The Passage is one of those perfectly fine new broadcast series that has a chance to develop into a Lost-like obsession. (And not just because Desmond himself, Henry Ian Cusick, is here classing up the joint). Based on the expansive book trilogy by author Justin Cronin, The Passage is essentially about how the human race makes a series of increasingly poor choices and ends up dumb-dumb’ing its way into the vampire apocalypse, which is, at least, incredibly believable. But there’s a real heart at its center, an endearing quality that’s part Strangers Things, part The Strain, and though The Passage‘s first three episodes didn’t fully sink its teeth into me, I’d certainly invite it back into my household if it asked.
“I didn’t use to believe in monsters, but I do now. I saw them change everything,” young actress Saniyya Sidney says as Amy Bellafonte in voice-over during The Passage‘s pilot. (Luckily, one of those changes is that series creator Liz Heldens does away with the egregiously unnecessary narration after the pilot). But the story doesn’t start with Amy, it starts with Dr. Jonas Lear (Cusick) who, along with his partner Dr. Tim Fanning (Jamie McShane) discovers a seemingly immortal man in a South American cave, kept in a cage and fed buckets of blood by the local villagers. Because Fanning is a brilliant scientist but terrible at spacial awareness, the immortal man sinks his teeth into the doctor’s neck, and Fanning becomes something horrible, immune to disease but averse to sunlight and dependent on human blood. Flash-forward, and Jonas has created Project Noah, using Fanning as patient zero to try and weaponize whatever this vampiric curse is in the war against disease, bringing in death row inmates as guinea pigs. When Project Noah seeks out its first child test subject—the recently orphaned Amy Bellafonte—special agent Brad Wolgast (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) has a change of heart and takes the girl on the run. While Project Noah is focused on re-capturing its latest sample, Fanning and the rest of the infected have started to communicate, and they’ve got world domination on the mind.
If that sounds like a whole lot that’s because it very much is, and The Passage suffers early on from the attention-deficit storytelling that plagues many a broadcast series. The pilot, for example, introduces the idea of a deadly Avian Flu epidemic in China in its first fifteen minutes. During a board meeting. Getting onboard with The Passage means a good amount of these disbelief-suspending moments, like accepting the fact this high-tech government project is taking the very Venom approach to science by just repeatedly injecting a vampire virus into people and hoping for the best.
But past the show’s awkwardness is something really genuine worth sticking around for at its core, mostly thanks to the surprisingly sweet chemistry between Sidney and Gosselaar. Long-gone are the days of Saved by the Bell‘s resident heartthrob Zack Morris; Gosselaar has fully morphed into something closer to action-hero era Chris Pratt by way of the dad-dancing David Harbour GIF from Stranger Things. He’s endearing in a clunky way, is what I mean, and that works well across from Sidney, who is dynamite here at just 12-years-old. Making a child actor the focal point of any franchise-starter is a risky venture—ask George Lucas—but the actress shines by riding the line between youthful naivety and the hardness that comes with being asked to grow up too fast. Even the iffiest of lines, like Amy aggressively telling Wolgast “you owe me a unicorn” after a disastrous trip to a carnival, come off like an odd-couple bond forming in the face of the unimaginable.
The horror elements are hit-or-miss on a show that’s actually much less horror-focused than you’d imagine. Outside of some striking golden eyes and a few bulging purple veins, the creature design isn’t any-fang you haven’t seen before. But The Passage does have a lot of fun with the idea of a vampire itself. Blood-suckers have usually served as a stand-in for sex over the years, but here it’s all science. Cusick’s Jonas insists several times that there’s “no such thing as vampires” over The Passage‘s first three episodes while standing across from a person who feeds off human blood, and treating an obvious horror trope like something to be cured with a white coat and test tube at least keeps the living dead feeling fresh.
Over on the living side, The Passage boasts a pretty MVP team of TV bit players. Besides Gosselaar and Cusick, we’ve got Boardwalk Empire alum Vincent Piazza putting his wiseguy roughness to good use as high-ranking Project Noah enforcer Clark Richard. The Exorcist star Brianne Howey puts in by far the most visually unsettling performance as Shauna Babcock, one of the twelve death row inmates turned catatonic vampires, but she also excels in fleshing out the character’s backstory in an episode-three flashback. The low-key stand-out, however, is Jason Fuchs as Project Noah’s janitor Lawrence Grey, a fantastically jittery performance that eventually transforms into something like the Renfield to Fanning’s Dracula.
It’s an incredibly game, consistently charming ensemble for a show that, overall, is brimming with potential. The opening chapters aren’t exactly love at first bite, but there’s something to this show’s wonky pseudo-science and earnestly beating heart that kept me enthralled all the same.
The Passage premieres Monday, January 14th on Fox.