From executive producer Ridley Scott and “Friday Night Lights” writer Liz Heldens, Fox’s vampire thriller “The Passage” lacks edge — and that may give it the edge over other fantasy-horror series. As traditional networks lose viewers and their own library content to streaming sites, shows like “The Passage” demonstrate what broadcast television can offer: Likable characters in a serialized story just engaging enough to retain viewers without the pressure of having to binge every single episode right now. This is apocalypse for the mainstream.
Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Justin Cronin, “The Passage” takes a relatable and heartfelt approach with the introduction to an orphaned 10-year-old Amy Bellafonte (relative newcomer Saniyya Sidney, in her first major TV role). An utterly charming, smart, and tough tomboy, she becomes “the most important girl in the world” as the key to the cure for a fast-approaching global pandemic.
Of course, the purported star of the series is Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who’s parlayed his “Saved by the Bell” fame to become a competent procedural mainstay. His face provides instant familiarity and trust as Brad Wolgast, a federal agent ordered to bring Amy to the mysterious Project Noah in Colorado. Eventually, his humanity and Amy’s charisma win the day, and the two go rogue, determined to rely only on each other.
That doesn’t last long, and Amy falls into the clutches of Project Noah, which presents yet another threat to the world. Its experimental cure obtained from the Bolivian Highlands has some major side effects that mimic vampirism, and its test subjects aren’t content to stay inside the facility. It’s just a matter of time before all is chaos, but just how much chaos remains to be seen.
Cronin’s “The Passage” trilogy has been compared to Stephen King’s “The Stand,” about the near-extinction of humanity after a virulent pandemic. Similarly, Cronin’s epic spans decades and boasts an astronomical body count. Fox’s adaptation is still in pre-apocalypse mode early on, but has made enough changes to characters and plot that it’s unclear if the series will match the scale of its source material. However, the show introduces a slew of characters, giving a hint of the scope to come.
“Lost” veteran Henry Ian Cusick shows promise as the troubled Dr. Jonas Lear, who could prove to be a knowledgeable ally, as does Emanuelle Chriqui as Wolgast’s ex-wife Dr. Lila Kyle. They’re joined by Caroline Chikezie, Vincent Piazza, Brianne Howey, and McKinley Belcher III. The standouts, however, are Jamie McShane, who brings a gleeful menace as Patient Zero, aka the head vampire, and Kecia Lewis as a no-nonsense hermit with a religious and military past.
In the first three episodes of “The Passage” given to critics for review, the series doesn’t quite reach “The Walking Dead” levels of world-building and horror. That works in its favor: unrelieved grimness and gore porn seems passe as viewers shift towards a desire towards “hope punk,” a storytelling trend that crosses warfare with optimism.
Marshaling that hope is Amy. In Cronin’s novel, Amy is depicted as white, but she’s cast with a black actress and that’s no accident. The friendship and bond between Amy and Wolgast is natural, and in today’s political climate, it’s aspirational, especially when he reiterates that her life is important — and not just because of the pandemic. Amy Bellafonte is important, period.
Gosselaar’s top billing notwithstanding, Sidney is the star. Cronin wrote the novel in response to his daughter asking for a story about a “girl who saves the world.” The Fox series reinforces this idea by having Amy read “A Wrinkle in Time,” in which protagonist Meg is the one who saves her father. It helps that Fox found Sidney, who commands every scene and every line — which is written with vibrant authenticity — in a natural way. She also states her opinions and isn’t afraid to be proactive under duress. No wonder Wolgast becomes inspired to do what’s right. Together, the chemistry is a delight, especially when they banter about unicorns.
For horror fans, there are plenty of heartaches, blood, and scares. The creature makeup for the infected subjects is particularly eerie in how it depicts the infection’s vascular and biological effects. These are not sparkly, sexy vampires. The violence, however, is sanitized compared to the bodies as meat on “The Walking Dead” or even “Hannibal.” The show makes up for this with plenty of action sequences and by delving into conceptual horrors: mass deaths, ethical grey areas, invasion of privacy, having to leave a loved one in the past.
“The Passage” may not reach the grandiose and tragic heights of Cronin’s books, but it has the potential to be equally satisfying: It’s pragmatic, aggressive, and most of all, present.
”The Passage” premieres on Monday, Jan. 14 at 9 p.m. ET on Fox. Watch the trailer below: