First episode impressions: ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ (TV review)

For five seasons, “The Walking Dead” has revealed the flaws of societal structure through a world struggling to rebuild that structure. But we never saw the actual process of the stripping away of society. In the pilot episode, Rick wakes up from his coma post-apocalypse, and other characters haven’t talked about the initial outbreak much, nor have we seen many flashbacks. “Fear the Walking Dead” (9 p.m. Eastern Sundays on AMC) is here to rectify that.

This sort-of prequel, which launched a six-week first season on Sunday that will lead up to the Season 6 premiere of “The Walking Dead” in October, chronicles the beginning of the zombie apocalypse in 2010 Los Angeles. Even more explicitly than “Walking Dead,” “Fear” details the breakdown of societal structure. As one character puts it in a voiceover from the preview: “When civilization ends, it ends fast.”

A pimply high schooler named Tobias, who brings a knife to school for protection, can see it coming: “They don’t know if it’s a virus or a microbe, but it’s spreading. People are killing.” His teacher, Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), is skeptical: “If there’s a problem, we’re gonna know about it. The authorities will tell us.” Tobias reflects the position of viewers who are armed with six seasons of “Walking Dead” knowledge and have also followed real-world news for the past decade, with his sarcastic “Yeah, sure. You’re right, Miss C.”

Madison’s trust in the authorities to handle an outbreak doesn’t last through the end of the 90-minute premiere, as everyone sees leaked video of police gunning down what we viewers know is a walker (it’ll be interesting to see if and when the term “walker” starts being used on “Fear”).

Even though the plot is a standard outbreak drama, and utterly predictable considering we know it leads into the world of “The Walking Dead,” I found this episode compelling. The production values we’ve come to expect from the original series are in place, with zombie designer Greg Nicotero reverting to the not-so-desiccated early apocalypse walkers. The dark score by Paul Haslinger gives the proceedings a nice sense of inevitability to contrast with the more mysterious vibe favored by Bear McCreary on the parent show. And it’s fascinating to see a “normal” L.A. with the occasional potential walker (or possibly just a homeless person with a limp) peppered into the landscape.

Whereas “Walking Dead” is about makeshift family, “Fear” starts off with an actual, albeit somewhat dysfunctional, family that will either be further fractured or become closer as the series unfolds. Frank Dillane gives a boffo performance as Madison’s son Nick, who is alternately pathetic – he is a druggie who is unnecessarily ruining his life — and totally worth rooting for – we know he saw a zombie in the opening sequence, but everyone thinks he hallucinated it.

Other characters include Nick’s sister Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), whose boyfriend goes missing; Travis (Cliff Curtis), Madison’s hubby and the teens’ stepdad-to-be; and Travis’ first family, including his ex-wife and disgruntled son, who we’ll probably get to know more in future episodes.

“Walking Dead” and “Fear” creator Robert Kirkman and his team no doubt set this spinoff on the West Coast to make it clear that these characters will not meet up with those of the original series, set in the Southeast. Everything we see in “Fear” could’ve just as easily happened in Atlanta, but that would’ve led us to expect cameos from Rick and company. I’m happy with the choice, as it’s important that the world of “The Walking Dead” be expanded, and crossovers (or the expectation thereof) would’ve shrunk the world.

Nonetheless, “Fear” could still theoretically offer clues that inform the original show, where even after five seasons our heroes don’t know what – if any – federal governmental structure remains. While the tempting answer is “none,” we have been privy to some intriguing radio signals. While I expect “Fear’s” main aim is to show that the authorities are not equipped to handle the zombie outbreak, it might also delve into something more sinister, such as intentional misinformation or outright abandonment of the populace (themes that “The Strain” is currently exploring).

Even if there are no overt tie-ins, it’s a blast to see the early days of people adjusting to the changing world, and the fact that we already know what happens does not hamper “Fear” in the least. More than just a light companion piece, “Fear the Walking Dead” has the potential to be just as good as “The Walking Dead.”