“Fear the Walking Dead” returns, looking every bit as much at sea, dramatically speaking, as it did throughout its truncated first season, only now, that can be said more literally. The idea of capturing the zombie apocalypse as it began, from a character-driven, family drama point of view, wasn’t a bad one, but this “Walking Dead” spin-off thus far hasn’t developed a cast to keep the premise afloat. Indeed, while it provided a nice ending to season one, the conceit of putting everyone on a boat – while answering some questions about zombie buoyancy – has if anything at least temporarily exacerbated the show’s problems.
To be fair, “Fear” did make one strong addition in the later episodes, thanks to the character of Strand (Colman Domingo), the mysterious benefactor who shepherded the survivors to his palatial home and eventually onto his yacht, Abigail. He provides a strong presence that the program at first lacked, and adds an element of suspense, since nobody is quite sure what his motivations are or whether he can be trusted.
Beyond that, though, the assortment of characters remains uninspired, with Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis as the angst-filled couple at the center of it all. And while it’s interesting to see people react in more humane ways to the undead – unlike the hardened, Rambo-like veterans of zombie survival featured on the show’s better-established sire – initially, anyway, that too often seems geared toward actions of the “Let’s be compassionate even if it might get us all killed” variety.
“If this is the end of the world, it’s already over,” Daniel (Ruben Blades) suggests grimly during the premiere, reflecting the uncertainty that exists at this point in the crisis as to whether people can even entertain the notion of hope.
Without giving too much away about the early episodes, escaping onto the ocean has addressed some concerns (the dead can’t sneak up on you out there) while inviting others – starting with whether there’s any safe location where the group can take refuge. Notably, they make land in the second hour, casting the Abigail as a sort-of Starship Enterprise, albeit without the ability to necessarily help those they encounter. There’s also one especially gruesome sequence in the third, which comes closer to offering some of the more visceral thrills “Walking Dead” viewers (currently a rather disgruntled bunch) have come to expect.
As the premiere (written by showrunner Dave Erickson, and directed by Adam Davidson) makes clear, being at sea affords the characters time to sit around and talk. And while that’s tolerable during “The Walking Dead’s” more sedate interludes between eruptions of violence, “Fear” has yet to foster much investment in personalities like the recovering addict Nick (Frank Dillane), who has proven inordinately resourceful; or his sister Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), who in the premiere begins a conversation over the ship’s radio with an unknown party.
Certainly, one can hardly fault AMC for seeking to reproduce a money machine like “Walking Dead” that’s available for less than a third of the calendar year. And even if “Fear” doesn’t approach that level of success, it was virtually assured of doing better than most cable dramas, given the built-in anticipation associated with the brand.
So far, however, the spin-off just hasn’t found its sea legs. In the glass-half-full dept., given the heightened mortality rates, there are ample opportunities to make changes to a show about a zombie apocalypse, while using that threat of peril to keep the audience engaged, or at least off balance as to what might happen next. Still, if this is as good as “Fear the Walking Dead” is going to get, feel free to drop this critic off at the next available port.