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The Passage Is the Pretty Goodiest New Broadcast Show of the Season

Mark-Paul Gosselaar leads the uncommonly ambitious sci-fi thriller

Liam Mathews

TV Guide recently put together a list of six new broadcast shows still worth watching, and it was a struggle. At this point, with all the competition from cable and streaming, the best a broadcast drama can be is "pretty good." And sci-fi thriller The Passage, which premieres Monday, Jan. 14 on Fox, is the pretty goodiest new broadcast show of the season.

Before anything else, you have to give The Passage credit for being more ambitious than your average broadcast drama in 2019. It's at least trying to be good (shoutout to its adorable "Fox presents The Passage" title card). The special effects look expensive, the action scenes are well-choreographed and the dialogue is flavorful for a plot-driven broadcast show. These things stand out among its lower-channel competition.

The series is centered around Project Noah, a clandestine government operation studying a virus that gives infected people the ability to heal themselves and makes them impervious to all other infectious diseases... but also turns them into bloodthirsty vampires. It could either save or doom the human race. The scientists realize that young bodies are better at staving off vampirization, so federal agent Brad Wolgast (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is tasked with obtaining a child who no one will miss to be experimented on. That child turns out to be Amy Bellafonte (Saniyya Sidney), a young girl who was placed in foster care after her mother died of a drug overdose. Wolgast quickly realizes that he can't turn this innocent kid over to become a guinea pig, so they go on the lam together.

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The show is split between scenes at Project Noah headquarters, where scientists grapple with the ethics of their human experimentation while also trying to fend off physical and psychic attacks from the people they turned into vampires, and scenes of Brad and Amy on the road like Logan. The Project Noah half is much more interesting than the Brad and Amy half, at least in the three episodes provided for review, because Brad and Amy are very thin characters (Brad decides to protect Amy because she reminds him of his own dead daughter, because that's the rule of this kind of story). But that's early-show stuff that tends to work itself out as series go on and allow themselves some breathing room. And Gosselaar and Sidney's performances are compelling enough to keep those scenes from being boring. Gosselaar is not known as an action hero, but he makes a good case for himself. He throws himself into fight scenes with aplomb, and handles his more familiar father-figure scenes with Sidney just as capably. And his beard looks great.

The Passage is executive-produced by Liz Heldens, who's working from a series of novels by Justin Cronin, and the pilot is directed by Jason Ensler and Marcos Siega, who do a great job of making The Passage look like a cable show. Fox put some money into this (and not just on-screen, either).

Of course, it's not a cable show, and it suffers from the usual things that plague network genre shows, most egregiously an overly busy plot that hinders meaningful character development. Brad Wolgast turns from dutiful soldier to protector of children at all costs so quickly that it feels totally unearned, and it would have been much more satisfying to see him struggle with what he had to do for longer than three minutes. And again, this will become less of a problem as the show goes on. In fact, the show starts filling in character backstory relatively quickly, as the third of the three episodes sent for review is a deep dive into the history of Shauna Babcock (Brianne Howey), one of the death row inmates-turned-Project Noah vampires.

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If the people making The Passage are trying to embed any political message in the show, it's probably "protecting children is what America should be doing" and "exploiting marginalized people for personal gain is bad" (Amy and Anthony Carter [McKinley Belcher III], a death row inmate whose sentence is commuted when he becomes a Project Noah test subject, are both black). But my first reaction to seeing a government agent protecting a helpless child was "I don't buy it." Watching TV in the Trump era is a bummer.

Is The Passage presented by Fox as good as it would be if it were on FX or HBO? No. But is it better than 95 percent of the other broadcast dramas that have hit the airwaves in the past 18 months? Yes, and just because it's trying to be better than adequate.

The Passage premieres Monday, Jan. 14 at 9/8c on Fox.

​Mark-Paul Gosselaar, The Passage

Mark-Paul Gosselaar, The Passage

Eliza Morse / FOX