Never trust a show that comes out of the gate with a voice-over. It’s a tried-and-true rule—there are only a handful of exceptions in the entire history of TV—that especially applies to dramas. Sure, a comedy can get away with voice-over because there’s a ridiculousness inherent in the sitcom, but a drama that uses it? It’s typically a sign the show has no idea how to tell its story, relying on blatant exposition as a crutch. That’s The Passage, a show heavy on exposition and plot, light on things like compelling drama and well-drawn characters.
Fox’s The Passage is very loosely based on the trilogy of novels written by Justin Cronin. In those novels, the government’s attempts to create a vaccine that would inoculate humankind against all diseases goes terribly wrong. The vaccine, which is first tested on death row inmates because the whole operation is pretty illegal, ends up creating vampires, which isn’t exactly the intention, you know? The only hope for humanity may lie with a 6-year-old girl who could potentially represent a cure. The first novel alone covers decades of time, a sweeping epic reminiscent of The Stand or Swan Song, as civilization attempts to adapt to this new reality and find a way to survive.
Adapting the trilogy, or even just the first book, into a TV series is a tall task. The novels are engaging at times and a slog at others, but they’re defined by an ability to jump between genres with ease, which keeps the story moving at a good clip. There’s elements of sci-fi, horror, and post-apocalyptic fiction, not to mention the vast number of characters that come in and out of the trilogy. The novels cover a lot of time and a lot of tones, and the first mistake Fox’s The Passage makes, other than the voice-over, is attempting to capture all those tones while also narrowing the scope of the story.
So, the series premiere firmly establishes that this won’t be a massive post-apocalyptic epic, at least not yet. Rather, the focus is generally on Amy, the 6-year-old girl, aged to 10 for the series. After the CDC has determined that its vaccine works best on people who are young because they have more neurons, a particularly shady doctor suggests the only way to save humanity from an impending epidemic—in the early going it’s the avian flu, but for the most part the show struggles to define the threats to humanity—is to bring in a child as an experimental patient. Of course, every other doctor thinks this is a moral abomination, but they agree to it anyways because humanity hangs in the balance, or so we’re told.
Amy, played with grit and charm by Saniyya Sidney, is picked up by two agents, one of whom, Brad Wolgast (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), takes a liking to her and decides to go rogue, taking Amy on the run with him so that she can’t be involved in the experiment. Why would the agent we’ve watched cross every moral line without thinking twice suddenly grow a heart? Well, as we learn, he had a daughter that was just like Amy, one that he watched die. The Passage is filled with little character details like this that are revealed with absolutely no narrative nuance, backed by horrendous music cues. The show is constantly hiding its cards, only revealing snippets of character motivations in order to remain “mysterious.” But the effect is a host of characters who feel completely lifeless.
The problem here isn’t even the severely rushed companionship between Wolgast and Amy, which has a certain odd-couple spunk to it, but rather the show’s inability to commit to any sense of story or pacing. There’s a whole lot of plot here, but it all amounts to nothing. There’s so much useless information, subplots, and characters packed into the first three episodes. Here’s just a few: we learn the vaccine was originally formed by Dr. Lear (Henry Ian Cusick, the only actor here with some presence) in order to save his wife from Alzheimer’s, which involves looking for a 250-year-old man in Bolivia, which goes against his wife’s explicit wish for him to simply stay home and take care of her; Wolgast has an ex-wife that he gets along with well enough, but the whole dynamic is a cliché of divorced partners; the vampires may have psychic abilities; Patient Zero, formerly Lear’s friend and colleague Dr. Fanning, might have a nefarious past, which hardly matters now that he sucks blood for a living; treatment for the virus gives the patients nightmares, which is really just that vampire psychic ability I mentioned; the CDC and DOD immediately turn on Brad when he goes rogue, and find him hiding in the woods along with a friend of his who likes to live off the grid. The conspiracies, backstories, and predictable beats pile up quickly. It’s not hard to keep track of, because it’s not overly complicated; it’s just boring because there’s nothing really at stake here.
It sounds weird for a show that’s about a girl being forced into an experiment that looks to save the world from an epidemic and only ends up creating vampires, but there’s truly nothing substantial to latch on to. The Passage is a show that has no idea what it wants to be. It’s a dull political thriller, predictable procedural, and an even worse horror show, and its attempts at humor feel out of whack with the overwhelmingly self-serious tone of everything else.
On top of all that, there’s hardly a single actor that can convey an emotion beyond being gruff. That’s not necessarily the fault of the actors, because the writing is atrocious; “so many things led to what happened. It was a perfect storm,” laments Amy in one of the show’s many vague, meaningless voice-overs. But as you watch the episodes, the characters all start to blend into one another, their motivations murky and their line-readings wooden, resulting in an ever-increasing sense that there’s no reason to stick around because there’s no reason to care. The Passage gestures at emotional stakes from time to time, but it’s mostly exploitative; yes, a child in peril is troubling, but what comes next? There’s morality struggles and supposed bigger questions about humanity, but it’s all lost in a mess of genre splashes. Add in paper-thin characters and an abysmal sense of pacing, and you have a new show that misfires on just about every front.