Fear The Walking Dead: storytelling, moral relavivity, and the millennial voice

I’m going to try something a little different today. This isn’t a review in the strictest sense but rather a collection of thoughts and impressions I’ve had while watching the second season of Fear the Walking Dead.

First off, the second season is off to a strong start. The move to a boat gives the show a fresh take on the zombie apocalypse that it desperately needed, and a whole new set of conditions and rules for both the characters and the audience to learn. Fear has finally found that spacial and tonal shift to set it apart from its sister show – a struggle that unfortunately bogged the first season down. That, and underwater zombies are a whole new brand of terrifying. Kudos, as always, to the special effects department. The dialog has been subdued but the acting excellent, with special mention going to Alycia Debnam Carey and Lorenzo James Henrie. It’s been interesting to watch the characters coming into their own as the apocalypse rages on, and here we come to my observations.

While I’m disappointed that some of my earlier focal points have fallen by the wayside – Fear is no longer interested in exploring the importance of digital record keeping and interpretation (remember the cell phone scene in the pilot?) – the show has picked up on a few themes that ought to be watched. First, the importance of memory and record keeping hasn’t been banished entirely – there’s an entire subplot about whether or not a voice over the radio is telling the truth, and whether or not a salvaged logbook can be trusted – but has shifted to the non-digital. Disappointing to me, but worth paying attention to. Especially since in both of these cases, it’s been the teenagers of the group who have insisted upon seeking out and interpreting the narratives – both the logbook and the voice on the other end of the radio. At the moment, my two favorite characters are step-siblings Alicia and Chris, since both of them seem to understand – at least in a vague sense – the importance of narrative memory. In the first season, both of them were very interested in recording what was happening to them – Alicia with her home-applied tattoo and Chris with his video camera. For a short time he even kept a video diary, though Fear has apparently decided this plot line has been sufficiently resolved.

Another character I’m interested in is Elizabeth Rodriguez‘s Liza. She too has been very concerned with the power of narrative – the shattering of the story she told herself about her parents, and in particular her father, is central to her character development – and I’m very interested to see where Fear intends to take her story. That being said, her character has been out of focus in the past few episodes and hasn’t been given much to do. I’m hoping this will change as the episode progresses and we will be able to see how Liza goes about reforming her narratives about the changing world. We’ve already seen that the stories Liza tells herself – whether true or not – have been essential in forming her worldview. So how will she move forward now that the world – and perhaps more importantly, her perceptions of her only surviving family – have changed so drastically.

And thus we come to my second focus point: generational views of morality. With very little exception, it has been the younger people of the group – Alicia, Chris, Liza, and Nick – who have advocated helping others instead of looking out solely for their own interests. It was Chris who jumped into burning water to try and rescue survivors from a shipwreck and who later tried to comfort a dying man on the beach, it was Liza who needed so desperately to hear another voice on the other end of the radio, Nick who played with the children of a troubled survivor, and the whole group of them that advocated taking on the passengers of a sinking boat. All of them, to a fault, have attempted to demonstrate compassion and kindness to complete strangers – attempts that their parents ultimately discourage and dismiss. And all of them are millennials.

I think this is important, especially concerning the current discourse in the media. If you believe the stereotypes, millennials are lazy and entitled, caring only for themselves and living almost completely internally – glued to their phones and unconcerned with the increasingly fraught going-ons of the outside world. Certainly there’s a great deal that can be said about this, but I’ll keep it simple here. For this post, it’s important only that the stereotypes of self-absorbed millennials exist and are widely accepted, and that the teenagers of Fear are so determined to bulldoze through those stereotypes. Even more, these teenagers also embody other characteristics that are generally coded as “selfish” – the drug addict, the teenage girl, the frustrated step-son. But in Fear, it’s these teenagers who are kind – who look out for strangers instead of just themselves, even when it could potentially hurt them. These are the characters who attempt to save strangers, even at risk to their own lives. And here it’s the teenagers – the millennials – who are concerned with the importance of narrative and storytelling. And I think the two are connected.

See, our ideas about morality are intrinsically connected to how we construct our narratives of memory and self. Human beings use stories to figure out what we believe is right and wrong, and how we work through the tricky things caught in the middle. And stories are how we ultimately make sense of our memories – which then is cataloged and sorted according to our own internal moral compass.

In Fear, it’s the teenagers – the millennials – who are constructing these stories. Who are attempting to be kind instead of just survive. It’s these characters who are the voice of moral reason on the show. And in a society that seems keen to distrust the voices of this generation, I think that matters. Fear has stumbled in places and is still in the process of finding its footing, but I think this show has something. I’ll be tuned in. I suggest you do the same.

