“Tales of the Walking Dead” offers a mixed bag of standalone stories, but a talented cast and a few wild storytelling experiments don’t quite manage to breathe new life into the franchise. The six-episode anthology series, premiering August 14, is the third series to spin off from “The Walking Dead,” after “Fear the Walking Dead,” which recently wrapped its seventh season, and “Walking Dead: World Beyond,” a two-season series that concluded last year.
Where this show differs from its predecessors is in the scope of its storytelling: while occasional nods to the larger universe are present throughout all six of these self-contained stories, no previous knowledge of the universe is strictly necessary, and each story is small enough to resolve fully within the 45 minutes allotted. It would be an unorthodox introduction to the franchise, but it would work.
And indeed, if the prospect of returning to either of the two long-running “Walking Dead” series is too daunting, “Tales” offers an opportunity for lapsed viewers to take a quick jaunt back into this universe without having to make a commitment.
For fans who’ve never taken a break from the franchise, though, most episodes might make less of an impression. At its least effective, “Tales” is a simply a bunch of well-known actors dropped into zombie-adjacent situations that could have originated as plotlines cut from the existing series. They march through the forest. They stab zombies in the head. They come up with new slang terms for the zombies (“toe-tags,” “chompers”) while, true to the rules of the universe, never actually using the word “zombie.”
Put another way, the further afield the stories go, the more successful they are as entertainment. For instance, an absolutely unhinged nod to “Groundhog Day” features Jillian Bell and Parker Posey as adversarial officemates who steal a tanker truck and make repeated stands against an encroaching horde of the undead. Is it top-tier prestige television? Somewhere around the third or fourth massive explosion, the answer to that question becomes clear. But is it fun? Most definitely.
Although not every episode in the series rises to the same levels of experimentation, each one at least dips into a different genre: there’s zombie-apocalypse noir, zombie-apocalypse gothic horror. In “Evie; Joe”, Terry Crews and Olivia Munn play polar opposites thrown together on a buddy-comedy road trip that takes a sharp turn into slasher-film territory; Anthony Edwards, as an ecologist studying the habits of walkers in a man-made nature preserve, narrates the opening of “Amy; Dr. Everett” as though he’s in an Attenborough documentary.
Unfortunately, despite all of the different flavors of programming, many of the plots themselves seem stuck in the same thematic ruts that frequently plague both “The Walking Dead” proper and “Fear the Walking Dead.” More than 250 hours of television taking place in this universe have aired, after all, which should be more than enough time for anyone to sufficiently ponder the difficulty of maintaining your basic humanity when the collapse of civilization has brought mankind’s darkest impulses to light.
Viewers of any “Walking Dead” property have known since roughly Season 2 of the flagship that in a world ruled by the undead, it’s the living humans who are the true danger. And no matter the tone of the story, when “Tales” goes to this well, the results feel less like exploring a new corner of the universe and more like an excuse to let a few name actors do some zombie-fighting cosplay. (That’s not a completely terrible thing; Crews and Posey, in particular, spend their respective episodes chewing scenery like their zombie adversaries chew brains — and have an absolute blast.)
“Dee,” however, presents the reverse: a point in time where some shreds of compassion and heart still remained in one of the franchise’s most heartless villains. The episode serves as an origin story of sorts for Samantha Morton’s Alpha, who terrorized the cast throughout Seasons 9 and 10 of “The Walking Dead,” but who was once simply a mother going to any extreme to protect her child.
“Tales of the Walking Dead’’s only overt nod to previously established characters plays a little fast and loose with canon, but it’s a sharp, well-told mystery taking place in one of the franchise’s more creative survival scenarios. (Who wouldn’t want to spend the downfall of civilization partying on a riverboat?) Perhaps the fanbase’s familiarity with Alpha, and the lived-in quality of Morton’s portrayal, contributes to its effectiveness, but it’s easily the most compelling and memorable episode of the lot.
Any anthology series is bound to vary in quality, but an anthology series within a well-established franchise has to work twice as hard to differentiate itself from its parent property. “Tales of the Walking Dead” achieves this only occasionally, but in its successes, it presents a path forward for future spinoffs. With two more “Walking Dead” spinoff series on the horizon, “Tales” suggests that generally speaking, the key to telling more stories in this universe is to take bigger swings.
“Tales of the Walking Dead” premieres Sunday, Aug. 14 on AMC and AMC+, and new episodes drop weekly. Four of six episodes were screened for review.