LOS ANGELES - The Walking Dead has more than 20 million weekly viewers, and the new prequel Fear The Walking Dead enables the network AMC to dip back into its enormous, devoted fan base, this time with a dark family drama.
The new show, which has its premiere in the United States on Aug 23, but will explore some of the same ideas about survival and human nature but will also stake out its own thematic terrain.
It will make a character of the urban, arid chaos of Los Angeles, not the rural swampiness of Georgia and Virginia. And rather than beginning four to five weeks into the epidemic, it will portray a world just beginning to confront a shattering upheaval.
"I think more than anything else, Fear The Walking Dead will get to show people coming to grips with society crumbling around them in a way we mostly skipped over on The Walking Dead," said Robert Kirkman, a creator of both shows and The Walking Dead comic-book series.
The series does not come without risks for the creators and AMC, which would like to add more buzz-worthy hits to a line-up that no longer has Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Unlike the flagship show, there is no comic book providing a structural backbone. And spinoffs that share none of the same characters or are not variations of the tried-and-true police procedural format are exceedingly rare in TV history.
"If this one works, it's going to be a first in my television experience," said Tim Brooks, a former executive at NBC, USA Networks and Lifetime Television and the co-author of The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network And Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present.
The blended family at the centre of Fear The Walking Dead is completely ill-prepared to survive in this changed world.
Kim Dickens (Deadwood, Treme) plays Madison, a high school guidance counsellor and single mother of two teenagers, one a drug addict (Nick, played by Frank Dillane) and the other a seeming golden child (Alicia, played by Alycia Debnam-Carey).
Kim's boyfriend, Travis (Cliff Curtis of Gang Related), is an English literature teacher at the same school, and he has moved in. But he has a disaffected teenage son of his own, who wants no part of this new, jury-rigged family as he remains with his mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez of Orange Is The New Black).
The showrunner, Dave Erickson, had previously written a pilot for a family drama based on a treatment by Kirkman called Five Year.
The two men enjoyed working together - except for the part where the show didn't get made - and stayed in touch over the years. Efforts to bring Erickson into the writers' room of The Walking Dead never quite worked out. But when Kirkman approached him late in 2013 about collaborating on a companion series to The Walking Dead, the timing clicked.
AMC was finally ready to capitalise on its biggest success. The first few seasons of the flagship show were not the most stable for its creative masters. Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), who developed the show, was dropped as showrunner just weeks into production for Season 2. His replacement, Glen Mazzara, departed after the third season. But as a new showrunner, Scott M. Gimple, settled in and tensions eased, AMC and Kirkman set about creating a companion series.
The two shows fit under the same mythological umbrella created by Kirkman in his comic-book series, with the same rules governing the type of zombies (the lumbering kind) and how to kill them (stabbing, shooting or smashing them in the head).
The characters are clueless, at first, at what they are facing, and the actors were encouraged in their ignorance.
As the audition approached, Dickens asked the producers which episodes of The Walking Dead she should watch to get a handle on the new show. The response: None.
NEW YORK TIMES