AMC’s iconic zombie series “The Walking Dead” was at the height of its popularity when “Fear the Walking Dead” premiered in 2015, so anticipation was understandably through the roof for the franchise’s first official spinoff show. But despite that early excitement, “Fear the Walking Dead” never quite connected with viewers the way the original did. Many fans complained that it lacked the gripping intensity of “The Walking Dead.” Others found the new show’s handful of lead characters far too ordinary when compared with larger-than-life heroes like Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), Michonne (Danai Gurira), and Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus). And more than a few bemoaned the series’ basic premise of looking back at the early days of the zombie apocalypse, rather than picking up at the same time as “The Walking Dead,” and moving the entire story forward.
Yet as its eighth and final season approaches with its May 14 premiere, “Fear the Walking Dead” has steadily amassed a loyal and discerning audience who believe the show actually improves on the original in a number of areas, both big and small. And with new viewers discovering previous seasons on Hulu and other streaming services, “Fear the Walking Dead” is on its way to becoming a cult favorite in comparison to its predecessor. As the spinoff series nears its gory conclusion, Variety has selected 10 things that “Fear the Walking Dead” does better than “The Walking Dead.”
It Reinvents Itself
What makes “Fear the Walking Dead” so refreshing is its unpredictability. Unlike “The Walking Dead,” which more or less adhered to the overarching story told in the long-running comic book series that inspired it, “Fear the Walking Dead” isn’t based on previously existing source material — and therefore, is free to follow any path it wants, no matter how bizarre.
As a result, the show feels more inventive and less preordained than “The Walking Dead.” In its first seven seasons, it switched gears repeatedly, throwing creative curveballs that kept viewers constantly on edge. And nowhere was that more evident than in the unexpected turn it took between Seasons 3 and 4. The first three seasons of “Fear the Walking Dead” chronicled the harrowing plight of the Clark family as the zombie apocalypse destroyed the world around them. But then in the premiere episode of Season 4, Morgan Jones (Lennie James) from “The Walking Dead” joined the series, and its tone and focus turned on a dime. This bold reinvention was like a sudden jolt of adrenaline, propelling the characters and the action into strange new directions.
It Revealed Life Before Zombies
By design, “The Walking Dead” spent very little time depicting the world as it was before the zombie apocalypse, and whether or not that was a wise decision is debatable. Other than a brief sequence early in the first episode in which Rick is shot and ends up in a coma in Harrison Memorial Hospital, only fleeting glimpses of life before the end of the world were ever shown on “The Walking Dead,” and those exceedingly rare flashes were always presented as unreliable dream sequences. In contrast, “Fear the Walking Dead” spent its entire first season showing the Clark family’s normal, everyday existence being gradually overtaken by unimaginable horror, and the emotional effect this had on viewers was immense. By revealing what Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), Daniel Salazar (Rubén Blades), and Victor Strand (Colman Domingo) were like in the past, their fates in the future became even more dramatic and consequential.
It Embraces Different Genres
While “The Walking Dead” stuck firmly with the action-horror genre for the entirety of its 12-year run, “Fear the Walking Dead” has changed genres with remarkable fluidity, and the result has been fascinating. The show’s galvanizing first season played like a family drama set against a nightmarish backdrop. The suspenseful second and third seasons brought the characters to Mexico, and introduced subplots reminiscent of a telenovela. Season 4 shifted gears into gritty military action, while Seasons 5 and 6 were full-fledged Westerns. And recently in Season 7, as deadly nuclear fallout rained down from above, “Fear the Walking Dead” transformed into a hybrid of “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the Atomic Age classic “On the Beach.” The show’s embrace of the Western genre was particularly successful, with pioneers on horseback chasing armored vehicles like stagecoaches across the Oklahoma landscape, and gushing oil wells spouting black gold like something out of George Steven’s 1957 Oscar-winner “Giant.”
It Looks Like a Movie
The show’s eagle-eyed location scouts constantly find new and exciting places to shoot “Fear the Walking Dead,” and its talented cinematographers — like Adam Suschitzky, Michael McDonough and Scott Peck, to name just a few — add a dazzling sheen to virtually every episode. In fact, with its moody lighting, dynamic shot compositions, and creative color palate, “Fear the Walking Dead” often looks like a stylish feature film. “The Walking Dead,” meanwhile, maintained the exact same visual tone in season after season. And while “Fear the Walking Dead” routinely takes viewers to fresh locations, including a luxury yacht at sea and an authentic beachfront hotel in Mexico, “The Walking Dead” seemed content to send Rick and his crew endlessly traipsing through the same Georgia woods for years at a time.
It Gave Morgan a Purpose
Morgan went through several significant changes on “The Walking Dead,” but he remained underused and never achieved his full potential. That is, until he joined “Fear the Walking Dead.” He was introduced in Season 1 of “The Walking Dead” as the very first survivor Rick encountered, then returned as a psychologically shattered man in a Season 3 episode, and eventually became a series regular in Seasons 6 through 8. Yet despite Lennie James’ fine work on the show, the writers never quite figured out what to do with Morgan. Most of the time, they stuck him on the losing side of philosophical debates with kickass warrior Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride) about the morality of killing their enemies.
But on “Fear the Walking Dead,” Morgan finally became a rich and well-rounded figure who drove the plot forward. He gained agency, and stepped up to the plate as a pivotal group leader rather than a frustrating follower. And James more than rose to the occasion, delivering an extraordinary performance that took a sidelined character and made him indispensable.
It Stars Kim Dickens and Colman Domingo
The cast of “The Walking Dead” are all stellar actors, but Kim Dickens and Colman Domingo are in a class by themselves on “Fear the Walking Dead.” As Madison Clark, a high school guidance counselor whose iron will and cunning intelligence helps her navigate the zombie apocalypse, Dickens is a force to be reckoned with on the series. In scene after devastating scene, she plumbs the depths of Madison’s traumatic past, revealing the vulnerable, fallible, and infinitely relatable person behind the steely survivor. Whether shoving a spoon in her enemy’s orbital socket and threatening to pop his eye out if she doesn’t get what she wants, or coldly delivering a decapitated head in a backpack in exchange for a momentary truce, Madison could teach Dirty Harry a thing or two about ruthlessness. As for Domingo, his performance as Victor Strand is perhaps the most original and colorful acting work in the entire Walking Dead franchise. He portrays Strand as a venal, conniving and duplicitous conman who’ll sacrifice anyone to save his own skin, yet he makes the character undeniably seductive and mesmerizing at the same time. And when Dickens and Domingo share the same scene together, it’s pure magic.
The Storytelling Is Tighter
When it comes to narrative scope, few TV shows in history were as epic as “The Walking Dead.” Unfortunately, that dramatic weight came with an awful lot of long-winded monologues, and the excessive speechifying occasionally slowed the story to a crawl just when things should have been revving into overdrive. Worse yet, entire seasons seemed to stall out, or drag on interminably in some cases. But with its smaller cast and deliberately narrower focus, “Fear the Walking Dead” is much lighter on its feet. It’s an intimate series, more concerned with character development than with large-scale world building. And because of that, the storytelling is noticeably sharper and the dialogue is – with a few exceptions – less bombastic and grandiose. While “The Walking Dead” often felt like a zombie version of the colossal WWII miniseries “The Winds of War” in terms of its size and scale, “Fear the Walking Dead” is nimble and tightly coiled, even when depicting giant submarines beached on the shores of Texas.
It Treats Death Realistically
On “The Walking Dead,” Carl Grimes’ death was handled with the solemnity of the passing of a head of state. Likewise, Lori Grimes, Hershel Greene, Sasha Williams, and Rosita Espinosa were each treated to noble, heroic, or self-sacrificing deaths that moved viewers to tears. But on “Fear the Walking Dead,” the deaths of major characters are usually shocking in their banal arbitrariness. For example, Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis) gets shot through the neck by a random bullet while flying in a helicopter, and plummets to his death with a look of utter confusion on his face. The following season, Nick Clark (Frank Dillane) is impulsively shot by Charlie (Alexa Nisenson) and dies in complete bewilderment. Before that, an injured Chris Manawa (Lorenzo James Henrie) is callously executed while desperately crawling away from a car accident. And finally, beloved lawman John Dorie (Garret Dillahunt) got plugged in the chest by teenage Dakota (Zoe Colletti), who then casually pushed him off a bridge like a sack of potatoes. These deaths were far less dignified and honorable than they would’ve been on “The Walking Dead,” and they’re unforgettably haunting because of that.
It Never Crosses the Line
The infamous bludgeoning of Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun) in Season 7 of “The Walking Dead” not only changed the tone of the show forever, it marked the end of the road for many longtime fans who felt the series went too far in terms of savagery. Ratings dropped substantially following the controversial episode that saw Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) gleefully bash Glenn’s skull apart in extreme closeup with his barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat. Even Morgan stated that the scene was probably a bad idea in retrospect, and it’s a lesson that the producers of “Fear the Walking Dead” clearly took to heart. Perhaps that’s why the show has been able to straddle the line between horror and humanity so successfully. Although filled with graphic violence and gruesome mayhem, “Fear the Walking Dead” isn’t gratuitously cruel or mean-spirited, and it never overplayed its hand the way “The Walking Dead” did in that notorious scene. Which proves that even in a gory zombie apocalypse, less is often more.
It Rewards Cat Lovers
If the timeless adage “cats rule and dogs drool” is true, then “Fear the Walking Dead” has four tiny legs up on “The Walking Dead” courtesy of Daniel’s adorable tabby, Skidmark, who functions like a pint-size version of Daryl’s devoted canine companion, Dog, on “The Walking Dead.” Introduced in Season 5, Daniel’s feline friend helps him lure the undead away from well-stocked supply depots. Then later, back at their warehouse hideout, they share meals together, and keep each other company late into the night. The two are so inseparable that roving videographer Althea (Maggie Grace) named her taped interview with Daniel after Skidmark. In a way, Skidmark is reminiscent of Shiva, King Ezekiel’s domesticated tiger on “The Walking Dead,” right down to their similar orange color. Stealthy, resourceful, and extremely cute, Skidmark is a purrfect addition to the zombie franchise.