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.

Maggie (2015)

So, here’s another of those film’s that been on my watch-list ever since the trailer dropped. I finally traced down a copy from the library and sat myself down with it this afternoon. Going in, I had high hopes – I’d read a lot of positive reviews for Maggie, and the production stills I’d seen had an interesting, almost southern-gothic feel to them.

Then I actually watched the damn thing, and….

Yeah. It didn’t really work for me. Part of this comes from my inability to take Arnold Schwarzenegger seriously in a drama, and his massive presence in a film that’s trying so desperately to be small. Though fairly standard as far as zombie flicks go, Maggie never really describes what caused this particular apocalypse, opting instead to focus on the story of the Vogel family after their oldest daughter is infected. Through a longstanding friendship with the quarantine doctor, the titular Maggie is allowed to return home to die among her family. It’s a decent premise, and would have worked with a different cast, and a more realistic portrayal of rural life. For a film set primarily on a farm, Maggie doesn’t seem to understand how these things are operated, how farmers live, and what their homes look like. There were several scenes that had me convinced I was watching a period picture, instead of something set in the present. Maggie’s set design reminded me strongly of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, only with a few cellphones thrown in for good measure. It’s a remarkably dreary film, even considering the subject matter, and never quite strikes the right emotional cord to really say anything of meaning. Certainly the characters have interesting things to say, and the metaphor of zombies and real life infectious disease hasn’t lost any of it’s power, but rather that Maggie has an eight-year-old sprouting philosophical one-liners about morality and dying on your own terms. I can only suspend my disbelief for so long.

Granted, this is my personal opinion. A lot of people love this movie. Certainly it had its moments – the conversation between Wade and his neighbor in the woods was haunting and tense in just the right ways – but the production as a whole missed the mark.

 

Re Kill (2015)

Your standard found footage zombie film with one intriguing twist. Most zombie stories fall into the post-apocalyptic category of things, but Re Kill bases its premise on a deceptively simple question: what if society didn’t end when the zombie virus came and conquered? And from there, the story blossoms. Sure, the zombies came and sure they wiped out 80% of the population, but life goes on – looking disturbingly similar to the way it did before calamity struck. Commercials clog the airways, selling sex, luxury homes, and anti-zombie pills that probably don’t work.

Life goes on. That might be the scariest part.

Re Kill follows a reality TV show around, centered on a team of zombie killers as they go about their business. It’s Cops with the nasty habit of showing headshots and police brutality in perfect detail, while still pausing to blur out the occasional nakedness. Reality TV has standards, after all. Re Kill is following in the grand tradition of several horror films that touched on similar themes, including Series 7: The Contenders, Battle Royale, and more recently, The Hunger Games society. However, Re Kill seems more interested in developing the world that its story inhabits rather than the characters that ought to be driving the plot. All we’re given is snippets of backstory, prepped for TV and devoid of anything real. We don’t learn enough about these people to really care one way or another when they die – and most of them do, in the end. Re Kill isn’t interested in creating deep characterization or even much in the way of character development.

All that being said, it doesn’t really need to. The conversation that Re Kill wants to have is established by the world that the characters inhabit, rather than the people themselves. In many ways, it’s about the collective instead of individuals. The characters themselves don’t matter except in how they are representative of other people; for instance, it’s important that Louis is a member of R-team, and that he joined in order to get a green card, but his internal thoughts and character arc are – perhaps conspicuously – absent from the narrative. I wouldn’t say that Re Kill is a perfect film, but it accomplishes what it set out to do. Come for the social commentary, but don’t expect to form an emotional connection with anyone who appears on screen.

Extinction (2015)

Extinction has a lot of ideas packed into what should have been a very small story. At times it wanted to be a zombie flick, then an “after the end” type story about an unconventional family, then it slipped into a monster flick, and then into a more traditional coming of age story. Unfortunately it tries hard to be all of these things at once and as such, fails to give each aspect its proper due. The family storylines never come to their logical head, and the eventual resolution of the plot rings hollow after so much setup for so little payoff.

