In "The Walking Dead," the zombie apocalypse has already happened. "Fear the Walking Dead" is the prequel that takes place as it's happening. Both shows are very good at creating a sense of anxiety and fear. It's like a fog that blankets the landscape. But where "The Walking Dead" makes you feel like you're stumbling through the terrifying mist along with the characters, "Fear the Walking Dead" offers you a view from the sidelines. It's a weakness that keeps the show from being as good as it could be.
The action follows Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), a high school guidance counselor and her boyfriend Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis), an English teacher, as they are suddenly forced to deal with a virus spreading through Los Angeles that is turning the infected into violent killers. Madison has a son, Nick (Frank Dillane), who is a heroine addict and a high-achieving daughter, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carye). Travis is divorced from Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and together they have a son, Christopher (Lorenzo James Henrie), who is estranged from Travis. The challenges of trying to blend their troubled families are intertwined with the horror that is happening on the streets.
Told through the eyes of this dysfunctional family, the story does a good job at depicting the confusion and denial that you imagine would probably take place at the start of a mysterious and deadly outbreak. Also good is the fact that it doesn't take too long for the characters to stop acting like a bad flu is going around. The gross zombie attacks help with this, although for a zombie show, it could use a lot more.
Instead, the series relies on tracking Madison and Travis as they deal with their angry kids while trying to escape the chaos. As a storytelling feature, the family dynamic is not a bad choice, "The Walking Dead" employs something similar though less literal. But in order for it to be effective, you have to know its members so you can care about their inner conflicts. When so little is revealed about them, as it is in this story, how they choose to hold onto or let go of their humanity in the face of such a devastating event, is much less compelling. More importantly, the prospect of their death doesn't cause the right amount of tension. On "The Walking Dead," the characters have layered histories that make you like or dislike them, so every time they are in danger you feel something about it. The prequel is missing this vital element.
The advantage of telling the backstory of a popular series is the built-in audience who are interested in finding out the answer to: What did this world look like before? But the reveal is quick and once this question is answered, the challenge is to keep their interest in the characters. On "Fear the Walking Dead," it's hard to feel much about the choices Madison, Travis and their families make to survive. It's these decisions that are the heart of any great zombie story.
All six episodes of "Fear the Walking Dead" are available on amc.com.
Melissa Crawley is the author of "Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing.'" She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.