Entertainment

Beware the Companion Series

This Golden Age of TV Is Looking Like a Dead Man Walking

By Chris LaMorte ·
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Now that its season has ended, I need to talk about Fear the Walking Dead.

There was something eerily familiar about it.

It was right there beneath the surface. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it bothered me. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

Then it hit me. Fear the Walking Dead is really just like a similar show. Laverne & Shirley.

Frightening.

Yes, FTWD has a lot more flesh-eating. Approximately 100% more. (I haven’t seen L&S in a while, so I could be wrong.) But it portends death just the same—the death of the so-called Second Golden Age of Television that we are supposedly all basking in.

Like a walker way off in the distance, the Golden Age just doesn’t register as dead yet. Oh, you might get a whiff of its rotting flesh when you start to conflate its characters with their Walking Dead antecedents. But, eventually, when FTWD writers and producers begin to amble their way to the Emmy podium, you’ll know the virus has spread. This Golden Age is over, folks. You can Call Saul all you’d like. There’s nothing you can do about it.

Maybe I’m being a little bleak, but hear me out.

I know Fear the Walking Dead is what’s known as a companion series of The Walking Dead. Not a spin-off, not a reboot, not a prequel. Instead, it’s a terrifying Frankenshow of all of the above. Its storyline takes place in the same fictional universe—yes, the same Walking Dead zombie rules apply here—but from a different point in time and from a different viewpoint than the original. New characters, same zombie problems.

But isn’t that what Laverne & Shirley was? A bit of brand extension? The characters of Laverne and Shirley were introduced as friends of the Fonz on Happy Days, yes, but they weren’t regular characters. Therefore, they may not fit the strict definition of “companion series,” that is, if there is indeed one. But L&S is still essentially about coming of age in Milwaukee during the 1950s from a different, slightly older point of view. In the 1970s, nostalgia was selling. ABC was buying. Garry Marshall was directing.

Certainly, there are differences between both original series and their attendant companions. Whereas Happy Days was a family/teen sitcom, Laverne & Shirley was pure slapstick. TWD could be understood through a lens of a post-Katrina breakdown of society after a crisis; Fear the Walking Dead ruminates on citizens’ relationship with authority.

I’m not saying spin-offs can’t work or that spin-offs aren’t enjoyable to watch. Cheers begat Frasier. It would be hard to confuse those two shows. But neither show was particularly original, either in format or content. They were just very well executed.

And for all of its good writing, taut direction and fine performances, FTWD is really just repurposed content. We’ve seen this story before. Zombies bad. People even worse. Eventually, the FTWD timeline will overlap (logically it must). FTWD will become TWD only in Los Angeles—it’s ultimately just another TWD storyline that couldn’t be contained by the original series.

At least with a series like Better Call Saul, AMC is being a bit more honest: this is packaged as a Breaking Bad spin-off/prequel hybrid. Yet as much as audiences liked Saul on Breaking Bad, and for all of its charms, are there really no new stories nor different characters nor strange places nor unexplored conflicts nor unimagined costumes nor neglected historical eras for audiences to behold?

But new is risk. Different is risk. Networks already risked with premium-channel-like offerings like The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad in the first place. Today, they’re happy to walk away with their winnings. That means: expect more franchises, more spin-offs, more spin-offs of spin-offs. Expect more of the same.

It will continue to fester until one day you get—mark my words—a zombie Joanie Loves Chachi. It will probably be called Joanie Eats Chachi, or maybe Joanie Loves Brains, or perhaps Joanie Loves to Eat Chachi.

Well, it doesn’t matter. It won’t end well for anybody.

— Chris LaMorte

Chris LaMorte’s favorite lapel: peak. Favorite bulldog: French. Can you offer him a glass of champagne: yes. Often mistaken for: Zach Galifianakis. Often mistakes himself for: Bradley Cooper.

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