Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Fear The Walking Dead
It's fair to say that Fear The Walking Dead has been both aided and hindered by the association with its far more popular and successful parent series, The Walking Dead. Now in its third run, the spinoff recently aired its mid-season finale and has already been green-lit for a fourth outing and for many series, this milestone would be a strong sign of critical and commercial achievement.
In the case of Fear the Walking Dead however, criticisms that have plagued the show since its very first episode are still prevalent and the show's viewership figures are dropping badly, losing more than half its audience between the season two and three premieres. The main bones of contention seem to be the strength of the characters, a lack of differentiation from TWD and less than inspiring story lines.Thankfully, the show has started to make improvements in its third season. The establishment of Madison as the true lead was a huge step forward and the series continues to deliver in terms of visual gore and spectacle. The shot of a bird eating the brain of a scalped man was particularly memorable.
A cynic may suggest that if Fear the Walking Dead was a standalone show, it would have already been cancelled or at the very least wouldn't be getting renewed so readily and there's only so long the show can survive on reputation alone. With the mid-season finale wrapping up the current main plot, now could be the perfect time for subtle reinvention and here are some areas the show can improve heading into the second half of season three.
The biggest overriding criticism of Fear the Walking Dead is a lack of interesting and relatable characters that make viewers care about what happens to them on screen. Ironically, this area is perhaps The Walking Dead's greatest strength and characters such as Rick, Michonne and Daryl have become pop culture icons but whilst no one expected Fear the Walking Dead to replicate that level of success, neither did fans expect the show to completely fumble the issue.
Aside from Madison who has very much come into her own as of late, none of the main cast have a clear path of development and often flit between "the apocalypse made me stronger" and "the apocalypse made me crazy" without much explanation. This is particularly noticeable in the case of Nick. After his initial - and admittedly interesting - struggle with drug addiction, season two saw the character intentionally break away from his family, believing them to be destructive and preferring to walk with the dead.
When Nick and his family reunited in season three however, none of this was truly dealt with; the hatchet was buried and Nick made amends with his family, even refusing to leave them for his new lover, but the reasons for this weren't explored. It speaks volumes that Madison has a more interesting chemistry with newcomer Troy than her own on-screen son and unfortunately, similar issues exist throughout the cast.
The problem certainly isn't the talented actors and therefore has to be the way these characters are being written, with inconsistent actions muddying their personalities and preventing viewers from becoming emotionally invested. Happily, the solution has already been successfully implemented with Madison: keep things staight-forward. Without Travis to worry about, Madison is simply a mother doing everything she can to protect her children. Her arc and development are clear, logical and interesting to watch.
Viewers know exactly who Madison is; her motivations, her goals and her mindset. The same can't be said for the likes of Nick and Alisha but if those simple points were addressed and adhered to, that could quickly be put right.
The original concept behind Fear the Walking Dead was to show what happened in the early days of the zombie apocalypse but very quickly, the show settled into the same formula as its parent show, particularly with the group now holed up in a settlement and fending off those who would seek to take it over. You can make a strong argument that Fear the Walking Dead should have stayed in season one's early-apocalypse world far longer than it did but that ship has already sailed and the spinoff needs to find a new way to differentiate itself.
At all costs, the show must avoid making the Otto Ranch another Alexandria and Madison's group surely can't take refuge there long-term, otherwise the two series will become virtually identical. A power-struggle story between the two Otto sons and the Clark family would give the perfect opportunity for Fear the Walking Dead to head back out into the wilderness and with The Walking Dead firmly set in Alexandria for the foreseeable future, doing so would go a long way towards separating the two series.
Perhaps an expansion into more mature territory could also help in this regard. The show already appeals to an audience largely comprised of adults so why not forge a path as the more grisly and sweary cousin of The Walking Dead in order to further separate the two series.
You can certainly question the wisdom of implementing a stereotypical rednecks vs. disgruntled Native Americans story line, but the arc was at least one of the more entertaining Fear the Walking Dead has produced thus far. The same can't be said of the season three material with Daniel and Strand. Although the scenes at the dam were gripping enough, the events that followed were meandering and meaningless.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in the recent mid-season finale in which Daniel was nowhere to found and Strand ended up having a chat with an astronaut. Strand is arguably one of the more intriguing characters on the show and was given intelligent progression in season two but his recent scenes have been little more than a distraction from the main events at Otto Ranch. The quicker he can be re-integrated with Madison and co. - and have other characters to bounce his wit off - the better.
That isn't to say that the scenes at the ranch were all essential viewing. Some may have found that the story featured too much talking and not enough action, picking up a habit many have accused The Walking Dead of suffering from. Although the intense mid-season double feature somewhat compensated for this, episodes such as "TEOTWAWKI" and "Red Dirt" - the latter of which opted to have the potentially brilliant scene of Troy killing the Trimbol family happen off screen - failed to strike a balance between the inter-character dialogue and the zombie-centric action scenes that many people tune in for.
Fear The Walking Dead season 3 continues September 10th on AMC.