This is a spoiler-free review of the opening episodes of The Passage Season 1.
Zombies! Vampires! The end of the world! The Passage has a premise that’s almost as generic as its title. The show follows humankind’s race to try and cure all diseases, only to unleash (accidentally or inevitably, depending on how sympathetic you felt towards the founders of Jurassic Park) a viral plague that turns people into blood-thirsty monsters. Are they zombies? Are they vampires? It doesn’t matter: they’re creepy, possibly telepathic and want to gobble your arms off.
That no-nonsense, down-to-business approach risks leaving The Passage, based on Justin Cronin’s novel, a forgettable, dull shell of a programme. But that’s actually its biggest strength, as Liz Heldens (Friday Night Lights, Deception) leads a writing team with a strong knack for pacing, a surprising dose of sentiment and zero effs given for things like logic, reason or – whisper it – science.
It helps that Amy Bellafonte is the first person we meet. A girl who’s old enough to have a wise-cracking stubborn streak but young enough to get away with it, she’s destined to become a key figure in humankind’s doomed future. When we catch up with her, though, she’s got some way to go, as she’s caught up in the shady Project Noah – the top-secret medical endeavour to concoct a virus that could be an antidote to all illness. You know, provided something doesn’t go Dramatically Wrong.
Amy, we discover, is recently orphaned but still off the bureaucratic books, so Project Noah decides to snap her up. Bad luck for them, they hire Agent Brad Wolgast (who went to the Bert Macklin School of Character Names) to bring her in – and he, being a big old softie still mourning the loss of his daughter years ago, decides to change sides and help his target. And so they go on the run, much to the displeasure of his partner.
Their relationship, the kind that is in no way new or shocking, turns out to be the best thing about the show: it’s genuine, sweet and amusing to boot, as he makes it clear that he’s not a nasty man (in case constant phone calls from his wife telling us this didn’t spell it out) and she slowly lets her guard down. Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who plays Brad, is excellent, balancing hunky, macho charisma with a warm smile and gruff affection, while Saniyya Sidney is even better as Amy, turning her sassy sprog into so much more than you presume was written on the page. It’s not until halfway through the first episode that you realise they’ve won you over, as they come up with increasingly smart (and silly) ways to blend in, from a school bus hop-on to a detour via a carnival. There aren’t many conspiracy thrillers that could get away with a 5-minute interlude in which someone wins a giant stuffed unicorn.
Elsewhere, we see Vincent Piazza staring menacingly as Clark Richards, the ex-CIA suit leading the manhunt for them, and Jamie McShane staring even more menacingly as Dr. Tim Fanning, the enterprising scientist who became Patient Zero – and has since spent his days appearing in people’s dreams with a creepy grin. From the blood troughs to the calm biology boffins talking about the end of the world, there’s an entertainingly unsettling vibe to The Passage’s darker nooks and crannies, reinforced by the way the script doesn’t dwell on details in favour of predictable but satisfyingly gory attacks; there’s something to be said for the way The Passage just gets on with it, accepting that some may balk at what’s going on, but that no one will be given a chance to think about it very much because look! A dead body! And look over there! A cuddly toy!
That’s just the right counterpart to the show’s cuter half, and The Passage does a neat job of weaving the two together, from Amy helping to save Brad’s life to Brad shooting through action scenes with a visibly sincere sense of purpose. The result is a sci-fi-horror-dystopian-apocalyptic-cat-and-mouse thriller that somehow works, accepting its trashy silliness without becoming a laughing stock or self-parody. “You don’t leave me and I don’t leave you,” declares Amy to her surrogate father figure. It might be braindead, but The Passage certainly has heart.
The Passage Season 1 is available on FOX UK, with new episodes airing on Tuesdays at 9pm. Don’t have pay-TV? You can also stream it live and on-demand on NOW TV, for £7.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial.