The Walking Dead universe can be a daunting one, and not just because of the endless hordes of flesh-eating zombies. Over a decade in, the franchise spans nearly 300 episodes of television spread out across three different series, with still more spinoffs on the way. It’s enough to test the mettle of the most diehard fans, to say nothing of more casual ones who’d rather dip in from time to time, or former viewers who’ve long since lost track of the series. (I fall into the latter category.)
In that light, Tales of the Walking Dead promises a refreshing change of pace, serving up bite-size, standalone tales of less than an hour each, with very little prior knowledge of the Walking Dead shows required. But even without seasons of narrative baggage, most of its tales remain too mired in the same ideas to forge truly new territory. It’s an occasionally diverting genre exercise, but hardly essential viewing in its own right.
Tales of the Walking Dead
The Bottom Line
Inessential if occasionally diverting.
Airdate: 9 p.m. Sunday, August 14 (AMC)
Cast: Terry Crews, Olivia Munn, Parker Posey, Jillian Bell, Samantha Morton, Poppy Liu, Anthony Edwards
Creators: Scott M. Gimple, Channing Powell
The Walking Dead universe being what it is, a few common themes tend to recur throughout Tales. Zombies — or walkers, chompers, “the dead,” whatever the characters are calling them now — will be the obvious threat, but the living will frequently prove to be far bigger ones. We’ll be reminded more than once that few were willing to believe how dire the zombie outbreak would become until it was too late. And all but one of the four episodes sent to critics (out of six total for the season) center on the conflict between one hardened survivalist who’s lost any faith they once had in humanity and prefers to go at it alone and one more upbeat type who believes community and connection are if anything more important than ever in the face of extreme global trauma.
When deployed with care, the formula can be a persuasive one. The fourth vignette, “Amy/Dr. Everett,” is a reminder of how grounded and humane the franchise can feel at its best. Directed by Haifaa al-Monsour (The Perfect Candidate) and written by Ahmadu Garba, the installment centers on a scientist (Anthony Edwards) whose belief that what he terms homo mortis is part of the natural reclamation of the planet from the depravity of homo sapiens is challenged by an unplanned encounter with a traveler (Hacks‘ Poppy Liu) who’s been separated from her people.
Though an hour will prove to be too brief to fully explore the deeper themes raised by this premise (another recurring habit throughout Tales of the Walking Dead), the time we do get feels like a worthwhile trek into a distant corner of the Walking Dead universe, thanks to Edwards and Liu’s nuanced performances as flawed, complicated, sometimes funny individuals rather than mere mouthpieces for the characters’ opposing philosophies. It’s a human-sized heartbreak in the midst of world-ending chaos, a reminder of what’s at stake amid all the gloom and doom.
In contrast, “Evie/Joe” attempts a similar push-pull between a gruff doomsday prepper (Terry Crews) and a free-spirited softie (Olivia Munn) who become unlikely and somewhat unwilling road trip companions a year into the apocalypse — but neither the plot beats nor the characterizations ever move beyond threadbare tropes. The hour is not entirely without its charms, including, at one point, a cuddly baby lamb. But it’s the chapter that feels most like a cynical branding calculation: The Walking Dead + famous people = attention, even if the show has nowhere interesting to direct that attention once it has it. Unfortunately for Tales of the Walking Dead, it’s also the premiere, and therefore the installment that bears the most responsibility to convince a curious viewer to keep watching.
At least the series is bound to attract some of the franchise’s most faithful followers with “Dee,” which turns out to be an origin story for Alpha (Samantha Morton), a prominent character from the ninth and tenth seasons of the parent series. As such, viewers missing that context (as I was) might be left confused by the hour’s final minutes. Up until then, though, it’s an effective bit of Southern Gothic horror. Morton’s bitter misanthrope Dee is pitted against perky Brooke (Lauren Glazier), a riverboat captain who’s still clinging to pleasures like beautiful clothes and fancy parties even in the middle of the zombie-infested swamp. Though much of its run time is occupied, inevitably, with a bloody lesson about the dark side of man, its quieter moments grasp at the devastating impossibilities that Dee faces in trying to raise a child, 9-year-old Lydia (Scarlett Blum), in a universe so defined by danger and despair.
For my money, though, the true standout of Tales of the Walking Dead so far is “Blair/Gina,” about two squabbling coworkers during the early days of the outbreak. It’s the only storyline that feels like it’s trying something genuinely daring within the anthology structure — not only because it’s set around a time loop, but also for the darkly comedic tone it takes. Like “Evie/Joe,” it rests on two very recognizable actors — in this case, Parker Posey and Jillian Bell. Unlike “Evie/Joe,” the series meets the actors where they’re strongest, instead of simply plopping them into the muck. Posey is deliciously obnoxious as Blair the boss from hell, who instructs her insurance agent employees to “take advantage of the fear porn going around” even as she herself flees the city; Bell matches her odious energy by radiating contempt and resentment from every pore.
It’d be an exaggeration to say “Blair/Gina” feels nothing like The Walking Dead. As the pair find themselves mired in an apparently endless cycle of death — leaving the office shortly before four each day to find themselves offed by five, all so they can find themselves back at the office shortly before four again — they encounter no shortage of blood and gore, and even get bitten a few times themselves. The accumulated weight of all those horrors adds up, leaving them shaken and traumatized like so many others we’ve already met within the franchise. But it’s the episode that most feels like an expansion of what The Walking Dead can be, instead of a mere rehashing of it. If only more of Tales took advantage of that freedom.