Tales Of The Walking Dead Review – AMC’s Undead Spinoff is liberating but inconsistent
The thing about zombies is that they are evergreen. Better than that, they are adaptable. You can place the undead in pretty much any time period, story setting, or genre, and they’ll have the potential to thrive as an additional narrative layer. Zombie western? Sure why not. Zombies in Medieval Korea? It works. Zombie love story? Yes, go for it. Naturally, that means Tales of The Walking Dead, a zombie anthology series that spins off AMC’s long-running tentpole drama, is at least a good idea on paper. Having watched three of the show’s first four episodes of its upcoming debut season, it’s also a decent idea in practice, although it’s already showing signs of very varying quality from story to story.
The first episode to debut on August 14, “Evie/Joe,” is by far the worst of the trio AMC provided for review — episode three, which appears to be Alpha’s origin story and features Samantha Morton’s return to the franchise, was not available. in time for review. Starring Terry Crews as a former running back turned doomsday prepper and Olivia Munn as a down-to-earth New Ager, the odd couple plot of the premiere is a mess. It looks set to shock the system of any long-time Walking Dead fan with a tonal departure so violent it could send viewers reeling. On the one hand, it’s admirable—perhaps even necessary—to start so far away from what TWD fans are used to. It tells viewers, “Look, this is going to be different.” But while it may get an A for that concept, the debut episode gets an F for execution.
It’s a joke, but never genuinely funny. Set one year after the fall of civilization, the characters feel like they exist in a completely different story universe. Both Munn and Crews feel unsuitable for what the episode demands of them, and unfortunately have no chemistry together. It can be a tight ride to successfully tell a comedy story in this usually bleak and bleak world, but that just means the writers have to be careful. Here they are not, and as a result the first episode is difficult to complete.
Its third act is worst of all, with a villain reveal that occurs for no reason. It’s all written so loosely and lightly that the effort never shows. That leaves the episode needing to fall back on its comedic chops, which is the safety net under the tightrope that the episode completely misses, and leaves the premiere splashing on the surface like a walker mindlessly walking off a skyscraper.
Fortunately, the second episode, “Blair/Gina,” is much better. In fact, it’s the best of the bunch. It takes the same concept as the first episode – in short, “let’s get weird” – but in every way the previous episode doesn’t. Starring Parker Posey and Jillian Bell, the episode trades odd couple hijinx for the high concept du jour: a time loop story. It’s not something anyone would expect to see in The Walking Dead universe, but because the performances are excellent and the script lands its jokes in this second attempt, it ends up being a fantastic standalone episode even if you’ve never seen a second of The walking dead.
Posey and Bell shine as an overbearing boss and her fed-up receptionist, respectively, struggling with day-to-day life at a small insurance company in Atlanta in the earliest days of the zombie pandemic, before people really know what’s going on. With shades of both Office Space and Ling Ma’s Severance (not that Severance), the looping plot collapses in on itself in impressive ways considering the spate of recent Groundhog Day likes. Posey is fantastic, and unlike Crews in the first episode, her enjoyment of the role jumps off the screen. Bell may be a little underutilized given that she’s a household name when it comes to playing a fun-loving office worker, but as a whole, the episode really works in ways that give hope to the series going forward.
It’s out there, and just when you might be thinking, “How in the world is this happening as Rick Grimes and Negan?” the episode makes room for an out. The artistic license the writers use in this episode is the promise of a fulfilled TWD anthology. I’m not opposed to the series being all over the place – that should be its strength, really. I just hope the real oddball episodes are more often as well written as this one as opposed to the forgettable mess that is its predecessor.
In the latest episode made available for review, “Amy/Dr. Everett” the humorous tones of the first two and staying closer to a level of seriousness the series has been known for to date, but still not without an interesting new wrinkle. Dr. Everett is a documentarian and scientist who studies the undead, or, as he calls them, Homo Mortis, in a valley where pockets of walkers are cut off from what’s left of society, thus allowing him to study them in solitude. The episode even begins with an excerpt from his nature documentary, where his narration teaches us about the zombies as if they were a herd of African bush elephants. When he stumbles upon a survivor named Amy, who was separated from her group, the episode practically turns into a long philosophical debate about nature and human intervention.
As at other times The Walking Dead has tried to overtly make philosophical claims, such as season after season of Morgan arguing for retribution versus restorative justice, this episode isn’t some remarkable musing on humanity’s damage to the natural world, nor is it a enormous well-thought-out character study about loneliness and group belonging. It touches on both of those things, but is ultimately best suited as a springboard for interested viewers to seek more complex material elsewhere—and I think that’s fine.
As the third spinoff of a decade-old horror series, I’ll take some neuron firing between gross zombie kills when I can get them. I don’t think Tales of The Walking Dead needs or wants to up the thematic ante for the series, but if it can touch on some thought-provoking material between comedic departures and absurd time loops some of the time, these one-off episodes could be a long-lasting success.
Individually, the three episodes seen so far are all over the map in terms of quality, ranging from must-see to completely missed. My suspicion is that the series will live on with a similar inconsistency, with episode quality rising and falling depending on each new cast and script. If the series commits to tackling a variety of genres in episodes to come, my hope is that a diverse and rotating collection of voices can contribute, to better serve the specific needs of each genre.
An anthology can be liberating for a world like The Walking Dead, by freeing creative people from characters with the historical baggage of Daryl, Gabriel and Maggie. But a tabula rasa is only as interesting as the designs ultimately left on it. My expectation is that we haven’t seen the last of Tales of The Walking Dead’s great or terrible episodes, and it’s going to be a minefield for weekly viewers to figure out which one they’re in for on any given Sunday.