Save for The X Files and Fringe, Fox doesn’t have a great track record for keeping sci-fi dramas on the air longer than a season. Nevertheless, the network keeps trying. Will The Passage find a path to long-term success, or it is doomed to lose its way like so many shows before it?
Based on a trilogy of novels by author Justin Cronin, the series details a worldwide collapse due to a vampire apocalypse. The pilot episode opens with a group of doctors, scientists, and soldiers – led by Dr. Jonas Lear (Henry Ian Cusick from Lost) – trekking through the Bolivian jungle in search of a mythical 250-year-old man. The trail leads to a cave that the locals refuse to enter. Inside, an old man is locked in a cage. Before anyone can even mutter the word “vampire,” a young child unlocks the cage, and the frightening-looking man leaps out and attacks Dr. Tim Fanning (Jamie McShane). Amid much screaming, the soldiers open fire. Fanning survives and is brought to a hospital, where he seems to recover remarkably quickly. In fact, he feels great – until some of his teeth suddenly fall out, scary veins pop out all over his body, and he develops an unquenchable thirst for blood. Whoops.
Before you know it, Dr. Lear is in charge of Project Noah, a secret government research project tasked with finding cures for… well, everything. As an epidemic of Chinese Avian Flu heads toward America, his group is under pressure to develop a vaccine. Under lock and key, Fanning is the centerpiece of their research. He may be a bloodthirsty monster with seemingly no higher brain function anymore, but becoming a vampire (several of the characters joke about not wanting to use the word “vampire,” because vampires are silly and don’t really exist) has made him resistant to pretty much every disease thrown at him. Whatever is inside him may be the panacea that solves every health crisis in the world.
Of course, the side effects aren’t particularly desirable. To that end, the scientists have conducted a number of experiments modifying the strain and testing it on Death Row inmates who don’t understand what they’re signing their lives over to. With each successive attempt, the exterior visible symptoms have lessened, although the lost brain function and thirst for blood haven’t. Their most successful trial was on a twenty-something murderess named Shauna Babcock (Brianne Howey from The Exorcist TV spinoff) who’s still quite a hottie despite being a literal monster. One of the scientists points out that the younger patients are more resistant to the negative side effects. He believes that if they could experiment on a child, they might find the breakthrough they’re looking for.
That sounds pretty distasteful, but we’re dealing with a cabal of ethically-challenged scientists in a horror story here. They decide to press ahead. To do that, they need an orphan that nobody will miss. The project’s “recruiter” is Brad Wolgast (Mark-Paul Gossellar, who’s looking a lot like Chris Pratt these days). A former Special Ops soldier, Wolgast is very persuasive when talking prison inmates into signing up for a dubious medical experiment. He doesn’t question his orders when told to find a child next.
The target is Amy Bellafonte (Saniyya Sidney), a precocious and whip-smart ‘tween whose junkie mother recently overdosed. Wolgast and his partner basically kidnap the girl from foster care and drive her across the country toward the project’s base in Colorado, but Brad is really a good guy deep down and feels remorse for what he’s doing – especially since Amy reminds him of his dead daughter). During a pit-stop at a carnival, he ditches his partner and goes on the run with Amy, who senses his paternal instincts and agrees to go with him. They bond quickly.
Back at Project Noah, vampire Fanning seems to be psychically haunting the dreams of the next test subject, an inmate named Anthony Carter (McKinley Belcher III). In fact, it appears that all of the vampires may have more going on behind the eyes than the scientists understand. Shauna is especially fixated on one of the heads of the project, Clark Richards (Vincent Piazza).
Once his face is plastered all over the news as a kidnapper, Brad concocts a plan to surrender to a small town sheriff and get Amy’s face in front of the media. With enough attention on her, the Project will have to leave her alone. Unfortunately, as soon as Brad comes back on the radar, Clark leads a hit-squad to take him out and grab the girl. This results in a standoff and a shootout in the sheriff’s station. Brad takes a bullet, but steals a police car and drives off with Amy. The episode ends with a high-speed chase.
For a network show (and all the caveats about watered-down content that implies) starring a former Saved by the Bell cast member, The Passage gets off to a surprisingly strong start. The story and the main characters are both interesting so far. Saniyya Sidney is a very appealing child actress with a lot of spunk.
It’s not perfect, of course. The first episode feels very rushed, like the writers are trying to cram two hours’ worth of important story setup into a one-hour premiere, but that’s pretty typical of pilot episodes. A lot more characters are introduced than I could mention in this recap, many of them without much information (if we even get their names). Why the Project Noah people are so fixated on getting this particular girl after Wolgast goes rogue with her is not well explained. (Couldn’t they just find another test subject? There’s no shortage of orphans in this country.) Honestly, the apocalypse storyline is also kind of old-hat these days. I really hope this show doesn’t go down the tubes as quickly as The Strain did.
That said, the premiere held my attention pretty well and I’m invested enough to watch some more.