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'Fear the Walking Dead,' but you'll probably laugh along the way

'Fear the Walking Dead,' but you'll probably laugh along the way
Elizabeth Rodriguez as Liza and Lorenzo James Henrie as Chris in "Fear the Walking Dead." (Frank Ockenfels 3 / AMC)

Even for fans of AMC's "The Walking Dead," there is something undeniably hilarious about the idea of "Fear the Walking Dead," an alternate city spinoff. As if AMC thinks Robert Kirkman's version of the zombie apocalypse is a franchise crime procedural, like "NCIS" or "Law and Order," with multi-state or even international ambitions.

If "Fear the Walking Dead" does well, can "Fear the Walking Dead: UK" be too far behind?

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Setting the show in Los Angeles only adds to the hilarity — let the "Everybody Walks in L.A." jokes begin! But "Fear the Walking Dead" takes Los Angeles, and itself, very seriously. So seriously that in the first two episodes it is sometimes difficult not to laugh.

At the general cluelessness of the characters, at the intensity of the local "realism," at the heavy-handedness of the Cinematic Symbols of Foreboding (Beware the Bounce House) and the sight of so many fine actors trying to keep their feet in a promising but initially borderline-absurd narrative.

"Fear the Walking Dead," which premieres Sunday, doesn't know how to show the early days of zombie pandemic any more than "The Walking Dead" did. "The Walking Dead," however, brilliantly sidestepped the whole issue by putting its main character into a coma before the zombie pandemic began and then waking him to a world gone mad.

Those hoping "Fear the Walking Dead" will fill in the gaps may be disappointed. Though touted as something of a prequel, the show opens hard, fast and more than vaguely familiar. In an abandoned church, Nick Clark (Frank Dillane) also wakes, albeit from a drug-induced stupor, to find a world gone mad. Or at least several bloody corpses, one of which his friend is consuming.

He cannot believe that what he has seen is real, and neither do the police nor any member of Frank's family: his mother Madison (Kim Dickens), her fiancé, Travis (Cliff Curtis), and Frank's sister Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey).

But we Know Better.

We know better because we have seen "The Walking Dead," and that, of course, is the biggest problem this show faces: repetition.

How many times will audiences want to watch characters learn that, no, zombies don't die unless you go for the head, and, yes, one bite and you're a goner? How many more innocents can we bear to see slaughtered as survivors become sweat-glazed, ruthless warriors willing to kill both the living and the dead?

We also know better because co-creator Dave Erickson and director Adam Davidson decided to opt out of any kind of creeping fear and go straight to a zombie attack. So instead of being immersed in a city's growing confusion, disbelief and hysteria, the audience finds itself shouting at the characters — "Don't just stand there, man!" "The head! Shoot him in the head!" "Omigod, don't go after him" — as if playing a video game.

Audience participation is not always a bad thing, but it certainly works against the urban-disaster prose poem that Erickson, Davidson and the cast of uniformly strong performers seem to be going for here. As with its progenitor, cinematography is as important to "Fear" as plot; characters are quickly established with a credible series of domestic issue, and Michael McDonough uses the homey bungalows, the graffiti-splashed river banks and the sun-drunk glare of our fair city to create a landscape both familiar and dreamlike.

All of which might have worked had Erickson allowed himself a truly slow build. Instead, we get a City of Angels already full of zombies, including a few that appear to be lurching around Echo Park, and frankly, it's pretty ridiculous that no one has noticed.

Or maybe not, since none of the characters appears to have access to a newspaper, television or social media. The biggest suspension of disbelief demanded by "Fear" is not that some sort of infection could turn the population of Los Angeles into zombies but that no one would be live-tweeting it.

Certainly Madison and Travis haven't noticed, even though the high school where they work (she's a guidance counselor, he's an English teacher) has been decimated by some "weird flu" and, according to the one kid who seems to have access to the Internet, reports of attacks have been coming in from all over the world. Travis at least checks out Frank's tale, but when he tells Madison about the pools of blood and viscera he found at the scene, she is pathologically uninterested. Bad things happen in drug dens, she snaps.

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Um, yeah, but rarely do they involve viscera. Neither of them thinks to call the police or seems even vaguely concerned by the many emergency vehicles that blow by in virtually every scene. This in a city that was almost undone by a recent outbreak of measles.

OK, OK, it's a zombie story, and admittedly there is something endearing about the idea that modern parents are so overwhelmed they might not notice the first stirrings of the ravenous dead. But even habitual Comic-Con attendees are in serious danger of zombie fatigue, so if AMC is going to take another look at this particular apocalypse, it had better be not just good but different.

Much has been made of "Fear's" East Los Angeles setting, and certainly it is refreshing to see a number of Latinos among early candidates for the show's scrappy band of survivors, but despite the many complaints against "The Walking Dead," black male characters remain alarmingly disposable.

"Fear the Walking Dead" may not further our understanding of the plague but does promise to broaden Kirkman's mythology. For better and worse, "The Walking Dead" has clung to the hunting-gathering narrative model of survival; Rick and company ricochet through the Southern greenery from one tense situation to another with little attempt at planning. Those guest characters who have tried a more organized approach — "OK, what do we know about zombies, and how can we best use our resources to survive them?" — are invariably revealed to be psychotic or naive.

One hopes, then, that "Fear the Walking Dead" will give reason and organization more of a chance, and for all her initial blindness, Madison seems like a woman who knows how to manage her resources. Dickens is a strong performer, as is Curtis, and the use of a different skill set could be enough to keep things interesting.

Après le déluge, we need a hero, sure, but we also need a multi-tasker, and Zombies versus Working Mom is a fight I'd pay to see.

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'Fear the Walking Dead'

Where: AMC

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence)

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