Just think: If this show becomes a smash like TWD, there’ll inevitably be yet another spin-off set somewhere else. And then, before long, there’ll be “Walking Dead” franchise episodes airing every Sunday night of the year. Imagine grumble threads all year long. Has a lazy blogger looking for easy content ever had a better friend than AMC? (Answer: Yes. Donald Trump.)
I’m going to throw you a curve. Unlike everyone in my Twitter timeline this morning, I don’t have many grumbles about episode one. Yes, they were heavy-handed in pushing the show’s theme. (Say it with me: “Nature. Always. Wins.”) Yes, the characters were cliches and events unfurled slowly, reminiscent of the season in hell spent by TWD fans when that show bogged down on Hershel’s farm. Yes, there were plot oddities, like why Travis and Madison thought it’d be a good idea to investigate a den of junkies in the middle of the night in L.A. with no weapons. Bad signs all, but the prospect of watching the zombie apocalypse overrun a major city has me in a forgiving mood. My complaint all along about TWD is that it’s a show with an irresistible premise that too often seems to find that premise less interesting than mundane power dynamics within a small group of hicks. They have a global canvas and yet they insist on painting on one tiny corner of it in the woods outside Atlanta. Now here comes FTWD promising to refocus on the premise, the outbreak of a killer cannibal plague. Maybe the characters were flat last night because the writers had too much else to do in setting everything up; maybe they were flat because this is, after all, pulp and you don’t sweat subtle character development in a show about the dead eating the living; or, most optimistically, maybe they were flat because the real star of the show is L.A. and what’s happening to it, in which case the producers aren’t going to spend much time trying to get you attached to Travis or Madison or their junkie kid. If they won’t do a full-fledged anthology series with different characters each week, the next best thing is to give us a good show of the apocalypse itself and not worry too much about the soap opera. I thought they did a solid job of that, especially with the bit at the end of people watching the cops’ confrontation with a zombie on YouTube. (AMC put the footage of that scene on YouTube, as you’ll see below, just to add a little verite.) That had a ring of truth about how panic would build in the population despite endless official denials at first that anything weird was happening. Human moments are enough to keep a show like this running even if the actual humans are two-dimensional.
Even my one big knock on the plot isn’t so big when viewed that way. Namely, there was a strange incongruity in how much the public seemed to know about the zombie outbreak. At one point, if I’m not mistaken, someone mentions that there’s been a flu outbreak in five states; attendance at the high school has dropped, either because kids are home sick or because their jittery parents are keeping them home to quarantine them from their classmates. (If some kids are home because they actually have the flu, shouldn’t there already be some firsthand reports of zombification in the PTA? Shouldn’t the hospital where Nick was treated after being hit by that car already be overrun with patients?) Yet Travis, Madison, their daughter, the school principal, and pretty much everyone else in the cast except the pimply kid who brings the knife to school barely seem to notice, mostly just going about their day. How come? On the one hand, it’s suggested that only a niche of weirdos who are following rumors online of a zombie outbreak, like Pimples, know the full extent of the crisis. On the other hand, at the end of the episode the school bus is empty except for five students, suggesting that fears of an epidemic had already reached enough of the population in L.A. that a sizable number were holed up at home and awaiting the worst. That didn’t compute. Is there a mass panic or is it just a niche thing? And if this is something that the kids are more aware of than the adults because they’re more tuned into Internet rumor mills, why didn’t Madison’s daughter or her boyfriend seem to know anything? Likewise, how can it be in a city the size of L.A., where there are already zombies walking around, that reports of an outbreak are still the stuff of YouTube samizdats? Madison unknowingly sees a zombie shambling through a playground near the end of the episode, meaning they’re already walking the city’s streets attacking people. Nick’s now-zombified girlfriend, Gloria, presumably lurched out of the church after her meal and began accosting pedestrians the next morning. The suggestion, I guess, is that the police know what’s going on but are keeping reports of the zombie incidents to themselves so as not to panic the public, but there’d be enough of these things around very quickly in a city as big as L.A. that you couldn’t really do that. (Also, if the plague had already spread to five states before California, how could there not already be copious evidence in the news and online of zombification in the recently dead?) All of this confusion, though, is in service to the point that the first flashpoints of something like this would be terribly confusing, with the state attempting to cover up what’s happening, people responding to different levels of information with different degrees of panic, and most people trying to carry on as if nothing major is happening until they have no choice but to hunker down. The incongruity works, whether intentional or not.
Exit question: Where does this show go once they move, inevitably, into a full-fledged zombie apocalypse? Can it possibly avoid becoming The Walking Dead: Los Angeles? I think they’ll have no choice but to stick with the early stages of the outbreak for as long as possible. Once it’s just Travis and the family against a world of zombies, it’s Rick Grimes redux.