What if the end of the world doesn’t start with a bang or a bomb, but with the sniffles?
And what if the early warnings come from two teens – one a heroin addict and the other a quiet, bullied kid who clearly has watched too many sci-fi films?
Welcome to the start of the apocalypse – zombie version – as told in “Fear the Walking Dead,” the highly anticipated new companion series to AMC’s groundbreaking show “The Walking Dead.”
“Fear,” premiering at 9 p.m. Sunday on AMC, depicts the start of the zombie apocalypse as it unfolds in Los Angeles – nearly 3,000 miles from the Georgia-based setting of “The Walking Dead,” which begins its sixth season Oct. 11.
Though “Fear” features all new characters, many of the behind-the-scenes names are well known and even considered “stars” to “TWD” fans including co-creator, writer and executive producer Robert Kirkman, who wrote the original graphic novels, plus executive producers Gale Anne Hurd, David Alpert and Greg Nicotero, also known for his inventive work as the special effects makeup supervisor.
Ideas for a new series have been percolating since around season three of “TWD,” Alpert said in a telephone interview Thursday as he prepared for the weekend premieres of “Fear” and his new film “American Ultra.” (“It will either be a happy Monday or an unhappy Monday,” he laughed.)
“There was so much story to tell, so many different things we want to do,” Alpert said. “We had a successful run with the video game expansion. It’s been a huge coup for us where we introduced an entirely new set of characters, an entirely new storyline and the fans have really, really loved it. We have so many more stories Robert [Kirkman] is coming up with all time. We have the comic book series, the television series, the video game series. Where else could we tell the story?”
The answer: a new show that lives “inside” the “Walking Dead” universe yet stands on its own. It would need to stay true to what was learned in “TWD,” while characters and narratives would be explored from new perspectives – there would not be a natural-born leader a la Rick Grimes in “TWD” to guide survivors.
“One of the great things about Rick Grimes is he’s an archetypical, small-town sheriff lawman,” Alpert said. “He’s good with the gun, knows his right from wrong. Things are very black and white in the beginning. It’s not a surprise that Rick Grimes is able to take control of the survivors in the apocalypse.”
In “Fear,” we’re introduced instead to “ordinary” characters of high school guidance counselor Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), her boyfriend and English teacher Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis) and their extended, dysfunctional families.
“This couple is just barely making it,” Alpert said about Madison and Travis. “Things are already incredibly tough for them and then there’s the apocalypse. That’s a different angle for us. From a character perspective, it’s compelling.”
In “Fear,” the writers also explore some of the most commonly asked questions about “TWD.”
“We never really saw the fall of Atlanta. We didn’t see what happened,” Alpert said. “People ask us all the time, what was it like when society fell? When did the Internet go out? What did the government do? Were people getting good information on Twitter? How were people communicating? This was a great opportunity.”
Don’t hold your breathe, though, waiting to learn what turned people into zombies.
“We’re going to get a lot of theories,” Alpert said. “But for us, why this thing started and the origin of it is not important. It’s never been about zombies and where they came from, it’s about the people. It’s about our characters and how they deal with it.”
With that, there is a heavy focus on character development that takes up most of the first two episodes.
“If I don’t care about the characters, I don’t care about the show. Period,” Alpert said. “If I don’t care about the characters I don’t care how great the special effects are, I don’t care how big the explosions are – I’m not watching. It’s a philosophy and point of view that’s shared by everyone on ‘The Walking Dead’ team, the ‘Fear’ team and AMC. We need to care about these characters. And if we care about these characters, we’re going on this ride and this journey. And if we don’t care, we’re not gonna go.
“I care deeply and I’ve cared for well over a decade about what happens to Rick Grimes and I want to follow and see what happens to Travis and Madison. And that’s a level of caring and commitment that we make as creators and producers that we want to share with the audience.”
It includes a sense of responsibility to fans – an average of nearly 15 million people watch “TWD” weekly – to make both shows as good as they can be and to “honor the commitment our fans have given us. We take that responsibility with all sincerity. We think about it constantly,” he added.
Those familiar with “TWD” will have an interesting perspective watching “Fear” since they’ll know more than the characters including what’s really going on (it’s a zombie apocalypse, not the flu) and survival skills (aim for the head, not the heart and keep quiet, the walkers are attracted to noise). That idea, Alpert said, came from the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock who famously explained the difference between suspense and surprise with the idea of the audience seeing a bomb under a table and anxiously waiting for it to blow up.
“We felt that was a great way to look at it. There is essentially a walker bomb in the middle of Los Angeles. We’re just waiting and that anticipation is building for us,” Alpert said.
That anticipation starts in the opening scene when a teen wakes up in an abandoned church turned drug den that looks like a war zone and bears an eerie resemblance to the fates suffered by many buildings in “TWD. Fans” will catch on immediately that it’s a harbinger of things to come – and that’s the point.
“The opening really speaks to the awareness we brought to it,” Alpert said. “We know that you know. And we know that you know that we know that you know. We’re aware – trust us. We’ve got this.”