At some point I am going to have to stop pretending we’re binge watching this much television just because of the pandemic. We do tend to do this in fair times as well, it is just somewhat more pronounced now due to not being able to go out to dinner or a movie or leave the house without a mask on. Now that we’re fully vaccinated and the mask thing might be going away, we’ll just be binge watching.
But when it came to Fear the Walking Dead, we were still in pandemic stay-at-home mode, so it counts.
After having watched ten seasons of The Walking Dead, you might have thought we were ready for something else. Alas, no. The lure of a different telling, a west coast suburban telling of the tale of the zombie apocalypse, seemed like a good idea.
And, I will admit, the first season was very strong. Or, at least it delivered on the promise of a different and somewhat more relatable telling of the story.
The Walking Dead opens up with the main character waking from a coma to find the zombie apocalypse already in full swing. Then, save for some time spent in Atlanta and looting the Smithsonian in Washington DC, it spends most of its time in rural settings. At best you get small town zombie America.
Fear the Walking Dead opens up in a suburb of LA, which looks much like most suburbs in the coastal population areas, including my own, before the rise of the zombies occurs. Or just as it begins.
And the story, which follows a family, one partner’s ex-wife, their kids, plays out how I imagine the zombie apocalypse would. Everybody’s daily life and problems has their focus as hints of their impending doom start to show up. There is a news report about a police shooting, a Vine video about some shambling homeless, the elderly neighbor growling through the fence. Since you know what is coming… right, the title isn’t hiding anything… you want to yell at them to pack up and run for the hills. But you also know how it goes in the suburbs. Everything is fine and normal until suddenly it isn’t.
Things start getting out of hand, neighbors start holing up in their homes, and then the national guard shows up to help maintain control.
The family, including the ex-wife and a couple and their daughter who were picked up along the way as the panic started, are in a “safe zone,” fenced in and guarded by the military. Others outside of the are evacuated and the national guard has orders to shoot any infected outside the safe perimeters… and they shoot first and skip asking any questions.
Anybody sick in the safe zone… because the zombie fever is already a thing… gets shipped off to a secure hospital for observation. The family gets split up that way and it turns out that the Salvadorian barber, who the family is helping, turns out to be a former member of the Sombra Negra death squad and, when he feels that the guard isn’t telling them things they should know, captures a guardsman and tortures him into revealing the reality of the situation.
But things are ready to fall apart anyway. The guard pulls back or deserts and the family goes to the secure hospital to rescue their family members. There the oldest son has been befriended by Victor Strand, a confident man with a plan. He leads them off to a boat and then to Mexico.
Because if you’re white suburban Californians who can barely speak menu Spanish and are ignorant of the culture, why wouldn’t you run to the country next door with a worse gun violence problem than your own?
There the tale becomes more akin to the original series. You get armed gangs, people denying the apocalypse, people who think the zombies are still the people they were before, looting, shooting, and people generally becoming a worse problem than the zombies.
Still, that goes somewhat well, story wise. They spend a season in Mexico, then get caught at the border by an armed group as they try to get back into what was the US, end up in a land dispute with Native Americans in New Mexico and eventually blow up a dam in the season three finale that is yet another testament as to why we cannot have nice things.
Then season four hits. Despite good ratings and reviews, they decided to shake the show up. The timeline was sped ahead to bring it into sync with the original series. Both timelines started in 2010 in the shows, but the TWD launched five years ahead of FTWD. They spend season four cleaning house, killing off much of the old cast and introducing a bunch of new characters, including a cross over character from the original show because… reasons.
Oh, and the show moved the setting to Texas with the fast forward and, like many Californians drawn to Texas, they find that the benefits (lower taxes, cheaper land) comes with many of the same old problems (traffic and/or zombies) with a few new twists (toll roads, hurricanes, ice storms, and heavily armed neighbors with strange beliefs).
And it all felt very much like a purge, like they were sick of the old story line and the original family from episode one. And yes, even in TWD they have killed off most of the early cast, including disappearing the episode one protagonist, but this felt different, even if the first person they injected into the new series was from episode one of the old. (Yeah, they couldn’t stop at just one.)
The stories get less compelling, more erratic and nonsensical, and you know that every time anything seem to going well somebody is going to show up and ruin everything. Oh, and zombies. They become a plot device more than a threat, though props to the one group who hooked several up to a capstan and created a perpetual motion machine used to pump oil.
As we got towards the end of season five I was suggesting loudly that we could maybe pick up with the new season of The Handmaid’s Tale or one of the movies on my watch list. My wife can attest that on at least three occasions I swore that if the show did what I thought they were going to do I would turn it off and never watch it again. Of course, they did the dumb thing I expected every time. But we still rode it out to the end of the season.
By the end though I was convinced you could play a game RimWorld, note down the events, and write a better show script than what we were getting from seasons four and five. (Of course, I write that and wonder if there is a RimWorld mod for a zombie apocalypse scenario. That would be some fun base building.)
Overall I enjoyed season one, largely due to being able to see the zombie apocalypse unfold in familiar territory. Seasons two and three were fine, if headed down a predictable path. I was surprised how quickly they got on board with “slather yourself with zombie guts and you’re safe to walk around.” Then seasons four and five sucked the life out of the show by being both dumb and predictable.
I have heard that season six gets better… but I also saw somebody on Twitter declare they were done with the show due to events in that season. I am fine giving season six a pass, but my wife seemed disappointed when I refused to subscribe to AMC’s streaming service in order to carry on. I might be alone in my opinions in our house.
Anyway, the first five seasons are available on Hulu.