12 Days of Terror (2004)

A shark terrorized a New Jersey shoreline for twelve days during the summer of 1916. These events eventually led Peter Benchley to write the novel that would, in time, inspire the first summer blockbuster – Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), and one of my all time favorite horror films. Standing up against the strange but inescapable truth of the historical record and the cult following of Jaws – loyal to this day – it would seem that 12 Days of Terror would be swamped by its competition. Especially for a made-for-TV movie, with the subsequent budget, actors, and special effects one can come to expect from such a project. And yet, despite all its competition, 12 Days of Terror puts forth a solid effort. The acting is a bit too melodramatic for my tastes, but the costumes are wonderful, the writing acceptable, and this movie really does work as a period piece. It’s clear that a great deal of research went into making this movie feel like it takes place in 1916. On that note, I cannot praise 12 Days of Terror enough. It manages to include a great deal of world-building and subtext in small but effective ways – a feat that many large budget films with similar topics simply fail to address in the first place.

Whether intentional or not, the cinematography and set design work as a homage to Spielberg’s earlier work – 12 Days of Terror and Jaws share a similar aesthetic and composition style. In other films it might come off as copying, but 12 Days of Terror makes the comparison feel like genuine tribute – attempting to expand the legend and feel of Jaws without creating an entirely new world.

On the other end of things, the acting in 12 Days of Terror isn’t great, the characters don’t have much in the way of story arcs, and what were likely intended as perfectly reasonable lines become soap-opera like clichés in the delivery. It’s not a great movie, but 12 Days of Terror packs a heavy bunch for a film created solely for TV. The costumes are great, the set design is some of the best I’ve seen, and the plot isn’t half bad. It’s no Jaws, but it’s a fun ride nonetheless.

Whitechapel (2009—2013)

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So, let’s talk about Whitechapel. I discovered it, as I tend to discover a lot of things, by picking up the first season randomly at the library. It concerns a group of detectives working in Whitechapel, London, and the various crimes they encounter. The first season is focused on a Jack the Ripper copycat, and the other three divide their time between various other cases – some with historical basis, and some that are just plain weird. The show goes a whole lot darker than what you’d expect from a police procedural, and earns its place in the horror genre. Sure, Whitechapel has its fair share of errors in addition to its great strengths, but I’m not giving a review today.

Well, not exactly. I want to talk about a single aspect of the show, one that I found interesting.

See, the first three seasons of Whitechapel are pretty much what you’d expect from a cop show, even one dipping its toes into the horror side of things. Horrible things are done, and horrible people are – eventually – brought to justice for them. Par for the course. But the fourth season jumps in with a completely different question. As the various crimes and misdeeds keep piling up, each of them somehow worse than the last, the characters start to ask themselves why all these things are happening in Whitechapel. Why do they have so many violent crimes and serial killers? And who is this woman who seems to be showing up in the periphery of every crime they’re investigating?

Pretty standard stuff for a crime show, right?

Now look at the trailer for the fourth season.

Folks, what we have here is a TV show trying a genre shift from your standard serial killer horror to supernatural horror. Even stranger, we have a TV show that actually pulls off a genre shift mid-story, without violating any of the history, rules, or logic it had previously established.

Now, TV shows have been playing around with genre for years. Remember the musical episode of Buffy? But there’s a small difference here. In the case of Buffy, the musical only lasted for a single episode and was explicitly caused by things already existing in the diagetic universe. Thus, it didn’t really change the nature of the show. It was played as a weird event in-universe, and – more importantly – not a recurring theme that would actually rearrange all of the rules and established history of the show that the audience had already accepted. The equivalent of the Buffy musical episode in a feature film might be a strange event that took about ten minutes of screen time and was eventually explained as being caused by drugs or something similar.

This is not what Whitechapel is doing with its fourth season. No, Whitechapel is threading in the possibility that supernatural forces and events are at work within the already dark world that the characters inhabit. Whitechapel goes a step further than that and also implies that the supernatural elements were present the entire time – the characters just didn’t know what clues to pick up on.

Strangely enough, this actually works. The fear and paranoia that the characters experience is matched by some strange camera effects that have always been at play in Whitechapel – but in the fourth season, suddenly seem very appropriate. Without spoiling anything, the supernatural elements are weaved into the storyline so expertly that the audience got to experience the same thing the characters did: struggling to understand a world where the rules suddenly and inexplicably change. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV show do something like this, adding in – or just revealing – elements of a completely different genre than the one presented in the initial storyline.

Even more interesting, in my opinion, is that Whitechapel didn’t change genres, per say: it switched subgenres of horror. Just think about that for a moment. This is a TV show that understood its own tropes so well that it could shift between to seemingly incompatible worlds of fiction (fantasy vs. realistic) in a way that didn’t throw the audience off.

That being said, there were fans of the show that didn’t like the direction that the fourth season took. The term jumping the shark was used. It’s also worth saying that Whitechapel was not renewed for a fifth season.

