Fear the Walking Dead? Or, Why this Zombie Franchise Should Just be Left to Die
Posted by JP Kelly
WARNING: Spoilers ahead
Everyone seems to be talking about the recent premiere of AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead [FTWD] – a prequel to the hugely successful graphic-novel-turned TV series, The Walking Dead [TWD] (2010 – ). This intense level of discussion is hardly surprising given the impressive viewing figures for the pilot episode, which broke two key records for a cable broadcast: highest viewing figures for a pilot episode, and highest ratings in the key 18-49 demographic.
Given this success, it probably won’t come as much of a surprise that the pilot for FTWD is currently the most popular download on Pirate Bay – by quite some distance too (at the time of writing, nearly double the amount of downloads compared to the number two slot).
But for all its record-breaking popularity, the reviews for the pilot have been somewhat mixed. With just a couple of days since its initial US broadcast, the episode’s rating on IMDb stands at 8.2. “Not too bad” you might be thinking, but compare that with the pilot episode for the original series, which has a much more impressive rating of 9.2, and suddenly FTWD looks somewhat underwhelming (regular readers will be familiar with my obsession with IMDb ratings).
Of course, the IMDb rating for a pilot episode isn’t always an accurate measure of a series’ success or longevity. Indeed, many pilots that have similar IMDb ratings have gone on to become hugely successful series in their own right, firmly establishing their place within the canon of television history: Breaking Bad (8.3); Game of Thrones (8.3); The Wire (8.1).
However, if the producers of FTWD look beyond IMDb, they may notice some other rather more worrying statistics. On Metacritic, which collates ratings from a wide range of different sources, FTWD has a “metascore” of just 66 (out of a possible 100). This is based on 33 critic reviews of which 21 are positive and 12 are mixed (i.e. average). Again, this might not sound too bad, but take a moment to compare this rating with those series mentioned a moment ago: Breaking Bad has a metascore of 73 (and a user rating of 9.3), Game of Thrones has a metascore of 80 (with a user rating of 9.1), while The Wire has a metascore of 79 (with a user rating of 9.4). To put that in visual terms, take a look at the graphs below:
The Resurrection of a Dying Franchise?
How the series fares in the coming weeks will be of grave concern for AMC (pun intended). Over the past couple of years, the network has seen two of its most popular and most lucrative series come to an end – Breaking Bad (2008-2013) and Mad Men (2007-2015). At the same, FTWD’s parent series, The Walking Dead, recently concluded its fifth season and appears to be running out of ideas (how many variations can there possibly be on the “is it / isn’t it a threat” formula?) Having worked so hard to establish their name in the world of quality TV, AMC therefore find themselves in a rather precarious position in which their portfolio of original programming is suddenly drying up; a position in which the risk-averse safety-net of the spin-off suddenly looks quite appealing. This set of circumstances might also explain the network’s recent decision to greenlight the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul (which, incidentally, is very, very good).
While spin-offs make sound economic sense for AMC, particularly at this critical time, FTWD feels more like a desperate attempt to rejuvenate a dying franchise rather than a decision driven by a genuine creative impulse. For me, the main problem I have with FTWD is its limited central conceit, which appears as though it will primarily focus on the events that lead up to TWD (but in a different city and with a different set of characters). This seems to lack the same kind of narrative longevity afforded by the sprawling post-apocalyptic possibilities of the original series. In short, it’s a prequel of sorts; but a prequel that will have to develop within a very limited timeframe before it eventually inhabits and overlaps with TWD.
Given that TWD has nearly exhausted the narrative possibilities of this particular zombie-infested-universe, what more can FTWD really offer? Sure, it can tell the story from a different perspective, with different characters in a different location (couldn’t TWD also do this?) It might also attempt to provide more clues as to the origin of the outbreak (of which there has already been much speculation following the pilot episode of FTWD). It also opens up possibilities for cross-overs or tie-ins with the original series. The key difference, however, is that it takes place in a (slightly) different time and focuses on the gradual collapse of humanity, rather than the fallout. And this is precisely my concern for the longevity of the series – how long can this collapse really take? Is this something that can realistically be drawn out over a number of seasons? Personally, I’m not convinced that it can. However, AMC, who commissioned a 15 episode second season before the pilot episode even aired, would seem to have more faith in this franchise than I do.
Ultimately though, I can’t help but see FTWD as an attempt by AMC to retain the fanbase of TWD by introducing them to a new, revamped version just in time for them to witness the death of the original. Even though I’m not the biggest fan of The Walking Dead (and especially not FTWD) I do hope that I’m wrong on this occasion.
As ever, feel free to comment below.
About JP KellyLecturer in Film and Television at Royal Holloway, University of London. Twitter: @jippykelly Web: www.johnpaulkelly.co.uk
Posted on August 26, 2015, in AMC, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, IMDb, JP Kelly, Mad Men, Ratings, Royal Holloway, Social Media, Television, The Wire and tagged AMC, Breaking Bad, Fear the Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, IMDb, Ratings, The Wire, TV ratings. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.