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It’s tough being a younger sibling. ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ is a television show that has had to work extremely hard to live up to the expectations and standards set by its “big brother,” ‘The Walking Dead.’ Complicating matters further is the fact that, almost always, spin-off series are aired well after the original series has been completed and “off the air” in terms of new content being produced; ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ was created and premiered only five years in to the first run of ‘The Walking Dead,’ and as of this writing, both shows have been producing new episodes concurrently for the last five years. Each show is designed by broadcast company AMC to air in the “off-season” of the other, essentially assuring viewers of year-round zombie action.
Not everyone thinks that Fear is doing enough to be seen as a worthy complement to The Walking Dead’s universe at best, and that it’s possibly not even a decent standalone TV show at worst. With only one episode more until the end of the first season, things are definitely building to a head – but will viewers care enough to want to stick around into a second season?
In 2015, the pilot episode of ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ was delivered to eager audiences and high expectations. The first episode of the show broke then-cable-TV records for both first-episode viewership of total viewers (10.1 million) and the coveted adult 18-49 demographic (6.3 million). The show is designed to be a “prequel” to ‘The Walking Dead,’ taking place at the very beginnings of the zombie outbreak. This makes for an interesting dichotomy: the frustration that I (and very likely many other viewers as well) felt while watching the early episodes in regards to the decisions that the characters were making was actually one of the most oddly-compelling parts of watching this show. Allow me to elaborate.
Having seen every episode of ‘The Walking Dead,’ I already KNOW what’s going to happen to the world that the viewers of ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ are being presented with – but these characters can’t know these things yet. This creates a strange feeling where you want to jump out of your seat and warn the characters of what’s going on – but you can’t, and this is something they have to discover for themselves. This, of course, includes all the terrible mistakes that the characters will make – and those mistakes are plentiful. If you watch this series, the schadenfreude you experience will be powerful.
Early on in the series, viewers start to get a good sense of not only which characters are “people of action,” but how their personalities and traits will dictate what kind of decisions they make. The most telling example of this during comes in an early episode, when primary character and mother Madison (Kim Dickens) physically would not let her teenage daughter Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) go outside to help a neighbor being attacked. It was a very “anti-Rick Grimes” moment but remember: Rick woke up from a coma after all this initial outbreak/crazy violence action had already happened, so he didn’t have to live through it and make these types of choices. One wonders what kind of a person Rick would be “now” (aka five seasons into ‘The Walking Dead,’ at the time of the ‘Fear’ premiere) if he had been awake the whole time.
Another intriguing piece of the show comes from the “how much do certain characters really know about what’s happening” department. In the second episode of the series, Madison’s fiancee (and dad to his own teenager) Travis (Cliff Curtis) is stuck in a traffic jam on a city street; he sees a police officer at a convenience store, loading the back of his cruiser with as much bottled water as it will hold. This, coupled with other clues dropped throughout the show, demonstrates to the audience that the authorities clearly know more than they have been letting on to the public – and the real question is, how long have they known?
The show is certainly intriguing, but its biggest detraction from critics and viewers is that it has long struggled to find its “vibe,” interspersing long stretches of often-forced-feeling character development with only minimal information and visual cues about the actual burgeoning zombie apocalypse. Of course, as the seasons of ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ have progressed, it inevitably moves further away from the “talking about the zombie apocalypse” stage and progresses into the “in the thick of the sh!tstorm of the zombie apocalypse” stage, where – let’s face it – most fans want the show to be.
Across the first five seasons (with a sixth season already green-lit for next year by AMC), it’s been a fine line that the show has had to walk in terms of ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ falling into the trap that many prequel-type tales succumb to: the characters exist as a secondary feature to the story itself, which usually doesn’t translate well into a story that resonates with audiences (who want to actually care about the characters they are watching). For the show’s conceived shortcomings (too soap opera-esque, not enough zombie carnage, etc.), however, many fans have been thoroughly hooked and waiting eagerly for future installments.
Viewership, as happens to many shows, has steadily dwindled as the series has progressed. While the first season started off with that 10 million-plus viewership, the first season averaged 7.61 million viewers, with the numbers slipping from there. Season 2 saw an average of 4.19 million watchers, while the third and fourth seasons dipped all the way to a 2.36 million and 2.27 million average, respectively. Numbers are still out for the recently-completed fifth season, but the season premiere only netted 1.97 million viewers, so it seems the downward trend likely continued.
While it may not necessarily be the home-run that AMC was hoping for, ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ has done enough on its own and has enjoyed enough of a connection to one of the best shows on television to warrant its story being able to continue. As is the question with ‘The Walking Dead,’ however: how long will the ride continue?