Cliff Curtis had every reason to avoid the zombies.
The actor, who broke through the ranks in 2002’s “Whale Rider,” is well aware that “Fear the Walking Dead” guarantees initial interest, thanks to its direct connection to “The Walking Dead,” the most popular drama in cable history. But doesn’t the series run the risk of coming across like a tofu dish prepared solely to mollify hungry fans until the Season 6 steak dinner is served in October?
“I know exactly what you mean,” said Curtis, calling last week from his native land of New Zealand. “There’s not a great track record for spinoffs of popular franchises.”
Curtis and modern-day “Dead”-heads need not worry.
“Fear,” which premieres Sunday on AMC with a 90-minute episode, is appetizing all on its own, thanks to a more deliberate pace, an emphasis on family and a time period in which infected victims are taking their “walker” baby steps.
“I was expecting a mega-size version of the original show, but that’s not what’s happening here,” said Curtis, who plays a Los Angeles high school teacher too busy trying to adjust to his new blended family to notice the stranger-than-usual behavior among his students. “They started fresh.”
Curtis is referring to a behind-the-scenes team that includes comic-book creator Robert Kirkman and “Sons of Anarchy” veteran Dave Erickson, faced with the inevitable task of capitalizing on a phenomenon that made “The Walking Dead” last year’s top-rated TV drama among adults 18-49, topping even broadcast hits such as “Empire” and “NCIS,” which are available in many more households.
Their partner, David Alpert, said development started back in Season 3 when ideas from “Zombies in Space” to “Zombies: The Musical” were tossed in the wastebasket.
“My biggest regret is that we never had a crossover with ‘Glee,’ ” joked Alpert.
What would Hitchcock do?
Instead of spinning off a popular character — “The Daryl Chronicles” was one such pitch — writers decided to turn back the clock to the early days of the apocalypse in Los Angeles, where residents initially believe the epidemic that turns corpses into flesh-seeking stalkers is nothing more than a bad case of the flu.
Nothing that a bowl of chicken soup and a few days in bed can’t cure, right?
“When we started ‘The Walking Dead,’ the world had already gone to hell,” Alpert said. “We thought it would be a visceral thrill to see the world coming apart. What would that be like?”
The more than 14 million viewers who tuned in for “The Walking Dead” every week last season know where the general story is heading, a situation that writers usually try to avoid. (Hint for newcomers: Earth isn’t suddenly saved by Bruce Willis straddling a nuclear missile.)
For inspiration, producers turned to Alfred Hitchcock, whose films were less “whodunits” and more “howdunits.”
“There’s a bomb under the desk and the guy doesn’t know it’s there. How do you make that interesting and suspenseful?” Alpert said. “That’s what made this exciting.”
Viewers who watch primarily to see who lives and who dies are bound to be disappointed in early episodes in which death, in large part, takes a holiday. And while Alpert and Curtis promise more carnage down the road, it’s clear that this series is more interested in digging deep into its characters long before it starts digging them graves.
If the new series works, it’s because the primary draw to the franchise proves to be the opportunity for viewers to live vicariously through the characters and confront the notion that our biggest enemy doesn’t come from another planet or another economic class. Enemy No. 1 is sitting in the cubicle next to you.
“We are our own worst fears,” Curtis said. “What’s waiting for us is not only death, but confrontation with those we love.”
A brand viewers trust
AMC is too worried about its future to worry about anything as trivial as the end of human life. The network earned its way to the big leagues with “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” — series that have taken home the Emmy for best dramatic series six out of the past seven years. With both of those shows no longer on the air, AMC hopes to develop new original concepts. Its efforts so far — “Humans,” “Hell on Wheels,” “Halt and Catch Fire” — haven’t been gracing the cover of Rolling Stone. Until that happens, the network is relying on brand names.
In addition to “Fear,” the network rolled the dice on “Breaking Bad” prequel “Better Call Saul” with promising results. The dramedy opened to nearly 7 million people — the most ever for a basic-cable premiere — and its Emmy-nominated star Bob Odenkirk is threatening to keep “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm from finally going home a winner.
AMC is hoping to keep expectations for “Fear” in check by clearing only six episodes for the first season. Fifteen episodes will follow next year.
“We want to get this world out there without viewers feeling like they’re too much in our debt,” Alpert said. “This way, viewers don’t have to feel like they’re necessarily committed for the rest of their lives.”
Even if the show fails to live up to the hype, Curtis will sleep easy.
“It may not be what the audience wants, but it has its own integrity,” he said. “I’m OK with that.”