   Then came the point of no return with Travis for me. At one point Madison's son Nick sits in the safe zone staring out over an abandoned section of Los Angeles and at abandoned houses on the far side of the valley. He notices one house where there are flashes of light. It's obvious to him, to us, and to anyone who is not an idiot that the light is a survivor using a mirror to reflect light and signal that they're still alive and in need of help. Nick alerts idiot Travis to the light and tells him outright that it has to be a survivor signaling for help. Travis dimisses this idea without a second thought. I think this was done for plot purposes but having characters do dumb things to make the plot work is never a good idea. It made Travis look irredeemably dumb. On Walking Dead that sort of blindness to reality gets you killed fast and usually a bunch of other people who deserved better. Travis is the guy you don't want in your group of survivors.

   Slow plotting and characters you can't get behind are bad mistakes to make. At the moment the show is about to head into season 2 with the zombie outbreak about to truly explode. Hopefully with that things will pick up and the characters will smarten up, toughen up, or get killed off. I'm looking at you, Travis.

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