Monday, August 24, 2015

FEAR THE WALKING DEAD Pilot Missing A Plane

In the last two or three weeks, some of you--you know who you are--have been bombarding me with questions about whether I'm going to be watching and writing about the new FEAR THE WALKING DEAD series. Until fairly recently, I'd been avoiding both the series and the questions. My first look at material from it didn't go so well. And didn't speak very well of its creators.

Thankfully, the pilot itself featured no further replication of material from the execrable WORLD WAR Z. Unfortunately, it didn't feature much of anything else either. The beginning of a zombie apocalypse is, in competent hands, a story with all sorts of potential and Los Angeles is a good setting for it. The creators of FTWD decided it would be just peachy to tell it through the eyes of a collection of dysfunctional, unbearably obnoxious, uninteresting and unlikable people--a complete fail when it comes to the central cast.

This is only one of the sins of the mother series carried over to the offspring.

The pilot ran half-an-hour longer than the usual hour-long timeslot but huge portions of it were taken up with filler material that added nothing but running time. The characters fail to share vital information with one another solely for the metatextual purpose of artificially extending the underwritten story. Nick, a junky, encounters a zombie in a drug-den as the ep opens. He tells Travis, his mother's boyfriend, about it, Travis checks it out (unarmed exploration of a crack-house and in the middle of the night) and finds an incredible amount of gore--as in, someone, maybe several someones, obviously died horrible deaths at the scene. He doesn't take the info to the police, which is, in context, somewhat forgivable, but when he tells his girlfriend, Nick's mother, about it, he only says something bad seems to have happened there--not a word about thick gouts of gore on the floor and wall. And, lacking this information, she just blows him off. And he lets her do it, even  as she accuses him of acting as her son's "enabler" by talking about it (she wants to dismiss the son's entire story as some drug-fueled hallucination). This is done solely to allow a later twist to convince her she needs to see it for herself and we get the same explore-the-crime-scene sequence repeated with the two of them, leading to the same conclusion--something bad happened here--and adding nothing but running time.

A common pitfall for prequels is that we, the viewers, already know where it's all going. Among other things, we go into any such project facing the prospect of watching characters figure out a very long list of things we already know, which is dull. There are a few ways to overcome such problems. One is to play on what the audience knows but the characters don't. There are two or three very minor tips of the hat to this in FTWD, no more. Another is to handle the familiar material in new and interesting ways. There's certainly none of that in FTWD--it's shot as flatly, dully and straightforwardly as its parent program. Another is to allow time to jump so as to let the characters learn off camera things we already know. Still another--the big one--is to tell a part of the story that hasn't yet been told. FTWD's untold story is, of course, how it all happened--how the world died while Rick was in a coma. That doesn't mean one provides some explanation for the zombie bug--Robert Kirkman is right in saying that should never be explained. How does the apocalypse start though? In what populations does zombie-ism show up? What's the reaction to it? How does it spread--globally down to outside one's back door? Why do the living fail to contain it? Los Angeles is huge. The tale could be told from a wide range of perspectives. Lots of disparate characters from different walks of life, occupations, social classes. See it happen through a variety of eyes, characters who could either come together or whose story could simply continue alongside others. This could be a great story and it's the one great story built into FTWD's premise.

Alas, it's the one story FTWD's writers seem entirely uninterested in telling. The pilot script (which is just awful) dodges it at every turn. The news cycle apparently doesn't exist at all in this world. As what we, the viewers, know to be zombie-ism begins to swell and make its presence known, there's no word from officialdom at any level. Even as the school at which the two leads work empties out from the sick, the only thing the characters learn comes from bootlegged Youtube vids of cops shooting it out with a zombie on the freeway (a scenario and scene directly lifted from George Romero's DIARY OF THE DEAD). The script focuses almost entirely on the ridiculous family melodrama scenarios and there's no exploration from any quarter of what could possibly be happening and how. One random kid at the school seems to have figured it out and he's presented as some sort of weirdo. There's no effort to create any sort of sustained atmosphere of concern or fear or uncertainty--for the most part, everyone just goes on about their business--woe is me over the poor junkie, woe is me over my unappreciative son, woe is me, the overachieving daughter, etc.--and barely even mentions what's happening.[1] And the dialogue piles on the clich├ęs as thick as the Los Angeles smog--if one's ear is sensitive to such things, it would be prudent to keep antibiotics handy.

FEAR THE WALKING DEAD certainly didn't take off in its oversized inaugural episode. This pilot is definitely missing a plane.

--j.

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[1] UPDATE (25 Aug., 2015) - I'd be remiss if I didn't mention (and was remiss the first time around, 'cause I didn't) that among the other sins of the parent series carried over to the spin-off is the habit of killing the black guy. On TWD, this has become like a long-running joke. The FTWD pilot introduces two black characters, Calvin, who is Nick's drug-dealer pal, and Matt, who is teen daughter Alicia's boyfriend. By the end of the ep, Matt is among those who have disappeared to an unknown fate while Calvin tries to kill Nick and ends up being killed himself.

14 comments:

  1. I haven't watched the episode yet. But your comment about FTWD avoiding the end of the world during Rick's coma is not surprising. I've long ago concluded that the walkers of TWD wouldn't stand much of a chance against organized resistance with modern weapons. FTWD would really have to focus on civilization defeating itself with hysteria leading to social disorder, something I don't think the writers realize or are capable of writing about.

