If The Bible is any indication, then these types of yarns have been around for millennia. (No insult intended to any religion.) Often tied to thematic examinations of the worst impulses across all mankind, Apocalypse yarns largely serve as parables for what’s waiting for us when God, the Universe, or Whatever Higher Power Might Be Watching decides enough is enough; and Hell itself is loosed around the globe. Even the survivors want no part of what they’re dealing with, and these stories tend to evoke the darkest fears held deep inside of whatever audience watches on in abject horror.
AMC tapped into the Mother Lode of all Apocalypses when it decided to bring Robert Kirkman’s popular comic book series – The Walking Dead – to life on the small screen. This original vision of our zombiefied future has been a ratings giant throughout much of its run, though the show has struggled (for a variety of legitimate reasons) to maintain the clout it established in its earliest seasons. Realizing a good thing when they saw it, the network spawned a second series – Fear The Walking Dead – which promised to take a different look at these End Times, though its critics as of late feel like its little more than the original but located geographically elsewhere. Apparently, network suits decided enough wasn’t enough, and they greenlit yet one more show: The Walking Dead: World Beyond.
To its credit, World Beyond promised to (yet again) take a different look at the Apocalypse, this one set a bit in the universe’s future wherein a cast of young people – those who grew up only knowing our world turned to crapola – would go about trying to piece normalcy back together. At the time, I remember debating amongst like-minded fans online, “Well, if they’ve never known a world without zombies, how would they possibly know what a world without them is supposed to look like much less function?” As can happen, I was accused of ‘reading too much into a press release’ and told to wait until AMC provided a finished product for review.
Well, the finished product is here … well, halfway here, that is. AMC and World Beyond’s creators have stated categorically that this is a limited-run event, one that will only last two seasons, exploring only a specific set of events and characters in this timeframe. With the release of The Walking Dead: World Beyond, I guess I can finally tell you what I think about half of the journey … and it may not be what you’re expecting.
From the product packaging: “Now a decade into the apocalypse, sisters Hope and Iris Bennett have grown up inside the walls of one of the few remaining first-world communities. The sisters’ scientist father conducts research over one thousand miles away in a research facility run by the Civic Republic, an ally of Omaha, but one that does not reveal its location to outsiders. When the sisters receive a message that their father might be in danger, they defy their own community’s rules and enlist their friends Elton and Silas to embark on a cross-country quest to save him. Leaving their sheltered upbringing behind, these teenagers learn how to fight threats both living and dead as they travel through a beautiful but decaying and dangerous world.”
From everything I’ve read about World Beyond, I can’t help but point out that – while stretched out over multiple episodes – it remains a bottle story.
In other words, those who designed the entirety of the show know that it has a fixed beginning, middle, and ending. This isn’t to imply that the showrunners know everything about where the tale will take them; rather it’s just an observation that it’s meant to be its own animal – a self-contained piece of fabric woven within a wider tapestry that encompasses all of The Walking Dead universe. Unlike regular episodic television wherein shows live, breathe, and change from season-to-season dependent upon their performance in the ratings game, World Beyond posits to reach its climax at the end of Season Two. By design.
Now, this doesn’t mean that were the series a gold mine that AMC wouldn’t find some way to give it a second wind. As they’ve done before, perhaps showrunners would be pressed to move the popular characters from one show to another, or maybe even studio executives would ask the creatives to come up with yet one more series to feature the elements chosen to longer life (i.e. The Walking Dead: The Civic Republic Strikes Back). But for the time being, this isn’t the case; and World Beyond is essentially at the midpoint in its broadcast existence as we know it.
Given that reality, I’m finding it hard to make some assessment of it.
Imagine being tasked with reviewing the original Star Wars trilogy but only being provided two of the three films. For those of you unaware, The Empire Strikes Back – the second feature – ends on a massive cliffhanger, leaving the fate of a primary characters as well as the state of the Rebel Alliance all hanging by a thread. How do you comment on the entire trilogy without knowing where its all meant to land?
Setting aside these structural issues, then I’d have to conclude that – based on its own merits – World Beyond is the weakest entry into the franchise. Its young cast of characters lack the defining features generally given to adults – by their very nature, they’re still developing, learning who they are, what they plan to be, what they intend to do with their lives – and this deficiency of individuality kinda/sorta blends them together as a unit instead of making them stand out from their peers. Yes, Iris may be the brain of the group as Hope is its beating heart; but when good, narrative conflict extends from opposites clashing, these two are just far too similar (for my tastes) to make me want to root for either of them. (Don’t even get me started on Silas and Elton, though I will admit that Elton – flawed as he is – is the only interesting diversion I’ve found on the show.)
When the audience isn’t attracted or drawn in by the characters, the ensemble lacks a cohesiveness; and that’s being generous in my critique of World Beyond. I’m at a point of suggesting this entire series feels unnecessary …
… but then I remember it’s a bottle story.
Because it has an ending that’s probably already plotted out, I can’t help but wonder if it’ll improve the closer the audience is taken to that final resting place. There have been some hints – as well as a few good scenes here and there – and still I’m not convinced we’ve seen behind its curtain just yet.
I’m old enough (and wise enough) to remember that some genre shows truly blossom when they get to an impasse where they’re truly centered on a developing mythology. Fox TV’s stellar The X-Files and their devastating underrated Space: Above And Beyond literally took off when given their true narrative centers; the writers were capable of blending stand-alone episodes alongside mythology arcs brilliantly. Years later, Fox went back to that well with Fringe, another program exploring paranormal phenomenon that grew a solid cult following once it revealed its biggest secrets. While it isn’t genre, Starz Network’s Spartacus did much the same, making mountains out of molehills when its writers tapped into the thread tying its various seasons together.
Who knows? World Beyond may end up doing much of the same. It may surprise you, me, and all of AMC.
At this point, it’s simply too hard to tell. Its cast is too young to perhaps handle the gravitas TWD’s audience expected from this one, and I can’t help but wonder if this version wasn’t meant to be for the ‘After School’ crowd as opposed to those of us who’ve followed this world since its TV inception. It might feel more at home on Nickelodeon than it does alongside The Walking Dead or Fear The Walking Dead … or maybe that’s just the old man in me typing.
(Mildly) Recommended. As much as I enjoy a good zombie story, this one is a hard sell, largely because it just doesn’t do much different than what’s come before in The Walking Dead universe except almost exclusively focus on the young folks … and I’m not a huge fan of ‘Deaderly Hills 90210.’ The cast does okay, and the storylines are occasionally interesting, though a tad predictable. I give kudos to the storytellers for trying to do something different in this world … I’m just not entirely certain this was the best way to go. As can happen in limited-run series (its creators announced well in advance this was only going to run by design for two seasons), I’m unsure of what to make of where it could be heading – there are some indications, but good storytelling these days relies on unexpected twists – but dare I suggest that I wish they’d get there more quickly? I have a gut feeling I may like where they end up as opposed to the trip getting there.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at RLJE Films provided me with a Blu-ray of The Walking Dead: World Beyond by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.