When AMC announced it would launch Fear the Walking Dead, ostensibly creating a Walking Dead television franchise, the decision made sense financially. After all, capitalizing on TV's top-rated program is a smart move for any network to make, and one that has been made time and again, much to the delight of many a television executive. But in a crowded television landscape once populated with multiple CSI, NCIS, and Law & Order spin-offs, how does a series whose appeal is intrinsically tied to itinerant hordes of rotting flesh offer something fresh and appealing to viewers hungry for more?
Well, for starters, and, more importantly, the unyielding assertion of producer Gale Anne Hurd, it begins by removing the "spin-off" label and replacing it with a more suitable descriptor. Something like "companion series," for starters.
It seems counterintuitive to say that a series like Fear the Walking Dead, with a massive, all-but-guaranteed built-in audience – the television equivalent of being born with a sliver spoon in its gore-encrusted mouth – could face a challenge of any kind, but Hurd and executive producer David Erickson are quick to point out their job isn't to offer more of the same, but to deliver a new experience within the confines of a familiar setting.
"They are very big shoes to fill, but I also think it gives us a bit of latitude in a way, being this twisted step kid of the original show," Erickson says. "We are minding the rules and the mythology of the original show and of the comic, so it's a bit of a hybrid. But my hope is that it compliments the original show, and it also tonally and creatively explores some different avenues and things that they didn't have an opportunity to do, just based on the way the comic was structured."
Fear, with its Los Angeles setting and "normal, average people" – as Hurd describes the cast of characters led by Cliff Curtis' high school English teacher, Travis, and his guidance counselor wife Madison, played by Kim Dickens – intends to compliment its predecessor by starting its story before the beginning of the end, and continuing on through the fall of society. What sets it apart from The Walking Dead, beyond taking place during, as Erickson says, "the 4 or 5 weeks before Rick woke up," is that, unlike Rick and even Shane, the characters who populate this story do not have the same sort of skill set as the group outside Atlanta did.
"These are characters without a road map," Hurd says, describing the family at the center of the story, which also includes Alycia Debnam-Carey and Frank Dillane, as Alicia and Nick, Madison's children from a previous marriage. The cast also includes Orange is the New Black's Elizabeth Rodriguez and Lorenzo Jame Henrie as Travis' ex-wife and son Liza and Chris, as well as Rubén Blades and Mercedes Mason and father-daughter duo Daniel and Ofelia. Part of the appeal of these multi-cultural, blended families is to tell the story of The Walking Dead through distinctly different perspectives.
"These are normal, average people, and first we get to find out who they are in normal life," Hurd says. "That's another thing that we haven't seen before. We really get into problems that average families throughout the world will be relating to and facing. You blend different family units; you have everyday problems … compounded by 'What the hell's going on?'"
For those of you have seen the trailer, it's clear this is a different kind of story than the one going on in Atlanta. The urban setting is primed to provide a distinctive set of circumstances and challenges for the characters facing what will eventually be the fall of society. And Erickson was able to divulge some details on how far the first six-episode season would take the story in terms of moving it from the first stages of the outbreak to the smoldering wreckage of civilization. He even teased the idea of ending the first season by cutting to Rick waking up in the hospital in Atlanta.
"We don't quite get that far," says Erickson. "That's the narrative Robert wasn't able to do. Which is one of the reasons why I think he wanted to do [Fear the Walking Dead]. He looked back and saw there were certain elements of the show that he would like to have explored."
Those unexplored elements have led those in the cast and crew who participated in the SDCC 2015 roundtable interviews to refer to the first six episodes as a "slow burn," or "Hitchcockian" – which was a term heard several times and from several different people. The expression comes from Alfred Hitchcock's oft-quoted "bomb under the table" notion of suspense, which is the idea that the film gives the audience key life-and-death information that the characters in the story do not have. And the suspense comes from not only wondering how and when the danger will be stopped, but also whether or not it ever will.
Clearly, Fear the Walking Dead's biggest advantage over it's big brother is the opportunity it has to build its story from a place of paranoia and apprehension to one of chaos and terror – like all good zombie/horror movies do. To further sell the idea of slow-burn terror, producer Greg Nicotero made the comparison to Philip Kaufman's 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as a point of reference in terms of tone, style, and creating a pervasive sense of atmospheric dread.
"Alan Davidson, the director, and I talked about Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a really great blueprint for just changing camera angles," says Nicotero. "…the first part is shot with traditional angles and then things start getting more dramatic in terms of how your shooting things, building that paranoia and the idea that the people next to you aren't who they were or who they appear to be. So we played up that aspect of it quite a bit."
Still, at a certain point, Fear the Walking Dead is going to have to contend with some of the same character and story needs as The Walking Dead. With such a different setting and cast of characters, it seems reasonable to expect certain dynamics may help keep it fresh. The only question is: for how long?
"We can ride at least two seasons before we get to that place of how do we not make every episode a supply run," Erickson says. So, it seems we can look forward to two seasons of fear, paranoia, and societal disintegration before the story has to contend with the issues of survival, violence, and dramatically altered concepts of morality that have made The Walking Dead the biggest show on television. Will viewers be itching to get down to walker-killing business, or will this slow burn approach be a breath of fresh air capable of attracting an even bigger audience?
Fear the Walking Dead premieres Sunday, August 23 @9pm on AMC.
Photos: Frank Ockenfels/AMC