Arriving last summer on AMC, Fear the Walking Dead showed fans a new location—Los Angeles—and a new time. The companion series to The Walking Dead is not just a spin-off, but a prequel: a show about how the zombie apocalypse began. The world was already eight months gone when the original Walking Dead started, and the spin-off’s short first season did a fine job telling this story’s chapter one. We saw the walkers rise. We saw the city fall. And by the end of season one’s finale, our heroes—a middle-class family from the suburbs—made it out of L.A. and onto a luxury yacht. It seemed like the show could go anywhere from here. The spin-off was set to be a great series of its own.
Season two premiered two weekends ago. And like last night’s episode, it was… not great at all.
The show picks up where it left off, with the plucky Clark family setting sail by yacht. They find a sinking boat in the ocean and debate the ethics of saving its marooned passengers versus saving themselves. (They choose themselves, reluctantly.) The teenage girl, Alicia, flirts with a stranger on a C.B. radio and stupidly reveals too much to him. One of the sons, Christopher, dives into the water for no reason—and nearly gets half the family killed.
Reviews were unkind, to say the least. “If Fear the Walking Dead were at all funny,” Slant magazine’s Ed Gonzalez wrote in a scathing 1.5-star review, “one could at least begin to appreciate it is a companion to Gilligan’s Island.” Variety and the Hollywood Reporter both slagged it. Social media was alight with cries that the show sucks.
Last night’s episode was, improbably, even worse. In “We All Fall Down,” our heroes happen upon a family of trained Survivalists living along the coast. After getting chummy with them—and learning that half of the United States has been lost to the living dead already—they discover the horrifying and totally predictable truth: the Survivalists are crazy. Another glimmer of hope snuffed out. Our heroes, meanwhile, act like idiots, hang-wringing about morality and once again almost getting themselves killed.
I get that it isn’t fair to expect these characters to be well-adjusted to the zombie apocalypse; it’s just started for them. But for us, the viewers, all of this is old news: We’ve seen people debate right and wrong, we’ve seen people make stupid mistakes, we’ve seen people trust strangers and get betrayed. We’ve seen it all in the early seasons of The Walking Dead.
The point? As always, it’s that you have to be ruthless to survive. You can’t trust anybody. You can’t fumble around in the dark or walk around by yourself without getting munched on by hungry zombies. The Clark family is going to learn these lessons just as Rick Grimes did in The Walking Dead. How many seasons of thia do we have to endure until they’ve got it?
What’s exciting about a prequel to The Walking Dead is the chance to see something we haven’t seen before: the beginning. But what Fear the Walking Dead is showing us is something overly familiar. It’s showing us clichés. If it has any chance of claiming its own identity—or of becoming a truly great series—it needs to move past the obvious. It needs to surprise us.