As titles go, "Fear the Walking Dead" isn't just underwhelming, it's a little deceptive.
Then again, "Expressing a Feeling That Begins as Mild Curiosity but Eventually Grows to Encompass a Moderate Amount of Concern About the Walking Dead" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.
The prequel (9 p.m. Sunday, AMC) takes place in L.A. just before the zombie apocalypse in a time when some of the biggest problems facing high school English teacher Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis) and his guidance counselor girlfriend, Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), include a leaky faucet, moody teenagers and gluten.
Travis' son, Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie), feels neglected since his mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and Travis divorced. Madison's overachieving teenage daughter, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), can't wait to graduate high school and leave her family behind. And Madison's 19-year-old son, Nick (Frank Dillane), is a junkie who looks like he just returned home from starring in a touring production of "The Vampire Diaries" and just can't seem to stay clean.
"Fear the Walking Dead" starts out with a bit of a scare, but the early going, with its focus on divorce, blended families and the pain and burden that addiction can inflict on family members, feels more like an "Afterschool Special" with zombies -- or, rather, the promise of zombies. Instead of walkers, viewers mostly get rumors of strangeness in other states and a viral video involving a police traffic stop.
There's also plenty of foreshadowing: Alicia's teacher explains chaos theory, while Travis teaches Jack London's "To Build a Fire," which comes with the warning that nature always wins.
"Fear the Walking Dead" feels most real in the haunting disconnect as certain people realize there's a major problem long before others. Some residents are shown stocking up on essentials and hitting the road, while others fuss over a birthday party bounce house and complain about "that bug going around." For her part, Madison breaks into the school nurse's office and steals pills to help Nick wean himself off the drugs in his system. Because the only thing worse than detoxing during a zombie apocalypse is trying to get a fix during a zombie apocalypse.
Full disclosure: I loved "The Walking Dead's" pilot and enjoyed the first season, but I bailed early in season two after what felt like the hundredth hour spent at Hershel's farm. The first two episodes of "Fear the Walking Dead" suffer from that same sense of waiting around for the good stuff as the series hides its best assets like models demonstrating a new line of Victoria's Secret parkas.
Some of that's to be expected. What made "The Walking Dead" so gripping from the start is the way Rick woke from a coma to find his hometown, and eventually the world surrounding it, had become a zombie-riddled hellscape. That obviously can't happen in a prequel.
And there doesn't need to be wall-to-wall viscera for "Fear the Walking Dead" to be a success, although it certainly wouldn't hurt -- especially among viewers who've become accustomed to the action of the original.
Because if there's one thing I've never heard anyone say about "The Walking Dead," it's this: "You know, the zombies are OK, I guess. But what I tune in for every week is the interpersonal dynamics among the characters."