'Fear the Walking Dead' gives AMC's zombie smash a refreshing twist

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Kim Dickens is Madison and Cliff Curtis is Sean in "Fear the Walking Dead," a spin-off from "The Walking Dead." (Justin Lubin / AMC)

AMC seems gripped by spin-off fever. Six months after it presented the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul, the cabler is back with a new take on one of its biggest hits, The Walking Dead.

Called Fear the Walking Dead, the new series is written and produced by the same team, including Walking Dead comic book creator Robert Kirkman.

The first of six episodes premieres with an extended episode at 9 p.m. Sunday. The show has already been renewed for a 15-episode second season.

The Walking Dead opens months after a zombie apocalypse, but the new series is an origin story that recounts how a mysterious viral outbreak transformed the populace into flesh-eaters and led to a global cataclysm.

Set in Los Angeles, Fear the Walking Dead's story follows the fate of a pair of high school teachers and their kids as they try to survive a wave of violence and chaos that engulfs the city in the wake of the pandemic.

A breath of fresh air

The TV spin-off often is dismissed as an opportunistic ploy to cash in on the success of an established show. And though that's certainly at work here, Fear the Walking Dead is a wonderfully refreshing reboot that reminds viewers of the exciting, moving, and dramatic potential The Walking Dead had in its first season - a potential the show has all but squandered.

Though the original is more popular than ever, after five relentless seasons filled with more chopping, stabbing, and shooting than both world wars put together, The Walking Dead suffers from a certain exhaustion, a kind of repetitious overkill.

The same exhaustion infects the show's antiheroes, who are thoroughly dehumanized by their experiences. It's hard to imagine the character Michonne (Danai Gurira) - that fierce, awe-inspiring, sword-wielding warrior who dominates the latter seasons of The Walking Dead - spending sleepless nights wracked with guilt over the zombies she dispatches every day. In fact, Michonne seems immune to any kind of empathy.

Fear the Walking Dead wipes away those five years and puts us back down at ground zero at a time when compassion and guilt still dominated the human experience. It presents a new cast of characters who are still innocent, who still have hope for the future. The series takes these ordinary folks and shows the dread and guilt that tears them up when they are forced to kill loved ones who fell victim to the zombie virus.

The joy of guilt

Kirkman, who wrote the original Walking Dead comics, works hard to distinguish Fear the Walking Dead from the original show. The latter story opened with the travails of a blue-collar family in the rural South and featured a journey to a big city (Atlanta). The new drama is set on the teeming streets of Los Angeles and features characters who react to the zombie outbreak by running to the countryside.

The story is focused on an educated middle-class family led by Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), a widowed high school guidance counselor, and her partner, Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis), who teaches English lit. Their blended family includes three teenagers. Madison has two kids: the rebellious 19-year-old junkie Nick (Frank Dillane) and the dutiful student Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey). Travis has an estranged son, Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie), from his first marriage.

If the characters on The Walking Dead have become all but immune to the effects of guilt, the ones we meet in Fear the Walking Dead are all but swimming in it.

Nick is a heroin addict who has been kicked out of rehab more times than he can remember. As the series opens, he has left home to roam the streets looking for drugs. He seems defined by shame. Played with sensitivity by the remarkably pretty Brit thesp Frank Dillane (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) he's the person unfortunate enough to discover that there are zombies in L.A.

The pilot opens in an abandoned church where Nick shoots up each night. He wakes to find his girlfriend covered in blood and munching on the neck of a fellow addict. Nick is the perfect unreliable witness: No one believes his wild story, not the police, not the ER doctors who treat him after a car crash, and most certainly not his mom.

Family values

In its first season, The Walking Dead was told primarily from the point of view of sheriff's deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who was used to guns and to killing long before the zombies showed up. In fact, many of the male characters, including Rick's friend and fellow deputy Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal), Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), and his brother Merle (Michael Rooker), were experienced hunters or soldiers. They are blessed with survival skills.

Fear the Walking Dead is set in the opposite universe: Madison and Travis are sensitive, self-aware liberals and anti-gun advocates.

And they are deeply dependent on the social network around them. As the outbreak progresses, it corrodes and eventually swallows up the social structure that sustains them.

The zombie outbreak illustrates the way crises can dissolve the glue that binds families together into a community. The only bonds that retain meaning are those forged by blood. Eventually, even L.A.'s cops give up their public responsibilities and join the looting so they can hoard supplies for their families.

Madison and Travis find it impossible to give up hope on society. They hold out to the end that authorities will sort everything out. And they feel shame and guilt when they realize they must embrace a kind of selfishness if they want to survive.

The daily currency of The Walking Dead is the mercenary attitude toward the neighbor, the orphan, and the widow. (That's why characters such as Rick are so rare - they are the moral exception).

To Madison and Travis, being that selfish requires them to sacrifice their humanity.

Sickness unto death

Fear the Walking Dead shows in spectacular detail the painful emotional process ordinary people go through when a loved one is infected by the zombie bug. At first, the sick person is a victim who deserves respect and care. By the end, you realize you must commit murder - destroy your lover, brother, or neighbor - or else become infected yourself.

When Alicia's boyfriend, Matt (Maestro Harrell), comes down with a fever, she nurses him day and night and refuses to believe he'll turn into a rabid creature. Madison experiences the same cognitive dissonance when her friend school principal Art Costa (Scott Lawrence) attacks her. Should she hug him or fight back?

Fear the Walking Dead reminds us that Michonne and her compatriots on The Walking Dead may seem like hard, heartless killers, but there was a time when they were just as innocent, just as baffled, and just as guilt-ridden as Madison.

It's hard to tell how long the new series can sustain its intensity and freshness. Let's hope it can avoid being stuck in the same repetitious rut that has ensnared The Walking Dead.