(CNN)"Fear the Walking Dead" and "The Strain" both deal with society unraveling in the face of a virus-like supernatural threat. But the AMC and FX programs, which return on successive Sundays this month, demonstrate how similar concepts can go in very different creative directions.
'Fear the Walking Dead,' 'The Strain' take similar concepts in different directions
Where "The Strain" is good, pulpy fun, with lots of action, gallows humor and dense mythology, "Fear The Walking Dead, a "The Walking Dead" spinoff, plods along at a zombie-like gait, even as it adds layers to its not-particularly-scintillating cast of characters.
Indeed, at times "Fear the Walking Dead" -- which comes out of its midseason break with key characters scattered, having sought elusive safety in Mexico -- feels as if it's challenging the audience to remain interested.
Despite the constant threat of key characters becoming zombie food and the occasional gross-out sequence (including an unorthodox use of bodily fluids), these next few episodes actually manage to be boring.
That's primarily because the show has done so little to get viewers invested, even halfway through the second season, in who lives or dies, largely squandering leads Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis. The sporadic flashbacks (including one about the family's troubled son, played by Frank Dillane) don't do much to invigorate the story, either.
Although the ratings have been good enough to justify this expansion of AMC's "The Walking Dead" brand, this offshoot has essentially become a pallid placeholder, killing time during those two-thirds of the year when the mother ship is docked.
By contrast, "The Strain" plunges into its third season with a heady mix of shuffled alliances and backstory.
New York has basically been left to fend for itself amid the vampire outbreak that has gradually spread throughout the city. Most frighteningly, the creatures appear to be evolving, in ways that make them more unpredictable and dangerous.
Epidemiologist Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) is desperately trying to use science to thwart the ancient evil known as The Master, but has also started drinking since being separated from his son. He also finds himself uncomfortably thrown together with Quinlan (Rupert Penry-Jones), the vampire-human hybrid who has vowed to destroy their common enemy, for reasons made more clear during his own absorbing flashback sequence.
Through its own gradual evolution, "The Strain" plays like a war movie -- with intricate tactics and counter-punches -- and not just a survival tale. So while Eph battles on one front, concentration camp survivor Setrakian (David Bradley) and one-time exterminator Fet (Kevin Durand) pursue their own line of attack, with the latter teaming up with a Navy SEAL team.
Based as it is on books by co-creators Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, "The Strain," like "The Walking Dead," has literary roots but has cleverly riffed off those origins. The show has also embraced its comic-book-like underpinnings, and the producers have promised that a shortened 10-episode season will quicken the pace, which was one of the few problems with its second season.
"Fear the Walking Dead" and "The Strain" share exaggerated apprehensions about viruses run amok, thus tapping into real-world fears. Yet as TV habits go, only one of them is worth catching.
"Fear the Walking Dead" returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC. "The Strain" returns Aug. 28 at 10 p.m. on FX.