REVIEW: The Passage Takes the Excitement Out of a Sci-Fi Epic

Justin Cronin’s The Passage novel trilogy spans hundreds of years both pre- and post-apocalypse, but the Fox TV-series adaptation (premiering today, January 14) has scaled the story down to a single generic compound, where secret agents and scientists yell at each other about an impending disaster unfolding entirely offscreen. It’s possible that the first three episodes are merely setting up an epic to come, but there’s very little to indicate that it will be worth sticking around to see what develops.

This is a show about vampires with psychic powers who are destined to take over the world, and yet its main character is a generic glowering ex-military dude who forms a cloying bond with a sassy kid. Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s Brad Wolgast is a Jack Bauer type who’s left behind his military and law-enforcement past to work for the shady Project Noah, which is recruiting death row inmates as guinea pigs for its medical experiments. Despite the lab coats and the scientific jargon, those experiments are straight-up turning people into vampires, in a clearly misguided effort to find the cure for all known diseases.

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There’s a new superflu on the rise in Asia, but the only scenes conveying this supposed imminent threat are a handful of news clips, and it’s tough to understand the supposed urgency that justifies the risk of creating a race of ultra-powerful vampires. That same urgency requires that Project Noah acquire a child as its latest test subject, for meaningless scientific reasons that are quickly hand-waved away in order to put Brad on the trail of spunky orphan Amy Bellafonte (Saniyya Sidney), who also narrates the first episode.

“My name is Amy Bellafonte. This is how the world ends,” Amy intones ominously early in that first episode, and it’s hard not to feel impatient for the world-ending to just show up already. Initially assigned to bring Amy in, by whatever means necessary, Brad instead goes rogue, as Amy stirs up memories of his own daughter, who died under vaguely referenced circumstances. In the midst of attempting to prevent the apocalypse, Brad gets caught up in tedious family drama with his doctor ex-wife (Emmanuelle Chriqui), who’s awkwardly dragged into the plot even though she has no relevant connection to Project Noah or its goals.

Amy, who’s the central character of Cronin’s novels, is too often treated like a prop for Brad’s heroic actions, and their relationship is more uncomfortable than heartwarming. At least it’s given some space to develop, which is more than can be said for the relationships among the scientists, despite some Lost-style flashbacks that will presumably expand to include more characters. Lost’s own Henry Ian Cusick plays Jonas Lear, the scientist who has reservations about the ethics of the whole operation, while Caroline Chikezie plays Nichole Sykes, the scientist who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. Both actors are perfectly fine in their roles, but that’s a pretty basic, familiar conflict, and the show doesn’t do much beyond play out its expected beats.

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In the meantime, the vampires (who are known as “virals”) kind of stew in the background, led by Dr. Tim Fanning (Jamie McShane), Jonas’ former colleague who’s also patient zero for the plague, after being infected by a 250-year-old vampire that the team discovers in a cave in Bolivia. “Why don’t you just call them vampires?” Brad asks in audience-identifying exasperation at one point, but everyone at Project Noah takes themselves very seriously, even as blood-sucking demons start invading their dreams. Fanning has a nervous lab tech who serves as Renfield to his Dracula, and fellow vampire Shauna Babcock (Brianne Howey) works on seducing no-nonsense CIA agent Clark Richards (Vincent Piazza), all via telepathic visions.

With its novel-trilogy source material and potentially sprawling story about the vampire apocalypse, The Passage has a lot in common with the uneven FX series The Strain, which had similar difficulties in building to a worldwide catastrophe. The Strain kept viewers coming back by going completely over the top, and there are hints that The Passage could get similarly crazy as it progresses, especially if the vampires get more to do than sit in their cells and stare menacingly into the distance. The problem is that the creators (including big-name executive producers Ridley Scott and Matt Reeves, plus series creator/showrunner Liz Heldens) seem unwilling to embrace the story’s ridiculous aspects, or are convinced that a really slow build is the best way to hook the audience.

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That may work for an 800-page novel, but a TV series that sidelines its horror-movie antagonists in favor of dull, hokey flashbacks about secondary characters is not going to keep viewers engaged for long. The interpersonal drama among the main characters is much less engrossing than the creators seem to think it is, and it often feels like it’s covering for a lack of resources in depicting more supernatural or apocalyptic events.

Plus, the characters consistently make obviously dumb decisions for the sake of delaying clearly inevitable plot developments, which makes it difficult to care about whether they get eviscerated by vampires. More evisceration by vampires would be welcome, really, and would at least liven up a show that turns a grand sci-fi epic into a boring network drama about disagreements among government agents.

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