Fear the Walking Dead? Or, Why this Zombie Franchise Should Just be Left to Die

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:

Above: Break down of ratings

Aggregate score (IMDb + Metascore + Metacritic User Reviews)

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 conceitwhich 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 Kelly

Lecturer 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 , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Interesting, I personally have not seen the walking dead, only fear the walking dead, and I did review it on my page, but I think it is important to look at this new series on its own and not compare it to the walking dead as it is not the same show, what do you think?

    • Hey iantow, I agree. But if anything, this series is worse if we judge it on its own merits (of which I can’t find many). Of course, this is just my opinion and I realise others will completely disagree – and are more than entitled to! I found this episode incredibly slow – painfully drawn out even. I honestly do hope it gets better and that my predictions about the longevity and quality of this series are off the mark!

      • Indeed, It the first time I watched anything like it in this franchise, so I can’t compare, but I see what you mean there was a lot a dialogue and action, which is nice to see, but when you’re not familiar with the characters it does go on a bit.

  2. JP – The Walking Dead is still one of the top selling comic books out there. And the show is roughly following plot lines that are about 75 issues into the 140 plus issues already published of the book.
    The question Kirkman first sought to answer with the book is “What happens after the zombie movie ends?” An open ended premise that has proven filled with possibilities.
    A TV series is of course not a comic book, but the printed IP is extremely healthy and doesn’t seem to be running out of creative steam. If anything, it has pivoted into richer, more innovative directions.
    As far as FTWD, I was very pleased with the first episode. It is exploring a time period not touched by the original and features characters that don’t immediately come off as a clones of the original cast. There was a lot of table setting in the first episode, but as a fan of the books and the series I was more than glad to see those first days of the outbreak. I can’t speak to the metrics you are using, but from a creative standpoint, I think that there was a level of chaos and excitement that was intentionally left out from the first episode and will be built up to over the ensuing episodes of the show. It is almost impossible to replicate the sheer horror and adrenaline of Rick waking up alone in a zombie filled hospital. FTWD took a different path that might not have been as a viscerally exciting but that can still prove part of a winning formula.

    • Hi Jorge, thanks for your feedback. Some really good points there. I must admit that I haven’t read the graphic novels so can’t comment on that. However, I do still feel that TWD is definitely running out of ideas. It feels very repetitive to me – but that’s just my opinion and I realise that many would disagree! Having said that, there have still been some excellent moments / storylines in the past couple of seasons. As for FTWD, I really do hope I’m wrong and that it picks up. I think I was just somewhat surprised at just how slow it was – but that raises some interesting questions. Perhaps the writers didn’t feel the need to do the usual pilot thing and have lots of “narrative pyrotechnics” (as Jason Mittell would call it). Perhaps they felt the guaranteed audience and backing of AMC would allow them to do something different, something slower. Having said all of that, I’m convinced that it still could have been much better.

  3. The Walking Dead does often feel repetitive. There are certain tropes and situations that have become part of the formula. In that respect, the comic book is much more innovative and fearless. I’m not giving anything away when I say that as the show pivots to more and more conflict between humans, the stories blossom and grow. A thinking, feeling, plotting nemesis is more sustainable for drama than walkers.
    BTW, I’m not sure if you know but Kirkman has another comic based TV show in the works. It is titled Outcast and is from Cinemax. It kind of does for exorcism what Walking Dead did for Zombies.

    • In which case, it sounds like TWD might still have something up its sleeve. No doubt I’ll keep watching to find out… Or I guess I could start reading the graphic novels…

      And thanks for the heads-up about Kirkman’s other recent venture. I wasn’t aware of this but The Exorcist is an incredible film so you’ve set the bar high with your recommendation! I’ll definitely check it out.

  1. Pingback: Fear the Walking Dead? Or, Why this Zombie Franchise Should Just be Left to Die | TVnomics

  2. Pingback: Viz of the Week: A New Series | TVnomics

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