    Do you watch Talking Dead? I was a little caught by surprise tonight when Chris Hardwick, the host, said that Rick has "flip-flopped" over the last few seasons. Of course, Scott Gimple immediated corrected Chris by saying Rick has "evolved". Does even Chris, who always seems so exuberant about the show, realize deep down how flawed it is.

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    1. That moment on TD did catch my attention. I thought for a moment that Hardwick might be going rogue. It's great when someone on the show accidentally lets a criticism slip through.

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    2. No, I tend to avoid the Talking Dead these days but I would have found any comments from Hardwick in that vein to be as surprising as you did. One of the amusing elements of TWD's random soap melodrama "characterization" is that characters randomly shift in radical directions. The Rick seen in the last several eps of the last season was the 8th major version of Rick, an utter contradiction of who he'd been prior to punching Aaron. There's no "evolution" there. I should probably look up this exchange and use it here, if I write about TWD again.

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  2. My expectations were set appropriately low. At 90 minutes, I knew the show would be padded out. But I did not anticipated just what a bloated mess the pilot would be. Or that the characters would be so unsympathetic. This was bad even by the low standards of TWD.

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    1. I suppose the question its creators have to ask is whether they can port over so many of TWD's bad habits while not telling the story their own show exists to tell and still have anyone care? I'm sure the pilot will draw huge ratings but I'm betting they drop off pretty hard after this, unless there's a sudden and quite radical improvement in it. TWD hooked people by striking while the iron was hot with an incredible pilot--still the best ep of TWD ever produced by a galactic margin--and a fairly solid first season. Coming back to this one seems more like "Thank you sir, may I have another?" Hilariously, AMC has already committed to funding two seasons of this turkey.

      I will add, re: the low standards of TWD, that this was no worse than most TWD episodes. TWD fanboys who trash it--and I'm sure there will be many--would be entirely hypocritical.

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  3. I never over-estimate TWD audiences. They may eat this stuff up. I imagine most will prefer the original show. But I wouldn't be at all surprised if the spin-off continues to be a ratings winner regardless of quality.

    Next week we'll be introduced to new characters including Reuben Blades. Hopefully they will prove to be more compelling characters than the ones we met in the pilot. I would have been overjoyed if the pilot had ended with all the main characters dying. How ballsy would that have been?

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    1. The ratings always drop substantially in the weeks after a season opener. It wouldn't surprise me if, in this case, that drop-off was quite steep in this case, even given the TWD audience. I love the idea of killing all the main characters at the end of the a pilot. My original idea for a spin-off show was one that literally adapted the comic.

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    2. I'd love to see a literal adaptation of the comic, but I think it would have to go the premium cable route. AMC allows a lot more gore than I ever would have expected. But there are still limitations on content that would prevent a 100% faithful adaptation. Aside from censors, AMC is understandably concerned about chasing of viewers and sponsors with the really bleak stuff. I'm sort of surprised that none of the pay channels or Netflix have tried to capitalize on TWD with their own zombie show. Seems like a no-brainer.

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    3. I'm astonished there hasn't been a rapid and radical increase in the numbers of zombie shows. For a very long time, I was predicting that would happen. I even dreamed of one of them coming along and flattering TWD (which should have happened). I don't know why the other outlets have been so timid. It's more than their just hating horror (but to be clear, mainstream outlets do HATE horror).

      Have you seen SyFy's Z NATION? It blows TWD out of the water but it's made on such a shoestring, I don't think it will ever be able to compete in the ratings.

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  4. I have not watched Z Nation. But I remember you compared it favorably to TWD. A co-worker of mine feels similarly. He says he wishes he could take the effects guys from TWD and give them to Z Nation.

    Amazon tried the Zombieland pilot which flopped. And there's some other stuff out there like In the Flesh on the BBC. But no one has mounted a serious challenge to TWD and I do find that a bit baffling. I know if I was at Netflix or Amazon or Starz, I'd be shopping around for a zombie show.

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    1. Z NATION is available on Netflix and you should definitely check it out. Until its last few minutes (where it starts to pep up), the pilot is the weakest ep of the series and had the unfortunate effect of turning off a lot of people. ZN improves in leaps and bounds after that. By the 4th ep, it's cooking with gas. It's very low-budget but if you don't mind that--alas, a LOT of people do--it's a real treat. Probably good marathon material. I've managed to convert maybe a dozen people to ZN. Someone has to do--SyFy certainly isn't. Check it out. ZN season 2 starts on Sept. 11.

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    2. I chalk up the absence of more zombie apocalypse television to the fact that TWD has pretty much corrnered the "serious" side of the zombie genre while SyFy and The Asylum have had the less serious side covered for a number of years now, first with TV movies like "Zombie Apocalypse" and "Rise of the Zombies" and now with Z Nation (which I adore, by the way). That doesn't leave much room for high concept zombie programming.

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  5. Did it seem like Fear the walking dead films every scene so close to the actors. Besides a few gratuitous shots of the city. Everything was so boxed in. I feel like they shot the opening scene like that because it would have been rediculous that a car hit the guybon what was just a moment earlier an empty street and he was standing around long enough to be seen by drivers. We had trsnsporting zombies in the original show now there is transporting cars. I compared it to the opening scene of the pilot when rick had a road block and they crashed a car for real. It was the first episode of Fear but it already feels so half assed.

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    1. Yeah, that car-strike was incredibly badly filmed. He didn't run out in front of anyone--he was just standing there in the street and had been running away from any traffic that would hit him from behind for some time before he stopped (the street being empty when he entered it). Any driver would have had plenty of time to stop.

      The series is being filmed in Vancouver, which could account for all the tightness.

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