Still, that doesn’t detract from what the series attempted and – in my opinion – expertly pulled off. There is no exact equivalent to this sort of shift in film, for the simple reason that TV and movies just don’t work in quite the same way. I don’t think a film could pull off a shift like this so late in the story, so to speak. TV shows work on their own timeline, with each season working as an overarching story with individual chapters within it. Thus, there are chances for different seasons to go in radically different directions than the ones that came before or after. Another example of this would be Helix, though that show worked on a slightly different scale, timeline-wise, and I’d argue it wasn’t nearly as well executed.

This isn’t a review of Whitechapel as a whole, and I’m not going into the details of the storyline beyond this one feature. I enjoyed the show, thought it was well shot, and had some of the most sympathetic and interesting portrayals of a character with significant OCD in recent memory. It also took three seasons to add a woman to the main cast and never got around to casting any people of color in reoccurring roles. Whitechapel had its issues, sure. It also had some great cinematic and storytelling moments.

It also had this shift in tone and (sub)genre at the very end that I thought should be highlighted. I thought people should know about it.

Fear The Walking Dead Season 1 Episode 1 (2015)

I don’t know whether or not I’ll be reviewing the entire season of Fear The Walking Dead, but I figured I’d give my initial impressions after watching the pilot.

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Full disclosure, I was against watching this show ever since the title was announced. In general, I’m not a huge fan of spinoffs and have mixed feelings about The Walking Dead in general. Plus, the title had an amateurish feel about it, which didn’t bode well. Still, I figured I’d take a look at the pilot for Fear just to see what it was all about.

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Final verdict?

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I’m curious.

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Fear is not The Walking Dead. And you know what? That’s a good thing. It’s not trying to copy the original, which shoved its characters into the apocalypse full tilt and made drama out of their floundering attempts to adapt to a changed world. The world of The Walking Dead is fast and brutal. The danger is clear, and it’s the humans rather than the zombies that add the most clever and cruel instances of violence. There are advantages to throwing your characters into a setting without warning – the shock makes for excellent character development, which The Walking Dead certainly had.

Alycia Debnam Carey as Alicia - Fear the Walking Dead _ Season 1, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Justin Lubin/AMC
Alycia Debnam Carey as Alicia – Fear the Walking Dead _ Season 1, Episode 1 – Photo Credit: Justin Lubin/AMC

Fear has more of a slow burning paranoia vibe. How that’s going to play out for the rest of the season remains to be seen, but I thought it was a good choice for the pilot. It’s a delicate balance between what the audience knows and what the characters do, but it worked much better than I expected it to. That being said, I haven’t been keeping up with The Walking Dead, so that might change my estimation somewhat. Still, I expected to find myself frustrated while waiting for the characters to play catch-up to the plot, but Fear paced itself in a sparing, thoughtful way. Again, it remains to be seen how this will work out for the rest of the season, but the pilot has me hopeful. I’d even say that Fear has a better pilot than The Walking Dead, which struggled a bit at the beginning to get its tone down.

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The plot starts a little before The Walking Dead, when the zombie apocalypse is just beginning. The story follows a family whose heroin-addicted son may or may not have encountered one of the first zombies – or he might have just had a really bad trip. That uncertainty, along with a rash of unexplained illnesses and weird happenings, fuels an underlying sense of paranoia throughout the episode. I especially liked how technology was used to spread information, but not necessary to provide definitive answers. The scene where two characters were trying to interpret a YouTube video of a zombie attack is one of my favorites. I’m hoping that Fear will continue to utilize social media and popular society to tell its stories, since this is something that The Walking Dead no longer has access to.

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So far the characters have been written well, with small, human problems and realistic friendships. The portrayal of addiction has been good so far, and I’m interested to see where Fear intends to take that character once the apocalypse really kicks off. Hopefully it will be handled well. We’ll see.

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One thing that worries me a bit is that of the four named characters that have died so far, two of them have been black. Given The Walking Dead’s shaky track record with its characters of color, this doesn’t give me a lot of confidence that Fear is going to do much better. Still, it has cast Cliff Curtis as one of the main POV characters. I suppose it remains to be seen. Furthermore, there hasn’t been a lot of economic diversity shown in the various characters – all of them have been clearly middle to upper-middle class, and no queer characters have been introduced. Obviously this could change in later episodes, but it’s important to note how the characters are presented in the setup.

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Normally, I like to give shows at least three episodes to hit their stride before deciding whether or not I’ll continue watching them. Perfect pilots don’t really exist – there are always kinks to work out. Still, Fear introduced some good characters, had a consistent vibe of paranoia throughout, and the change of scenery from the Deep South to California worked better than I expected it to. I was hesitant about creating a shared universe with the Walking Dead, but so far, Fear appears to be standing on its own – complimenting its sister show rather than competing with it. I’m curious about how this shared universe will play out in future seasons – will it have crossovers like Arrow and The Flash do? How will the online Walking Dead mini series play into this? The videogames?

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A lot remains to be seen. Still, I’m curious. This has been a good start, and has the potential to become really interesting as the story progresses. Let’s hope it continues on like that. I’ll be tuning in next week.