With the combined power of executive producer Ridley Scott, the best-selling novel trilogy by Justin Cronin, and what looks like a comfortable budget from Fox behind it, new sci-fi series The Passage has a lot going for it right out of the gate. The show premieres tonight, but we’ve seen the first three episodes—and they do not disappoint.
We won’t be spoiling anything in this preview, but we can tell you that we were pleasantly surprised by what we’ve seen so far. If it can keep up the energy of its first three episodes, The Passage has some serious potential to deliver cheesy-yet-thrilling good times, as only a show about secret vampires, government conspiracies, and the looming prospect of doomsday is poised to do.
At any rate, there aren’t too many reveals in the early episodes—other than tidbits about the characters, which go a long way toward explaining everybody’s reasons for being involved in The Passage’s shit’s-messy-and-it’s-getting-worse situation. The key plot elements come from Cronin’s books, though obviously some liberties are taken in the name of pacing and visual drama. A pandemic that will potentially/probably kill millions of people is on the horizon, so the doctors who’re part of the mysterious “Project Noah” are extremely motivated to produce the miracle cure they’ve been toiling on. For privacy’s sake, their lab is housed in what was once a fancy hotel tucked into the Colorado countryside.
We get flashbacks that show the scientists stumbling upon the magic bullet, something that could potentially make people immune to every disease; it involves a top-secret, Department of Defense-funded expedition to the South American jungle. The Department of Defense part is important, because it’s the reason some of the series’ major players—including FBI Agent Brad Wolgast (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and CIA Agent Clark Richards (Vincent Piazza), buddies since they served together in Afghanistan—get drawn into all this weird science.
Brad, who has a tragic backstory hiding behind his steely exterior, was once a hostage negotiator, so he’s the guy Project Noah uses to convince a steady stream of condemned inmates to sign on as human guinea pigs. Clark is a little more on the inside; he’s in a relationship with top doctor Major Nichole Sykes (Caroline Chikezie), and—unlike Brad—he knows what happens to the prisoners once they’re whisked from death row and into the bowels of Project Noah HQ.
And we also know more than Brad, because The Passage has already introduced us to Dr. Tim Fanning (Jamie McShane), who—along with Dr. Jonas Lear (The 100's Henry Ian Cusick)—made that breakthrough first discovery. Unfortunately, Tim was bitten by...something...being kept in a cage down in Bolivia, and now he’s “a lethal blood-sucking monster who we are all very careful not to call a vampire.” Tim and the other test subjects are called “virals,” Jonas explains later, because they’re scientists and, well, everybody knows that vampires don’t really exist.
That kind of this-could-be-the-real-world acknowledgment is appreciated, and while The Passage plays things straight, it’s not terribly self-serious. It knows it’s a show about vampires—blood-drinking, neck-biting, sunlight-fearing, the whole nine. But at the same time, it’s also about a group of very conflicted people who realize the end of the world is coming, try to do the right thing, and potentially spark a totally different apocalypse in the process.
The heart of the show, though, is very clearly Amy Bellafonte (American Horror Story: Roanoke’s Saniyya Sidney), a 10-year-old who’s scooped up by Project Noah three days after her mother dies of an accidental overdose. Though Dr. Sykes feels rightfully horrible about kidnapping an orphan in the name of science, she’s convinced that a very young patient will have the right biology to concoct the miracle cure. With a pandemic looming, the doctor figures the ends justify the very icky means. Anyway, she’s pretty sure that Amy won’t turn into a bloodsucker like the others, because...youth, apparently.
None of that sits right with Brad, the agent tasked with grabbing Amy, who very quickly realizes he should be helping the little girl rather than turning her over to Project Noah. The Passage could have gone very wrong with casting here, but Sidney is pretty great—a tough, precocious kid with excellent instincts, who’s gentle enough to love A Wrinkle in Time and unicorns but can also hold her own in a schoolyard fight. That’s how Amy is written, but Sidney makes all that scripted perfection feel believable; her performance is grounded and not at all cutesy, and she brings a necessary balance to an ensemble that also features numerous uptight men with guns and a whole lotta wild-eyed creatures of the night. (Someone needs to pen a crossover comic in which Amy teams up with Melanie from The Girl With All the Gifts.)
While Brad’s an excellent protector, Project Noah’s shadowy enforcers—led by Brad’s onetime pal Clark—have a long reach that means Amy may not be safe for long. Meanwhile, everyone back at the lab in Colorado (including a nervous janitor whose name might as well be “Renfield”) begins to feel the psychic weight that comes with having a clan of vampires lurking around. For instance, Fanning and the alluring Shauna Babcock (The Exorcist’s Brienne Howey), whose backstory suggests she got a very unfair trial en route to death row, have started popping up in people’s dreams...or nightmares, if you will.
Look, we’ve seen vampires on TV a lot. More than a lot. We’ve also had many, many apocalyptic sci-fi shows. But what makes The Passage different, at least so far, is how well-drawn its characters are. Everybody’s got a reason for what they’re doing, and everybody sure thinks they’re doing the right thing. But everybody also seems capable of change, something that’ll be important as the stakes rise higher and higher.
That excludes, of course, the exceedingly ghoulish Dr. Fanning, who cannot be reasoned with and is 100 percent up to no good. He’s the head vampire, man! That’s his job! The Passage’s story will no doubt expand as the season progresses—never forget, there’s that old rule about “if you show a cell block full of vampires in act one, you have to let them out by act three”—but hopefully, it’ll still focus primarily on its characters, even as it thunders toward all-out chaotic bloodsucking mayhem. Fingers crossed.
The Passage premieres tonight on Fox.
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