Based on Justin Cronin’s best-selling novel, Fox’s new drama “The Passage” has the raw material of a hit: Richly detailed source material, an appealing star in Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and a compelling hook. The show assays a world in which an attempt to cure diseases by harnessing a dark sort of power results in the rise of a vampiric race. It ought to work: Hubris leading to man’s own destruction is a theme both time-tested and, these days, particularly fresh.
And yet “The Passage,” in its first three episodes, is doomed by its unwillingness to commit to its own darkness. Sequences in which the vampires haunt the dreams and minds of their prey are — in apparent concession to Fox’s status as a broadcast network — flaccid and uncompelling. (No one would expect Fox to broadcast sequences as violent as those on FX’s “The Strain” or “American Horror Story,” but those shows at their best exhibit a nightmarish tension that’s missing here.) And the show’s frame, as a story narrated by a child at the center of a nefarious government plot, deadens what could otherwise be a propulsive pace.
In a characteristically thudding bit of narration, Saniyya Sidney, a gifted child performer, tells us, “My name is Amy Bellafonte. I didn’t used to believe in monsters. I do now.” Her character exists in order to be ported from place to place by Gosselaar (who’s hired to transport her to a government lab before having a change of heart and going on the lam) and to give us bits of exposition about how the world fell apart. “So many things led to what happened,” she says at one particularly unrevealing moment. “It was a perfect storm.”
Much of “The Passage” feels like that line: A placeholder waiting for the sharper, crisper second draft. Sidney and Gosselaar’s bond is charming — and proof that Gosselaar, despite bad luck with recent projects, has become a reliable player on television. But it’s reliant, too, on a dynamic that feels lazily overmotivated. (Can any accidental parental figure on a TV show ever just like kids without a backstory of grief motivating it all?) Fans of Cronin’s novel will surely show up to support this show, but one wonders if their patience will fray if the series doesn’t, soon, find a way to express its interesting ideas that moves beyond narration and underbaked dream sequences — something that feels, even if epic scale is out of the question, a bit more operatic. After all, we’re talking about the end of the world here. “It was a perfect storm” won’t cut it. But compellingly depicting the storm just might.
“The Passage.” Fox. Jan. 14. (Three episodes screened for review.)
Cast: Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Saniyya Sidney, Jamie McShane, Caroline Chikezie, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Brianne Howey, McKinley Belcher III, Henry Ian Cusick, Vincent Piazza
Executive Producers: Liz Heldens, Matt Reeves, Ridley Scott, David W. Zucker, Adam Kassan, Jason Ensler