Spoiler alert: This recap contains plot details for the first episode of “Fear the Walking Dead.”
Emphasizing suspense and atmosphere over action and gore, Sunday’s 90-minute premiere of AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead” begins with a slight variation on the memorable opening moments of “The Walking Dead.” At the start of that series, Sheriff Rick Grimes awoke in an abandoned hospital after being injured in a violent shootout. In tonight’s episode, 19-year old junkie Nick Clark (Frank Dillane) wakes up in an abandoned Los Angeles church and gets rushed to the hospital after being hit by a car while fleeing from a hungry zombie.
Since this is a prequel, that zombie is considerably fresher than the desiccated variety typically seen on “The Walking Dead.”
Elsewhere in the city, we’re introduced to high school guidance counselor Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), her English teacher boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis), and her perpetually grouchy teenage daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey). An emergency phone call alerts Madison – aka Maddie – to Nick’s car accident.
Viewers who can’t stand Carl on “The Walking Dead” may want to brace themselves for the thoroughly annoying teens on this new show. If Alicia’s smug attitude has you rooting for her to end up as zombie-chow, just wait until you meet Travis’s bitter son Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie) later in the episode. It’s a profound understatement when Travis’s ex-wife refers to him as “Mr. Unpleasant.”
At the hospital, police officers question Nick, who was raving about blood and viscera when the ambulance picked him up. Before he can tell them what he saw at the church, Maddie storms in and demands that they charge her son or leave immediately. She’s clearly tough as nails when it comes to her son.
Later at school, Maddie has an ominous conversation with a troubled student who hints that something strange is happening across the country. Unfortunately, this scene represents one of the more frustrating aspects of the show.
Why doesn’t this student just come right out and tell Maddie what he’s actually seen? Why rely on cryptic clues and mysterious mumbo-jumbo? Too many characters on “Fear the Walking Dead” withhold vital info from each other, putting everyone in jeopardy because of it. It’s an easy way to add drama to a story, but inciting millions of viewers to shout “Just tell her already!” at their TV sets isn’t the best way to kick off a series.
Meanwhile, Travis learns from Nick that something horrific happened at the church. So, of course, he decides to investigate. Alone. At night. In the dark. Did we mention that he’s supposed to be an intelligent teacher?
What follows is a beautifully directed suspense sequence that immediately distinguishes this series from “The Walking Dead.” There’s a moody, cinematic quality to the lighting, sound and pacing here that recalls the similarly gothic L.A. church setting of John Carpenter’s horror classic “Prince of Darkness.” The whole thing builds to a perfectly orchestrated jump scare when Travis stumbles upon a terrified junkie hiding in the shadows.
More moments like this could help alleviate the somewhat mundane domestic drama.
When Nick escapes from the hospital, Maddie and Travis go looking for him. Their search leads to Calvin, one of Nick’s old friends. There’s a suggestion that Calvin may have had similar drug issues in the past, although he’s apparently cleaned himself up since then. He kindly offers to make some calls on their behalf.
In short order, things around the city begin falling apart. Police choppers hover constantly overhead. Missing-person posters spring up everywhere. Alicia’s boyfriend mysteriously stands her up for a romantic date. “Where r u?” she texts him, then adds “You better be dead!” This probably means he’s got a good excuse.
Touching on current headlines, a graphic video of a police shooting spreads online. The assailant staggers around like a blood-dripping sleepwalker. “It can’t be real,” Alicia comments fearfully while watching it. “This here’s the new real,” he friend replies as the cops open fire. “Killshot, bitch.”
For some reason, classes are dismissed early because of the video. This seems a bit rash considering officer-involved shootings are not uncommon, but who can argue with the Los Angeles school district?
As society crumbles, Nick meets with Calvin in a coffee shop. It turns out that Calvin has been supplying Nick and his fellow junkies with drugs, and now he’s worried that Nick has spoken with the cops. Promising to hook him up with some dope, Calvin drives Nick to a deserted section of the L.A. river, the perfect place to kill someone. The two former friends struggle for control of a gun and Calvin ends up with a bullet to the chest.
The episode ends with Maddie, Travis and Nick witnessing Calvin’s bullet-ridden corpse rising from the dead. After the generic familial drama that took up most of the story, this final bloody image brings things to a satisfying close for fans of the original series.
With the apocalypse now begun, hopefully “Fear the Walking Dead” will replace the annoying teenagers with some non-clichéd characters we can actually root for.
Or at least add a lot more zombies.