Fear the Walking Dead, which premiered on AMC on Sunday, is neither a Walking Dead prequel nor a spin-off in the traditional sense: It takes place in the same universe at the exact moment of the zombie outbreak, just before the events in The Walking Dead unfold—but follows a completely new set of characters. And unlike the Georgia and Virginia-based Walking Dead, Fear takes place in Los Angeles and is not based on any of the original comics. This should have freed up the showrunners to take the series somewhere very original, but instead it feels awfully similar to its undead predecessor. I’d even argue that the show’s creators made one key mistake: Fear the Walking Dead should have been a comedy.
The showrunners seem determined to keep this show as drab, dour, and dark as possible. This is a formula that has worked for Walking Dead, which mines the zombie apocalypse for grim commentary on humanity and society. But what happens when the origin story ends, and Fear catches up to where Walking Dead picked up? Right now it’s hard to imagine anything Fear could do that would keep the two shows from eventually becoming redundant—and possibly competitive. If Fear had been a comedy, the two shows could have been palate cleansers for each other—complementary, distinct stories. It would have also been an interesting—even revolutionary—experiment for AMC to undertake: two shows, in the same universe, with the same rules, but very different tones. So here’s why Fear could have made a perfect zombie comedy:
Los Angeles is the ideal setting for zombie comedy:
Fear’s dour, ominous tone completely squanders Los Angeles’ potential as a comedic setting. Half of the scenes are set in places indistinguishable from anywhere else, despite all of the energetic urban settings the city has to offer. We’ve already seen the comic potential of zombie celebrity sightings, a la Bill Murray in Zombieland, and even something as silly as zombie earthquakes could provide some much-needed levity. (I’m not talking San Andreas–level carnage—just imagine trying to run away from zombies as the earth trembles around you and perhaps one tiny chasm opens up, or zombies with bad equilibrium falling off a balcony.)
Several scenes in the first two episodes are so close to comedy on their own, they might as well have been written as such:
- Nick wakes up in a dilapidated church he’s been squatting in. Suddenly we realize he wasn’t alone when he went to sleep. Nick finally figures it out and bolts out of the church. As a drama, it’s dully unsuspenseful; we know exactly what’s coming. But a comedy could have made this scene nicely slapsticky, a la Zombieland or Shaun of the Dead, or a more ironic riff on the tired man-narrowly-escaping-a-zombie gambit.
- The only kid with acne in the entire high school where Madison and Travis work—who is also apparently the school’s resident conspiracy theorist, and the only person who knows what’s going on with the zombies—babbles to Madison in a panic about the doom to come. Played straight, the teen rambing in panicked snippets and phrases during a calm school day in a quiet office is laughable in a cringey way. But pushed a bit further into absurdity, it could have been a goofy twist on the doomsday soothsayer trope.
- Nick attempts to kill a zombie by repeatedly running it over with a car.
- The guidance counselor beats up her first zombie with the school’s fire extinguisher.
The show is kind of like a family sitcom disguised as a drama:
The central family in Fear the Walking Dead is basically a dysfunctional Brady Bunch. You’ve got two parents: Guidance counselor Madison and her cool-teacher boyfriend Travis. They’re just trying to hold it together as Madison’s kids don’t like Travis too much, and Travis’ son Chris doesn’t like Travis too much, either. Madison’s daughter Alicia is a high-achieving student who still finds time to skip class and hang out on bleachers with her boyfriend—and somehow also doesn’t seem to understand why her parents don’t want her hanging around her someone who is coughing and phlegming and bleeding all over the place. And as Madison’s son, Nick, Frank Dillane already provides the few glimmers of comic relief Fear has to offer.