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A lot of the character development didn’t make sense or wasn’t explored fully enough. For instance, one of the characters might be going mad from isolation and alcoholism, despite living in close proximity to other people, and suddenly seems to just…get over it one night. The young girl felt much older than what she was portrayed as, and her voice never quite found a solid tone to settle on. Her coming of age subplot didn’t have much of a conclusion. Sure, she gives up one of her dolls (symbol of childhood) in order to defeat a monster, but what happens after that? Extinction has a few lines about what it means to be human – mainly, not hiding in a house for your whole life – but doesn’t give its characters a clear direction to go in. The increasingly fractured family dynamics makes you root for them, but once those threads are resolved, there isn’t much to keep the audience invested.

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The monsters look decent, despite some moments of truly conspicuous CGI, but Extinction never explained how the shift from traditional zombies to the final product happened. The genre rules established in the film’s opening scenes suddenly don’t apply later on. While this makes for some interesting tension as the audience watches the characters scramble to adapt to the change, it comes a bit too late to be effective.

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I got the feeling that with its many ideas and mostly internal character development, Extinction would have been better served in novel format than a feature film. This one has too many ideas crammed into its two hours, and doesn’t manage to bring any of its questions to satisfactory answers. There are good moments, but the project as a whole is disjointed and confusing.

Fear The Walking Dead S1E3: The Dog

 The dog in question dies, if you were interested.

Fear The Walking Dead’s third episode is not giving me much hope for the rest of the season. The quality of episodes has been going steadily down since the pilot instead of improving as I’d hoped. Episode Three features some of the most inconsistent pacing and narrative that I’ve ever seen in a TV show, especially one with Fear’s budget. The story limps from one point to another without maintaining consistent tension, and several characters have already displayed attitudes that contradict their actions in previous episodes. I’m still hoping that these are early-episode stumbles and that Fear will eventually straighten itself up. The alternative is dealing with two full seasons of…this. It’s disappointing.

Still, Fear did have its moments this episode. We got to learn a bit more about the Salazar family, who introduced some interesting new character dynamics as well as establishing who’s most likely to survive the zombie apocalypse in one piece. (Spoiler: it’s the dude with the gun that is actually willing to use it). The clear generational divide in the Salazar family, as well as the tension between the American-born Ofelia and her refugee parents, added some realistic tension to a story that clearly needs a dose of it. Reality, that is.

See, another problem that Fear has had is that it’s trying to build a world that doesn’t know about zombies – a world that has no notion of even the fictional version. No myths of corpses rising from the grave to stalk the living, no 80s grindhouse films to laugh at over popcorn. Thus, what the characters face is completely alien to them. They have no way of comprehending or compartmentalizing what is happening to them, because it has no basis in their reality – or even their fiction.

The problem is, the audience already knows all the rules of the zombie genre. Watching characters play catch-up is annoying, and Fear has unfortunately been doing that for three episodes straight. Furthermore, it doesn’t establish what this world has in place of zombie stories – what myths do these people have about death? It’s clearly not the same as our world. Do they have ghosts and killer diseases inside their science fiction? How will that help the characters come to terms with the events going on around them?

So far, the world of Fear hasn’t proven itself to be especially well thought-out. Perceptions of police brutality spark a protest, but the resulting riot seems to be included for the sake of filming chaotic crowd scenes – without really considering that it was started by desperate people trapped with zombies in a situation that was both started by the police and made incredibly worse by the actions they took. If Fear is going to depict these sorts of events, then the writers need to really understand what they’re saying and how. You know who starts riots for funsies? White people. You know who starts riots because they’re legitimately angry, frustrated, and have been rebuffed by the system that’s supposed to protect them? Activists. That’s a very important distinction that Fear seems to have overlooked.

At this point, I can’t honestly recommend continuing with this show to anyone else. On an artistic level, the storytelling just isn’t up to par. It’s lazy, contradicts itself, and doesn’t maintain a consistent level of tension. The visuals are great, but it’s not enough to stick with a show just because it’s pretty. I’m liking the acting so far, but the script is making me groan.

Personally, I’m going to be sticking with Fear at least until the end of the first season because it’s talking about things I find interesting, even if I don’t agree with the show’s perspective on them. But I’m not going to make anyone else do it if they’re not sold already. Maybe things will get better. Most shows establish themselves in the first three episodes. Some nail it in the pilot. And some take a little bit longer. (The 100, for example). Fear is touching on some important and very relevant issues, including racism, class divisions, activism, and the consequences of relying on what’s becoming a police state in-story. I’ll be watching to see what Fear has to say.

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.