‘Fear the Walking Dead’ Review: Zombie Apocalypse Prequel is a Stealth Family Drama

The real fun of the AMC spinoff is seeing how the world reacts to the dawn of the undead

Prequels are a tricky business. Right off the bat, a great deal of the guesswork about how things will turn out has already been taken away from the viewer. But “Fear the Walking Dead” pulls off a great feat in prequel land: using that nagging sense of inevitability to its advantage. It shouldn’t work, but it totally does.

Of course, part of the fun comes in knowing what’s in store for the world of the series in general if not the characters in particular. Set during the fledgling moments of the zombie apocalypse that eventually led to “The Walking Dead,” this spin-off cleverly wraps some standard TV family dysfunction in a world just starting to crumble, with the key being that the audience is more aware of what’s going wrong than any of the characters is.

Showrunner Dave Erickson–who co-created this series with “The Walking Dead’s” Robert Kirkman–shifts the action to Los Angeles, far away from the Atlanta-to-D.C. corridor of the parent series, so it’s safe to assume you won’t be seeing any familiar faces for this run. Which also means that anyone you do meet is fair game for the fatality roster.

A pair of struggling married teachers (Cliff Curtis and Kim Dickens) are plenty busy raising her eye-rolling teenage daughter (Alycia Debnam-Carey) and trying to keep tabs on her junkie son (an eerily River Phoenix-ish Frank Dillane), while his ex-wife and son (Elizabeth Rodriguez and Lorenzo James Henrie) still vie for some attention. Domestically, we’re not breaking any new ground here. Curtis’ character is even introduced on his back under the kitchen sink trying to fix a leak without resorting to calling a plumber — hardly a fresh look at married life.

But with that whole rising tide of ravenous undead grabbing everyone’s attention, the familiarity of the main characters’ home strife is oddly comforting. And at least there isn’t enough time in the show to dwell on it. You get a sense of how this family’s life would progress if there weren’t a massive zombie outbreak happening around them. While you wouldn’t necessarily want to watch them if there weren’t such a calamity at foot, they’re more than adequate companions for viewers along the ride of society’s quick decline.

After five seasons of watching the “Walking Dead” cast stumble through urban, suburban and rural wastelands created in the wake of a previously unforeseen zombie apocalypse, it is a genuine treat to see how that disaster was greeted by the world as we know it and to see the transition that occurs in characters from unwitting to survivalist when faced with very terrifying adversity. Let’s see where this thing goes.