TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, has reviews of two very different new TV projects, IFC's "Documentary Now!" which premieres tonight, and AMC's "Fear The Walking Dead," which begins Sunday.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "The Walking Dead," which crept onto TV on Halloween night in 2010, has become the AMC cable network's biggest hit ever - bigger than "Mad Men," bigger than "Breaking Bad." It's also become the most-watched scripted show on cable TV, period, so it's no surprise that after five years, AMC would finally find a way to launch a spinoff "Walking Dead" series. It starts this Sunday. It's called, "Fear The Walking Dead," and it's a prequel, though AMC isn't calling it that. The network prefers the term, companion series. But though it occurs at different time and place than "The Walking Dead," this new series definitely is linked. And for fans of that show, definitely is worth checking out. In the original series, we met our modern-day hero, deputy sheriff Rick Grimes, who very quickly was wounded in a shootout in modern-day Georgia. When he awoke from his coma a month or so later, the hospital was otherwise abandoned and the world was overrun by slow-moving, flesh-eating zombies. "Fear The Walking Dead" takes place sometime after Rick fell into that coma and is set on the other side of the country, in Los Angeles. The zombie outbreak is so new, people don't know about it yet, but they're about to learn.
By starting this new series very near the beginning of its zombie apocalypse narrative, the zombies are fresher and so is the narrative, co-created by Dave Erickson and "Walking Dead" creator Robert Kirkman. We get a whole new set of characters and stars. The most recognizable are Ruben Blades, as a resourceful barber who doesn't show up until the second episode, and Kim Dickens, recognizable from two excellent HBO dramas, "Deadwood" and "Treme." She plays high school guidance counselor Madison Clark, a single mom with two young adult children - one a college-bound overachiever, the other, a drug addict dropout. And while she's clueless about the first signs of danger around her, some of her students are not, like one named Tobias whom she pulls aside for a private chat after confiscating a weapon he brought to school.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FEAR THE WALKING DEAD")
KIM DICKENS: (As Madison) So why the knife? Hey - I could expel you just for crossing the threshold with that thing.
LINCOLN A. CASTELLANOS: (As Tobias) No. Please. We're safer in numbers.
DICKENS: (As Madison) Safer from what? Tobias, please, don't screw yourself like this. You've been working your ass off. You're on track to go to college.
CASTELLANOS: (As Tobias) Yeah. No one's going to college. No one's doing anything they think they are.
DICKENS: (As Madison) What? What are you talking about?
CASTELLANOS: (As Tobias) Can I get my knife back, please?
DICKENS: (As Madison) No, you can't get your knife back.
CASTELLANOS: (As Tobias) They say it's not connected. They say that, but I don't believe them. It is - from reports in five states. They don't know if it's a virus or a microbe. They don't know, but it's spreading.
DICKENS: (As Madison) You need to...
CASTELLANOS: (As Tobias) No - people are killing.
DICKENS: (As Madison) You need to spend less time online, OK? If there's a problem, we're going to know about it. The authorities would tell us.
BIANCULLI: No, they probably wouldn't - not at first. So watching "Fear The Walking Dead" is an enjoyable mix of viewers knowing more than the characters do about what's to come and still being in the dark. Even though it's a prequel, "Fear The Walking Dead" still takes us into unknown territory. And that's why it works even if you've never seen the original series.
Tonight's new IFC miniseries, "Documentary Now!" on the other hand works best only if you're familiar with the nonfiction films and genres being spoofed. The opener, "Sandy Passage," is a parody of "Grey Gardens," which exists both as a documentary and an HBO movie. "Drones" is a new generation news show based on and making fun of "Vice." And "Canuck Uncovered" is inspired by one of the first documentaries ever made, the profile of the Eskimo known as "Nanook Of The North."
The primary collaborators here have earned our trust during their years on "Saturday Night Live" and beyond. Most episodes are written by Seth Meyers and star both Fred Armisen and Bill Hader, and they're all introduced in deadpan, Masterpiece Theatre-style by Helen Mirren, who's pretending to be the host of a very long-running documentary showcase.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCUMENTARY NOW!")
HELEN MIRREN: (As herself) Good evening. I'm Helen Mirren, and you're watching "Documentary Now!" For the past 50 years, "Documentary Now!" has presented audiences with the world's most thought-provoking cinema. This season, to celebrate our golden anniversary, we take a look back at the films that helped shape, change and innovate the world of documentary. Filmmakers Larry and Abraham Fine (ph) believed the key to crafting a documentary was to observe, not to direct. In 1975, they observed the world of Big Vivi (ph) and Little Vivi Van Kimpton (ph) in the seminal classic, "Sandy Passage."
BIANCULLI: If you saw the real "Grey Gardens" documentary about the eccentric aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, or even the movie, where Drew Barrymore played the fashion-challenged Little Edie, you'll laugh with knowing appreciation at Bill Hader's portrayal of Little Vivi. Otherwise, you're likely to laugh anyway when Vivi makes her first appearance greeting the documentary filmmakers wearing sweatpants as a head covering.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOCUMENTARY NOW!")
BILL HADER: (As Little Vivi) Hello Alfred. You boys look very handsome, very healthy today.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Alfred) Thank you.
HADER: (As Little Vivi) How are we doing?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Alfred) Doing great.
HADER: (As Little Vivi) Oh, good.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Alfred) Yeah, beautiful day.
HADER: (As Little Vivi) It is beautiful.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Alfred) You look very pretty. You want to...
HADER: (As Little Vivi) Oh.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Alfred) ...Tell us about your outfit?
HADER: (As Little Vivi) Thank you. This here is a skirt that I safety pin on, and if I want, I can make it a cape. And this - what this is, is that I take sweatpants and I wrap them around my head. This is what I do in the fall because it is a - it's very practical as a built-in scarf. But I'll tell you, (whispering) Mother doesn't like it. No, Mother doesn't like it at all.
BIANCULLI: These parodies are filmed with loving detail imitating the style as well as the look of each film, yet they're not content with being just parodies. Seth Meyers, as the principal writer, loves to use these fake films as springboards to surprising new directions. The "Grey Gardens" spoof, for example, morphs seamlessly into a found footage kind of horror film. As for the others, well, just watch. These quirky little half-hours are like extended "SNL" sketches - the good ones.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches television and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like the ones from this week with Larry Wilmore, Lily Tomlin and Alison Bechdel, check out our podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.