LOS ANGELES (AP) — Two crucial questions await “Fear the Walking Dead,” the spinoff to AMC’s monster hit “The Walking Dead.”
The first: How many zombies does it take to satisfy viewers of the new drama, which begins in the early days of the robust apocalypse underway in the original? The second: How big an audience is big enough when compared to its sibling?
Let executive producer Dave Erickson start with the latter for “Fear,” its shorthand title, which debuts at 9 p.m. EDT Sunday with a six-episode run.
“If I woke up every morning (thinking) ‘Oh, my God, 20 million viewers per episode,’ I couldn’t get out of bed,” Erickson said, referring to the ballpark number of viewers “The Walking Dead” has approached in its highest-rated airings.
“We’ve written and (the cast) have played a very strong season. I think people will enjoy it and eventually love it for its own merits and how it complements the other show,” he said.
AMC, in rebuilding mode after the departures of flagship series “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” already placed a 15-episode order for season two, a vote of confidence that the spinoff will prove a winner.
Devotees of “The Walking Dead,” which is rife with zombie vs human action in its small-town Georgia setting, will find the undead in relatively short supply in the early going of “Fear.” And “Walking Dead” isn’t back until Oct. 11, so zombie fans are in the throes of withdrawal.
“We never (create) a story thinking we should add that because we’re missing a zombie moment,” Erickson said. “We have an episode with no zombies, and we’ll probably have another episode in season two with no zombies. And that’s OK.”
But there are other satisfactions to be had. Unlike “Walking Dead,” which opened in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by zombies, not-so-fondly nicknamed “walkers,” the new series’ initial focus is on setting and characters as they exist before the crisis takes hold.
The original series “is a brilliant construct, the way they elipsed over the actual apocalypse, the way they were able to jump into it,” Erickson said in an interview. “Because we don’t do that, we have an opportunity to explore a little more deeply and spend more time with it.”
So will the origin of the zombie outbreak be revealed?
“No. Short answer, no,” he said at a recent TV critics’ meeting.
The presence of the “infected,” as they’re called here, is definitely spotty early on but still very, very scary.
“Fear” unfolds in the concrete jungle of Los Angeles, specifically East LA, and makes the most of its ordinariness. This isn’t glitzy Hollywood or entitled Malibu getting its comeuppance; it’s a hard-working, ethnically diverse community where residents cope with challenges familiar in urban America.
For the blended family of Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) and Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis), that includes Madison’s son Nick, a teen with a drug habit. He’s played by British-born actor Frank Dillane (Tom Riddle Jr. in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”), here with a decided Johnny Depp-bad boy look and California vibe.
Other cast members include Ruben Blades, Mercedes Mason, Alycia Debnam Carey and Elizabeth Rodriguez.
The premiere’s impressively cinematic opening sequence shows Nick coming to in an abandoned church serving as a shooting gallery for drug users. The waking nightmare he’s destined to encounter is from the menace that’s descending on the city, not just his addiction.
He’s got the parental support he needs for both: His school counselor mom and her partner, a teacher, are mature and caring grown-ups with their hearts and minds in the right place.
The characters and the writing are what attracted Dickens and Curtis, although her first reaction was reluctance at tackling a horror series, a genre she hadn’t worked in outside the 2000 sci-fi thriller “Hollow Man.”
But, she said, “I loved it. And the more I read it, it seemed like the most fun character to play and exciting and challenging.”
For Curtis, a New Zealand native of Maori descent, the chance to portray a man with a similar background was just part of what the series offered. He found the pilot “grounded” with a portrayal of usually overlooked East LA and with its fresh take on what masculinity can be for such a character.
Men in such genre dramas are “usually so messed up and dragging around these demons in their head,” he said. But Travis is a kind man and “a loyal guy who’s trying to make something work, make something good. That’s a lot harder to do than be some messed-up guy caught up in his own angst.”
Being part of a “huge franchise” is a privilege and opportunity, Curtis added.
But, as Erickson noted, it comes with baggage as well — specifically the double-digit millions of “Walking Dead” fans.
“We’re not defining success by hitting that number and staying at that number. … We’ll find our place and we’ll find our audience. And I hope everybody who loves that show loves our show, but I think that’s a little unrealistic,” he said with a shrug.