'The Passage': TV Review

Somewhat ambitious, but not very scary or compelling.
1/14/2019

Justin Cronin's vampire novel has most of its complexity removed in a broadcast TV adaptation that amounts to amiable road-trip bonding well-played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Saniyya Sidney.

It's Halloween in January this week for fans of vampires, as TV offers a sample plate of different bloodsuckers.

If you like your vampires urbane, sexy, ageless and not especially threatening, check out SundanceNow and Shudder's adaptation of A Discovery of Witches, featuring Matthew Goode as a toothy, Oxford-educated, deer-chasing, Darwin-quoting lust bomb.

If, however, you prefer your vampires feral, vicious and completely uninterested in wooing impressionable female academics, Fox has you somewhat covered with its adaptation of The Passage.

The problem is that if The Passage offered your flavor of revisionist vampire lore, you probably read Justin Cronin's epic tome and perhaps even its pair of doorstop sequels and you may understand something that producer Matt Reeves probably realized after trying to develop it as a movie and that Fox probably realized after multiple attempts at developing it for TV: The Passage is completely and totally unadaptable.

That was my reaction to watching the first three episodes of The Passage, which bears much more resemblance to the family-on-the-run hijinks of the first season of Fox's The Gifted than to Cronin's densely plotted, perspective-and-time-hopping novel.

Even with series creator Liz Heldens thinning the plot out dramatically, there's still too much happening for a clear synopsis.

The first episode, a franken-pilot credited to both Jason Ensler and Marcos Siega, begins with scientists Jonas Lear (Henry Ian Cusick) and Tim Fanning (Jamie McShane) leading an expedition into the Bolivian highlands searching for a 250-year-old man, part of a quest to cure all diseases. Fanning gets mauled and seems to die. But he doesn't die. A couple years later, Lear and a team of scientists led by Nichole Sykes (Caroline Chikezie) are still working on isolating the virus that didn't kill Fanning, but did turn him into a veiny, black-eyed, blood-drinking terror monster impervious to disease. They've turned a series of a dozen death-row patients into similar creatures, which they inexplicably don't swiftly determine was a bad move.

For reasons that make some sense in context, with an Asian bird flu epidemic threatening the world, the military-scientists or scientary-militarists decide they need to step up their experiments and try testing on children. For reasons that make very little initial sense, they latch onto a single, newly orphaned girl named Amy (Saniyya Sidney) and decide the project can only work with her and send former military hotshot Brad Wolgast (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) out to collect the girl. If they'd done their expositional homework, they'd know that Wolgast is still grieving after the death of his own daughter and separation from his wife (Emmanuelle Chriqui), and they'd be able to predict that soon Wolgast would be hit by an attack of conscience and go on the run, determined to protect Amy.

The series attempts to work in a few shades of gray. Nobody is exactly evil, even if they're unethical. The vampires just want to live. The Department of Defense officials just want to prevent a pandemic. Watching the series, you get that experimenting on kids is probably bad and that's our rooting interest and the series never finds a way to visualize the stakes of what would happen if the bird flu got to these shores or how long we have until that might happen, so any complexity is finally negligible.

On the page, The Passage has several points-of-view and goes between a near-future present, decades in the future and traces of a thousand years in the future, all tracing the evolution of this strain of vampirism or, rather, the evolution of humanity once vampirism becomes a part of our makeup. There's so much happening it's frankly exhausting. The TV series is mostly Wolgast and Amy on the run from Vincent Piazza's Clark Richards, a tough guy who served with Wolgast, a fact I know because the first time another character sees them standing side-by-side, he says, "You guys served together. Special ops, right?" Other things I know about Wolgast are introduced because somebody pulls up his file in a war room and announces, "Brad Wolgast earned a Silver Star in 2005 and was credited with 98 kills in Afghanistan." I know he's not a guy you want going rogue because that character adds, "This is not the guy we want going rogue." I know about his daughter because any time he looks at a picture with his wife and daughter, we zoom in and the music gets sentimental.

There is no piece of information delivered fluidly or artfully in The Passage. Maybe if this had been a cable or streaming show with 55 minutes per episode, there might have been time for breathing. Instead, the first three episodes are an aggressive information dump punctuated by sweet bonding with Wolgast and Amy and creepiness with veiny creatures who aren't called vampires even if everybody keeps asking why they aren't called vampires.

The bonding stuff isn't bad at all. Sidney is a rather great find, conveying intelligence and perception without excessive precociousness, and Gosselaar, who knows a thing or two about excessive precociousness in child actors, responds by playing to her like an equal, without a trace of coddling and condescension. The action beats in which Wolgast has to protect Amy are purely perfunctory, but I suppose that when your hero has a special ops background and 98 kills in Afghanistan, he's not the kind of guy to worry about style or choreography once he goes rogue.

The creepiness is more muted. Again, with the advantage of cable or streaming permissiveness, maybe there would have been the leeway to amp up the intensity and the bloodiness so that The Passage could rise to the level of scary or truly disturbing. Actually, Fox's version of The Exorcist didn't need to go TV-MA graphic to be frequently scary or disturbing, so the execution is somewhat to blame for making The Passage feel episodic and limp, without ever getting under your skin. Brianne Howey, who did really great work in that first Exorcist season, continues her arc of being put through the ringer by Fox dramas and gives the best performance, thus far, out of the death-row lab rats known as The Twelve. She, like McShane, gets to shine a little in the character-building flashbacks that prevent The Passage from being exclusively linear.

I have an inclination to praise Fox for at least trying for a big swing by adapting this unadaptable book. There's some ambition to the effort and that comes after a fall with barely any ambition from the broadcast networks. It's still disappointing to see that ambition result in some decent surrogate father-daughter beats, some pseudo-scientific rationalization of vampirism, one or two effective jolts and a whole lot of exposition.

Cast: Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Saniyya Sidney, Vincent Piazza, Brianne Howey, McKinley Belcher III, Jamie McShane, Caroline Chikezie, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Henry Ian Cusick
Creator: Adapted by Liz Heldens from the book by Justin Cronin
Premieres: Monday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Fox)