Every now and then, I’ll trot out that hacky TV-critic line about how a certain show is perfect to half-watch while you’re folding laundry. I got vivid confirmation of why this cliché was a cliché last year, when the washing machine in my building sprang a leak and I had to drag my clothes to the local laundromat on a Sunday night with my two kids in tow. The TVs in the place were all tuned to The Walking Dead. The audience was a mix of Hispanics and whites with a smattering of Asians, ranging in age from late 20s to mid-60s. There were a couple of young families, one of which had toddlers. Every pair of eyes was on The Walking Dead. The audience wasn’t cheering in bloodlust or recoiling in shock. Much laundry was folded. At one point, a walker was gutted practically from head to toe, and a woman at a nearby table glanced at the savagery, finished folding the comforter she was working on, and then refreshed her cell phone.
The prequel Fear the Walking Dead, which premiered Sunday night on AMC, will be a huge hit at laundromats across North America, I’ve no doubt.
The first two episodes hit a baseline of “pretty good” while serving up a couple of solid jolts and some memorable performance moments. And that’s about it. Despite superb photography and editing, a touch of John Carpenter in the pacing and scoring, and solid lead performances, this Los Angeles–based prequel to AMC’s long-running smash doesn’t hit any original notes; it just strikes the old ones again, in a different register. It’s deliberately slow, drawing out what would be the first five minutes of other zombie films and stretching it over the course of a season, or two seasons, or however long this show ends up running, until civilization is in tatters and the world looks more or less like the one we saw when Rick Grimes woke up from his coma in the pilot of the original Walking Dead.
This sounds like faint praise, but I guarantee you AMC is reading this and thinking, Yes! We nailed it. This series exists so that AMC could have at least one guaranteed hit on the air during weeks when no new episodes of The Walking Dead were available. And “pretty good” was, of course, the baseline for the original Walking Dead — a show that, for long stretches, has essentially been a 1980s-quality nighttime soap with postapocalyptic set design and bursts of TV-MA gore. It was excellent just often enough, and dreadful almost equally often enough, that the critical consensus evoked descriptions of a relative who’s delightful when he’s not drinking. No, seriously, I know you and Uncle Earl had some issues, but he’s in a great place right now, I promise. I’ve no doubt that four or five years from now, some critic will write a piece entreating people to watch Fear the Walking Dead because it’s finally figured itself out, and it’s pretty good again, you guys! If the prequel were amazing, it would be catastrophically off-brand. Fans wouldn’t know what to make of it.
The pilot, co-written by series co-creators Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson, opens with a young drug addict named Nick (Frank Dillane) landing in a hospital after witnessing some, shall we say, uncharacteristic behavior in a drug den. His mother, Madison (Kim Dickens), her live-in boyfriend, Travis (Cliff Curtis), and sister, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), visit him the in hospital. Around the same time, a mysterious, flulike illness thins the ranks at Alicia’s school. It seems that people all over the city are staying home sick. Is it possible that it’s not just the flu? Could it be … zombie-itis? (Flurry of violins.)
Dickens, who’s been a top-tier character actress ever since her searing work in Showtime’s Things Behind the Sun 15 years ago, is unsurprisingly excellent here, and so is Curtis; they make the most of what are ultimately rather thin stoic roles: a good-hearted, loving couple coming to terms with a terrible situation. Dillane, the son of Game of Thrones’ Stephen Dillane, has the most flamboyant role; Nick is a handsome, charming kid, but also a user, not just of drugs but of other people. The actor lets us see how this young man uses his charisma as inoculation against consequences; the actor’s willingness to be irritating is much more daring than the show’s violence or art-house slow-pacing. Frequent glimpses into Nick’s world make this series as much a drama about addiction as a science-fiction-horror melodrama. If the material were written with depth and insight — as opposed to merely slowed to a glacial pace and photographed like a middling 1980s B-movie filmed on available L.A. streets — this might constitute a mark of distinction. The show becomes slightly less monotonous when more characters show up and turn the series into, basically, Crash with flesh-eating ghouls; there are even moments that I almost want to call promising. But that’s not a hill I want to die on, because if I’m wrong, I might be resurrected on a TV in a laundromat somewhere.