Now that Walking Dead prequel/spinoff show Fear the Walking Dead has premiered, we can finally ask a question that I've actually been waiting to ask since Better Call Saul premiered back in February: Has AMC cracked the prequel formula wide open in a way that very few studios or networks have been able? And is what we've seen from these two series destined to blossom into something even greater? Wither as failed experiments? Or split that difference between them?
Obviously, in order to have this discussion, we will have to discuss MAJOR SPOILERS for both Fear the Walking Dead episode 1, and Better Call Saul season 1. So READ NO FURTHER if you're not caught up.
What's in a Prequel?
A prequel is defined a literary, dramatic or cinematic work that prefigures a previous work (i.e., visits an earlier time in the same world), often using the same characters at younger ages. Typically speaking, the purpose of a prequel is to let fans to look in on a series of events that were referenced or implied at some point in the original story. That purpose has proven to be a double-edged sword, however, as prequels tend to suffer from "prequelitis," which is basically a situation in which the viewing experience loses much of its appeal and intrigue, since the viewer is essentially watching a checklist of events and developments required to arrive at the previously established story. Since most of the joy in experiencing a story is finding out where it leads, the loss of that hook dooms a fair number of prequels from the start.
Prequels have existed for a long time, but in the 21st century they have become all too commonplace - a trend no doubt ushered in by the Star Wars Prequels' arrival at the turn of the century. Since then, we've had handfuls of books/TV shows/movies all purporting to tell the backstory of something we're already familiar with (Hannibal Rising, Exorcist: The Beginning, Gotham, Dracula Untold, Caprica, etc...), and almost all of them have left fans disappointed. But despite a lot of failures when it comes to endowing prequel stories with intrigue, relevance and importance, it seems that the tide could finally be turning, thanks in part to AMCTV.
It's About Potential
NOTE: Let's just get this out of the way upfront: The purpose of this essay is to discuss the approach that AMC is taking with Fear the Walking Dead and Better Caul Saul - NOT to discuss the overall quality of each show.
Saul has one ten-episode season under its belt, while Fear the Walking Dead has just one premiere episode (at the time of writing this). Critical opinions of each show are perfectly fine to have, but the focus of THIS discussion is how these shows are approaching their respective prequel stories, and their potential to do great things with them by avoiding typical pitfalls of the prequel sub-genre.
So if you want to talk about how much you didn't like the Fear the Walking Dead premiere or the first season of Better Call Saul, we have official review forums for that. Continue reading only if you're ready for a larger discussion about what these shows are doing to change how prequel expansions are handled.
The Prequel Solution: Irony in Drama
In my opinion, Better Call Saul and Fear the Walking Dead have both managed to crack a 'prequel formula' that has hindered so many other prequel projects, by using a key narrative tool: dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is when the audience is aware of context or events that the characters in the story are not yet aware of - and in the case of these two AMC prequel shows, it's being employed in smart ways that actually add depth and complexity sorely lacking in so many other prequel tales.
In the case of Better Call Saul, we get to meet a very different Saul Goodman (or a not-so-different "Slippin' Jimmy," depending on how you view it...) and witnessed his painful moral stumbles, even when trying earnestly to do good. Having the audience know that Jimmy will eventually lose his inner battle with morality and become the full-fledged Saul Goodman scumbag from Breaking Bad works immensely to the show's advantage as a prequel. It allows the showrunners to add poignant "crossroads" moments to the series - moments that emphasize who characters like Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut were once upon the time, and the other routes they might've taken (or almost did) before their respective transitions to the darker lives we saw in Breaking Bad.
The key is using the known outcome of these characters' fates as a means to play with our perceptions of them. Instead of a checklist of events to be touched upon, we get expanded looks into characters that were only given side consideration in the original Breaking Bad series, exploring turns of fate that layer them with even more depth and complexity. Using the events of Breaking Bad as a sort of reverse framing device, Better Call Saul manages to make good characters even more interesting and fun.
By walking the line between prequel and spinoff, Fear the Walking Dead has the flexibility to keep its characters (and their fates) a mystery, instead using the audience's contextual familiarity to frame family drama in a way that few shows can. Seeing Madison (Kim Dickens) and Travis (Cliff Curtis) trying to hold on to their piecemeal family throughout the daily dregs of life - while kids Nick (Frank Dillane) and Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) deal with angst, addiction and growing pains - is both precious and inconsequential at the same time. Knowing how the impending zompocalypse will slowly eradicate the paltry concerns of these characters lives is a hook that can keep people coming back (they do love slow train wrecks), as it's a different source of narrative intrigue than the main Walking Dead series offers.
While early reviews of Fear the Walking Dead bring up valid criticisms of slow pacing and an overabundance of characters, the show nonetheless has front-loaded potential built into it. Like a good horror movie, it's unclear right now who could potentially become the most bent, broken and/or demented character - or which characters will be quickly killed off to have decisive impact on the surviving ones. Most attractive of all is the almost procedural curiosity of seeing society's fall - a slow process that The Walking Dead side-stepped (save for concise flashbacks) by having protagonist Rick Grimes awake from a coma when the zombies were already running rampant.
Instead of direct connections between the characters of both shows, or some kind of eventual crossover meeting, this prequel will expand the thematic scope of the zompocalypse world Robert Kirkman created. Fear the Walking Dead can frame the societal themes (ex: what are societal and family values worth in the face of Armageddon?) that will eventually give way to the Walking Dead's deeper focus on human nature and the moral / existential dilemmas that arise when society has been stripped away. In short: Fear the Walking Dead has actual importance and resonance as both a prequel and a spinoff, rather than having to slavishly touch on key events that connect to the original show (like so many other doomed prequels).
It may not have perfected it yet, but AMCTV has definitely made strides in taking the concept of the prequel and refining it into something that fans can truly get new enjoyment from, rather than taking a simple trip down a memory lane whose path they know in advanced.
Granted, like any TV shows, Better Call Saul and Fear the Walking Dead will have their critics and detractors (the latter certainly has them both in numbers, already), but the question of whether these were both prequel stories at least worth attempting to explore seems to be a resounding "yes." That's a rare thing in this particular sub-genre, where films like Hannibal Rising arguably ruin great characters and stories, by sagging the mythos with unnecessary over-explanation and little surprise or imagination.
How do you feel about these two shows? Do you agree that they are (or at least one is) a better sort of approach to a prequel?