Much like in the movie industry, it's a given that if a TV series becomes a massive hit, the show's network will do everything it can to turn it into a franchise and keep those audiences coming back for years.
So it's not a surprise that after The Walking Dead turned into a full-blown TV phenomenon (its most recent season averaged 14.4 million viewers, including an astounding 9.4 million adults 18-49), AMC figured out a way to manufacture a spinoff show: Fear the Walking Dead, premiering Sunday night at 9 p.m.
But what is astonishing, however, is how good that companion series is. Much like AMC's sensational Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul, Fear the Walking Dead is a worthy successor. It's the atypical spinoff that preserves and deepens the tone of its original show without seeming like just a money grab.
In its first two episodes, which Adweek screened in advance, Fear the Walking Dead is far more confident and assured than its predecessor was in its early going. (Like the original Walking Dead, Fear's first season will only be six episodes, but AMC has already renewed it for a 15-episode Season 2, airing next year.) It immediately erases any doubts about its raison d'être, making a clear, compelling case for its existence alongside the original series.
Here are five reasons that you should tune in to Fear the Walking Dead on Sunday:
1) It's not just a Walking Dead retread.
The truth is that AMC could have concocted a second Walking Dead series by cobbling together a few outtakes and blowing up a few fresh zombies, and it still would have attracted a bigger audience than any other non-Walking Dead series on its network. But instead, the network has loftier ambitions than just The Walking Dead: Los Angeles (which is the locale of this series), or another group of generic survivors just trying to keep afloat in a post-apocalyptic world.
The show (which, like the original, is executive produced by Walking Dead comic book creator Robert Kirkman) looks to tell a completely different story than Walking Dead. Fear focuses on what happens during the early stages of the zombie outbreak, as society tries to cope with this horrific turn of events before breaking down (remember, the original opened as Rick Grimes awoke from a months-long coma, after all of this happened).
Much of these events unfold through the eyes of high school guidance counselor Madison (Kim Dickens) and her boyfriend/co-worker, an English teacher named Travis (Cliff Curtis).
Because of Walking Dead's post-apocalyptic setting, it's always been easy to keep the characters (both living and the undead) at arm's length, as the action is not really taking place in "our" world. But Fear erases that remove, instead forcing us to confront this unfathomable horror that is literally in our backyard, and everywhere else. It turns the whole Walking Dead narrative on its head and makes the story instantly fresh, and even more ghastly.
2) The characters are most important.
It's easy to forget this after several seasons of triage, but The Walking Dead was a complete mess in the early going. The story may have been compelling from the jump, but it took years to warm up to the likes of Daryl, Carol, Glenn and even Rick, who were caricatures long before they became characters.
Fear clearly learned from its predecessor's mistakes, because early on it puts in the character work that the original did not. This time around, we get to know this group as "real" people before all hell breaks loose, which gives us an investment in their survival that we never had with the original. Kim Dickens in particular makes an excellent case for why we should care about her and her family, including her drug addict son whose gruesome discovery sets much of the series in motion.
After five seasons of Walking Dead, many of the rules of dealing with zombies are second nature to audiences, but as Dickens and the others slowly begin to realize exactly what they are dealing with, their performances are breathing new life into the genre.
3) It does more in two episodes than The Strain did in two seasons.
Of the Walking Dead wannabes that popped up in the show's wake, FX's The Strain had come the closest to creating another enthralling vision of a world under siege by a similarly nightmarish virus. Until now, that is: Fear exposes Strain for the pretender that it is.
One of the most maddening, and damning, parts of The Strain is how slowly it's taken for the vampire virus, and news of the plague, to spread through New York City and the world, and how few New Yorkers seem to be affected by what is going on throughout their city. But Fear the Walking Dead credibly creates a world in which such an outbreak can happen, and the confusion, fear and panic that erupts in the wake of the first confusing attacks.
People are riveted by viral footage of a zombified man overpowering a medic, who is later shot multiple times yet keeps on advancing. They wonder if it's real or not—how could it be? And the public's misinterpretation of what is going on, and how police are responding to it, ends up escalating the crisis, in captivating fashion, as panic and frustration builds.
The Strain has had almost two seasons to plausibly set these events in motion and has stumbled at every turn; Fear the Walking Dead nails it in the first two episodes.
4) It reinvigorates the original show.
In addition to spectacularly standing on its own, one of the joys of Better Call Saul has been its ability to add wondrous new layers to the characters of Saul Goodman and Mike Ehrmantraut, characters we had already gotten to know and love (and/or hate) during Breaking Bad. But knowing so much more about them now retroactively deepens our love of Breaking Bad, and makes those shows even richer and more rewarding, given all that we now know about those characters.
In a similar way, Fear the Walking Dead also serves to reinvigorate and amplify our love for the original Walking Dead because we're finally getting a glimpse of what that show's characters had to endure in the early going to get where they are today. And while Carl, Maggie and company had different experiences than the Fear crew, they still have their own stories of who they were, and what they became. Thanks to Fear the Walking Dead, we're able to appreciate and be awed by that for the very first time.
5) It takes its time.
And no, that doesn't mean that Fear the Walking Dead is slow. But the show is very deliberately building this world before it tears it all about, and if that means that we won't see too many zombies at the outset, so be it.
While zombies may be scarce in these early episodes, less is most definitely more, as viewers are already well-versed in just how dangerous they can be—information that none of Fear's characters currently possess—making every appearance fraught with almost unbearable tension and menace. Is this going to be the moment where everything goes to hell? It's a brave, and smart, show of restraint.
The second episode is even better than the 90-minute premiere, as the show finishes building up its world and the characters start to realize the grave predicament they are in. As the show gains momentum, it promises a series that will get even better as its characters realize exactly what is going on.
For movies, mid- to late-August is seen as a dumping ground for projects that studios have little faith in. But not so on television, as one of the strongest summers in memory (the debuts of Unreal, Mr. Robot and Catastrophe, for starters) saves one of its best new shows for last.