Making a spin-off TV series is never an easy process.
For every Frasier there’s a Joey. It’s always difficult to bottle the essence of what makes a particular show work, and sometimes, supplanting a particular character into a new setting isn’t all it takes to guarantee a hit.
It’s even more difficult if the character in question isn’t a single person, but rather, the inescapable march of a horde of emotionless, bloodthirsty zombies.
The premise behind Fear the Walking Dead is fairly sound – people like The Walking Dead, with its post-apocalyptic setting and its ragtag collection of colorful characters, so why not make another show that tells the story of a different group of survivors that are elsewhere in the world, fighting to survive against undead enemies?
After all, both the original Walking Dead comics, and the popular Walking Dead video game, have proven that there’s room for multiple stories in this world – AMC’s desire to capitalize on their first series by expanding the world makes sense.
The problem, though, is that a large part of the reason why the original recipe Walking Dead resonates with audiences is thanks to its characters. The walkers are hardly the draw here – any zombie story has plenty of those. The Walking Dead works because we care about Rick Grimes, about Carl, and Daryl, and the rest of the survivors. Heck, we even care about the show’s villains, if only to see them finally (hopefully) get the karmic punishment they deserve.
AMC seems to have really expected that fans of The Walking Dead would similarly, instantly latch onto the spin-off series, without any encouragement. That hasn’t universally proven the case, as a show without all the characters that makes The Walking Dead work has to stand on its own, with a unique enough group of heroes that it doesn’t just feel like a watered down version of the main show.
It’s been a rocky start for Fear the Walking Dead. The show’s taken longer to find its feet than anyone would really like. Many avid Walking Dead fans have found themselves less than pleased with the show’s offering, and have drifted away.
Without getting too deep into spoilers, though, the mid-season finale for Fear’s third season has managed to pay off for long-term viewers in a big way. Older characters that had disappeared from the show have returned suddenly, there have been plot twists, and warring factions have seen a dramatic shift in the balance of power.
This has prompted Uproxx to ask whether Fear is now as good as the main Walking Dead series, but a better question needs to be asked: is the spin-off show now finally getting to the point that audiences can care about it in its own right, without a connection to the original show?
We’re certainly heading in that direction. There’s finally a lot going on in The Walking Dead, and those who have stuck with it have found something special while waiting.
Thus far, though, this tumultuous mid-season finale is little more than the promise of genuinely good storytelling on the horizon. The show has finally developed its characters to the point that audiences are willing to invest in them, but whether this will lead to greater fan support of the show will depend on how the show continues when it returns from its hiatus.
The good news is that it is possible for an awkward spin-off show to start slow but gain momentum – and, crucially, a fan following – over time.
It’s hard not to compare the current state of Fear the Walking Dead with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., another show which introduces a group of new characters (save for a few tie-ins) that exist in an established popular world.
As with Fear, S.H.I.E.L.D. started with the mistaken belief that audiences would watch anything set in the show’s universe, by virtue of its reputation. The characters lacked depth and weren’t hugely relatable, and audiences responded with ambivalence.
Over the years, though, Marvel Television has fleshed out these characters to the point that audiences have grown attached to them, and in so doing, the show has gained its own unique identity, and found a niche storytelling method that works within the existing setting while feeling distinct enough to be engaging and interesting on its own merit.
All evidence points to the possibility that Fear the Walking Dead will eventually get to a similar point. It might not still have grabbed the attention of its audience as thoroughly as the vanilla Walking Dead, but it is, at least, on the right path.