'Fear the Walking Dead': Artful Suspense, Not Bloody Horror

Fear the Walking Dead is very much not The Walking Dead. The new show, which premieres on Aug. 23 on AMC, is its own creature, trembling with anxiety and dread. If The Walking Dead is a horror story, Fear the Walking Dead is a mood piece, more artful than the original series.

Taking place within the same universe as The Walking Dead but set in an earlier time, Fear, created by Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson, wants to show us what this world was like before good ol’ Sheriff Rick Grimes and his Southern posse started shootin’, stabbin’, and decapitatin’ zombies.

Fear is about family. Kim Dickens plays Madison, a Los Angeles school guidance counselor and single mom of two teenagers; she has a live-in boyfriend, English teacher Travis (Cliff Curtis), who has a teen son from a previous marriage. The kids are troubled in ways both typical and unusual for adolescence. Madison’s son Nick, for instance, is drug-addicted — he’s played with marvelous subtlety by Frank Dillane.

The show spends time letting us get to know these and other characters, taking care to build some interest and allegiance to them. But even as it does so, an eeriness creeps into the opening episode right from the start — the drama equivalent of a poison-gas leak. As written by Kirkman and Erickson and directed by Adam Davidson, the pilot lets what we assume is impending zombie-hood seep into the corners of the show.

A student shows up at Madison’s office with a face that seems to have scars or sores; rumors of an outbreak of some sort abound. There’s a great moment in the second episode when the police, whom we know are trying to subdue a deadly new kind of creature, is interpreted by a crowd of citizens as a case of police brutality — it’s a gesture of ironic timeliness that The Walking Dead never tried for.

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The tenor of Fear the Walking Dead is one of disquiet: Something is going on, and no one really knows what, let alone how it fully manifests itself. Indeed, if we’d never seen The Walking Dead, we’d have little idea what’s up, but that very confusion is something Fear uses as an artistic tool. The first two episodes are beautifully directed by Davidson with serene tension — quietness and confusion are the elements that help create the fear in the show’s title. Fear the Walking Dead has more in common with the supernatural series The Returned — the original French version, not the more awkward American adaptation — than with The Walking Dead.

This isn’t a blood-and-guts fright-show — at least, not in its earliest stages. I suppose there’s a potential problem here: We as an audience know something the characters in Fear do not — we know zombies are a-coming. The challenge for Fear’s makers is to hold the interest of viewers who’ll say, “Come on, come on — let’s get to the zombie killing!”

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I’m hoping Fear can hold that audience, because it’s off to a very good start. Dickens and Curtis and the actors playing their kids (Dillane, Alycia Debnam-Carey, and Lorenzo James Henric) are terrific. I was drawn in by the show’s depiction of Nick’s addiction, the way he hides what he needs to use to get high in a copy of the Sherwood Anderson novel Winesburg, Ohio. I loved the way the new show uses the setting of Los Angeles in an original way, opting not to use familiar Hollywood landmarks, but rather the working-class or just-off-the-freeway areas of the city that have a gritty but scrubbed look, a kind of rough innocence just waiting for the show to despoil.

FTWD has art on its addled mind, and is all the better for it.

Fear the Walking Dead premieres Aug. 23 at 9 p.m. on AMC.