It's all so ordinary.

Photographer: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Fear the Ordinary Zombies

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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Two episodes into the limited run of AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead,” I can safely say that in at least one respect it’s already surpassed the original: It’s creepier. The spinoff from AMC’s smash hit “The Walking Dead” amassed record ratings for its debut, but holding its audience may not be easy. Critical response has been decidedly mixed. On Twitter, viewers have derided the show as slow and soap-opera-ish. But fans of the original should give the spinoff a chance, because creator Robert Kirkman and his team are on to something important.

If post-apocalyptic tales serve as catharsis for young people who believe the future to be grim, FTWD offers us characters who experience rather than remember the collapse of civilization. Most stories from the genre begin just where the name suggests -- after the apocalypse has occurred. If we glimpse the disaster at all, it’s either through flashbacks or in a world where things fall apart with ridiculous speed, the quicker to get to the undead hordes. (Think the film version of “World War Z.”)

But there must have been a moment when not everybody saw the crisis coming. This happens all the time in the standard disaster movie (think “The Day After Tomorrow”). With zombies -- not so much. One always wonders what’s going on in the White House as the zombies take over. Is the president aboard the airborne command post? What happens when the plane lands?

FTWD doesn’t give us the answer, but shows us instead the desperate trust of ordinary people that the powers-that-be will find a way to fix things. Events don’t spin out of control. Events slip gradually away, with few thinking anything is amiss.

The ordinariness of life, even as true horror is going on a block or two away, strikes at something far more visceral than -- sigh! -- yet another wave of enemies, alive or dead, whom Rick Grimes and his trusty band will successfully fight off. Unlike TWD, FTWD isn’t set in an imaginary world that engages us without threatening us. It’s set in the world of the familiar. It could be next door.

Your neighbor invites you to her child’s party. Do you tell her that you’ve just found out the dead are walking? Answer: No. But later that night, when your neighbor is attacked on her front lawn, our heroine Maddie Clark bars the door to keep her daughter from attempting a rescue. Survivors are those whose selfish genes work overtime.

There’s a nice visual toward the end of the second episode when Travis Manawa, a high school teacher, spots a police officer not rushing to yet another emergency as his colleagues are doing, but packing the trunk of his cruiser full of water jugs. The guilty look on the cop’s face when he senses Travis’s scrutiny tells us that he knows everything is about to collapse, and he’s heading out of town.

A somewhat contrived scene meant to play uneasily upon our political sensibilities offers a group of police officers surrounded by a jeering crowd, protesting what they believe to be the murder of an unarmed man. Yes, he was unarmed, but we viewers know he’s not a man. He’s a zombie. The scene shouldn’t work, but it does. When a second zombie staggers out of the crowd, a female officer shoots her twice. The first bullet, in her torso, does nothing. The second, in her head, kills her. Now the police have shot two unarmed civilians -- but we viewers know what’s going on.

FTWD hits some false notes. The musical crescendos have a Grade-B quality. As befits a show set in Los Angeles, the cast is diverse, but two weeks in, all three black characters who’ve had actual lines are dead. Talk about the horror movie cliche. (OK, so the cliche may not be true. But you know what I mean.)

Some scenes are implausible even within the imaginary world the series depicts. For example, in the second episode, Maddie -- who by this time has already seen the dead get up and walk -- sees a friend shambling toward her, head canted to the side, blood everywhere, drooling and growling as he approaches. Does she flee in panic? No. She stands her ground, stretching out her arms and murmuring, “We can help you.”

Really?

On the other hand, the show nicely reverses the usual teenagers-and-grown-ups horror trope. This time it’s the parents who have to convince the kids that there are actual monsters out there, not the other way around. (True, the kids in question, Alicia and Chris, seem unusually thickheaded.) It’s too bad, though, that we’ve likely seen the end of the most interesting character, teenaged outcast Tobias, the show’s one-man Greek chorus, who’s full of wise saws and strange instances.

Last week, Maddie, in her pre-apocalypse role as high school guidance counselor, confiscated the knife Tobias insisted he needed for protection against what was going to happen. This week, as the two of them gather (well, steal) provisions from the local high school, he tells her the order of the looting to come: first the pharmacies, then the gun shops, finally the liquor store. After they kill a zombie together, Maddie, with an odd casualness, drops him off at his home, but first offers to let him stay with her family until the crisis ends.

“This doesn’t end,” says Tobias, and goes in.

Come back, Tobias! We need you!

Here’s why I have high hopes for FTWD. Forty years ago, Jacques Derrida observed that when monsters become familiar to us they’re no longer monsters. He was referring to modes of discourse, but the same theory applies to horror as a genre. The zombies of TWD aren’t monsters anymore; we know them too well. It’s fascinating to watch characters who are meeting the monsters for the first time.

  1. At least we’re pretty sure Matt’s dead. If he’s not, that whole go-ahead-without-me scene doesn’t make any narrative sense.

  2. Matt arguably died -- if he is dead -- in the textbook horror movie manner, giving his life for the survival of what feminist cultural critic Carol J. Clover labeled the “final girl.” True, all he really did was to tell Alicia to leave him to die. Thus he was denied the moment of sacrificial distraction that we see, say, in Stanley Kubrick’s version of “The Shining.” (In Stephen King’s version, happily, the black man actually rescues the final girl and her son.)

  3. Um, by the way, how exactly did he get in? The place was deserted. Maddie had to unlock a gate. Was Tobias just hanging around in the hope that somebody might leave a door open?

  4. Alas, according to IMDB, Tobias lasts only two episodes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net