It was just okay. And even then, we’re probably being a little kind.
Taken on its own – as in, without any comparisons to its antecedent show – we could see this as an interesting, slow-burn take on an impending disaster foregrounded by some fairly standard, if well-acted, family drama. No fireworks by any means, though. And without the brand name attached, we’re not sure this pilot would convince a lot of people to come back for episode two. If we were watching it blind, without preconceptions, we might have mustered a “Hunh. Not bad,” at most. And we doubt the following morning would be so awash in FTWD recaps and reviews.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to watch this show without preconceptions and it’s because of them that this pilot tends to suffer. We don’t particularly feel sorry for anyone involved if that seems unfair, because if you’re going to spin off the most popular show in television and just barely change the name so you can bank on the connection, then said connection has to become the central point around which all criticism is going to orbit. Especially since The Walking Dead’s pilot is considered either one of the best pilots in the last 5/10/15 years or one of the best pilots in the history of television. Even if you don’t buy that level of hyperbole, it’s generally considered a textbook case of a finely crafted pilot and many fans of the show would probably list it in the top 3 episodes of all time. We have to think the creators of FTWD were feeling the pressure to live up to that, but then we’re left wondering why they made so many of the choices they did.
To wit: We understand a slow burn approach but this hour came pretty close to no burn at times. Given the history of the franchise – not to mention the very genre of it – we’re totally confused as to why they’d make a standard family drama so central to the first episode. Forget whether it makes a good backdrop for telling this kind of story (jury’s still out on that one), it was all so damn stale. Bratty, fucked-up teenage son and perfect, but angry teenage daughter. Addiction issues, sibling rivalry and blended family drama, with a telegenic high school full of Benetton models as a backdrop; like something you’d see on ABC Family or an Afterschool Special. Additionally, practically every single scene went on just a bit longer than it needed to. The entire 90 minutes felt like a rough edit.
On the plus side, the performances are all good to excellent, even Frank Dillane as Nick, the least likeable and most annoying of the cast so far. Kim Dickens is the anchor here and even without much to do in this first episode except to spend most of it in denial, her even-keeled approach to mostly cliched material manages to imbue it with depths it probably wouldn’t have otherwise. And while the high school and hospital drama was not very interesting, any time the story remembered it was a disaster prequel, it got better. The growing sense of unease and horror that moves from the background to the foreground by the end of the episode was very well done. And if this was a series all about that slow build to horror, we think we’d be singing its praises as a subtle, if clumsy, character-focused take on the coming of the Apocalypse. Unfortunately, there’s no way that’s what this show is going to be.
The only way a slow, subtle build could take place on this show is if they drastically slowed down the timeline for each episode, perhaps in a one-episode=one-day format. But since the pilot spans several days, it doesn’t look like they’re going to do that. And that makes us wonder what the point of this show is going to be once the portrayal of the collapse takes place. Previews for the rest of the season indicate that things get pretty bad fairly quickly (which tracks with the pilot episode of TWD, which achieved total societal collapse in a month). But if that’s the case, what happens then? What will keep this show distinct from The Walking Dead? If it’s not a show depicting the origins of the zombie apocalypse (something TWD deliberately refrained from doing), then what is it a show about after the apocalypse comes? Is it just going to be The Walking Dead: West Coast Edition? Is the family drama aspect of it supposed to be the draw here? Because almost any time The Walking Dead tried to do family drama, the show became near-unbearable. Put it this way: we’re shocked, after years of Carl and Lori being the most hated characters on TWD, that the creators of its spinoff would decide to center it story around a mother and her asshole teenage son. It’s a good thing Kim Dickens can elevate the material, because we have serious misgivings about how it’s set up and where it’s going. Still, it’s only six episodes. We’re curious enough to see it through.
[Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC]