Weird, won­der­ful ‘The Pas­sage’

Fox aims high in a new sci-fi se­ries. TV pre­view,

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - Kelly Lawler Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

One of the best shows this win­ter com­bines vam­pires, a global pan­demic, Des­mond from “Lost,” a pre­co­cious kid, shootouts with gov­ern­ment agents, a con­spir­acy the­ory, death row in­mates and Mark-Paul Gos­se­laar’s burly arms.

Fox’s “The Pas­sage” (Mon­day, 9 EST/ PST, ★★★☆) is a high-con­cept sci-fi thriller based on pop­u­lar novels by Justin Cronin. It has been boiled down to its es­sen­tial el­e­ments and eas­ily di­gestible plot points, ex­actly the right way to main­stream the show for a broad­cast au­di­ence with­out mak­ing it dull, dumb or disin­gen­u­ous.

What unites the genre-blend­ing el­e­ments of “Pas­sage” is a quest by one well-in­ten­tioned man, Dr. Jonas Lear (Henry Cu­sick) to dis­cover the se­cret to cur­ing all dis­eases. His search takes him to a re­mote cave in South Amer­ica, where a sup­pos­edly im­mor­tal man lives. As you can imag­ine, this is not a good idea, and a mem­ber of his team, Tim Fan­ning (Jamie McShane), is at­tacked and trans­forms into some­thing the sci­en­tists hes­i­tate to call a vam­pire, which seems an apt de­scrip­tion (they go with “vi­ral” in­stead).

The gov­ern­ment team, led by Ma­jor Ni­c­hole Sykes (Caro­line Chikezie) brings Fan­ning back to the U.S. and be- gins ex­per­i­ment­ing with his blood, us­ing death row in­mates as guinea pigs but un­for­tu­nately just cre­at­ing more vam­pires in the process. When the project takes on new ur­gency after a hu­man­ity-threat­en­ing flu pan­demic, the re­searchers de­cide ex­per­i­ment­ing on a child is the only way for­ward, for var­i­ous pseudo-sci­en­tific rea­sons. Their trusty ask-no-ques­tions spe­cial agent, Brad Wol­gast (Gos­se­laar), is sent to kid­nap a fos­ter child, Amy (Saniyya Sid­ney), but his con­science in­ter­venes and he tries to help her es­cape. Cue the shootouts.

It’s a lot of plot for 43-minute episodes, but cre­ator Liz Heldens (”Fri­day Night Lights”) aptly threads the nee­dle, bal­anc­ing dis­parate el­e­ments into an ac­tion-ad­ven­ture se­ries with just enough mythol­ogy and mys­tery to keep the au­di­ence guess­ing. As an emo­tional an­chor, Gos­se­laar’s hunky, post-”Saved by the Bell” per­sona is per­fect for a fa­ther fig­ure/GI Joe/tor­tured soul like Brad. He has nat­u­ral chem­istry with the young Sid­ney, who deftly stays on the right side of the line be­tween cute and cloy­ing.

When the se­ries flips to its more mys­ti­cal el­e­ments, it re­mains strong. Cu­sick brings bona fides from his time on “Lost” and “The 100,” ques­tion­ing whether they should pro­ceed with their ex­per­i­ments. The vam­pires are solid vil­lains, with looks, be­hav­ior and pow­ers un­like most – no sparkling skin or brood­ing teens – so they bring new scares, in­clud­ingcreepy pow­ers to in­vade dreams.

“Pas­sage” suf­fers, in small part, from a se­ries of im­prob­a­bil­i­ties that have noth­ing to do with im­mor­tal vam­pires. Mag­i­cally healed bul­let wounds, light­ning-fast travel, ex-wives with far-toocon­ve­nient jobs and re­sources abound in the three episodes made avail­able for re­view. But those are log­i­cal fal­la­cies you ac­cept when the rest of the show is so good.

The first three episodes are briskly paced, which pro­vides in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion but risks the writ­ers run­ning out of story too soon (the lengthy source ma­te­rial may help).

But what makes “Pas­sage” great is the clever way it melds mile-a-minute ac­tion with mys­tery-box mythol­ogy. It could be di­vided into sev­eral shows, but it never feels like shows that were poorly stitched to­gether. It’s a uni­fied, at times baf­fling ex­pe­ri­ence wrapped up with a Gos­se­laar bow. In a sea­son when “Lost” copy­cat “Man­i­fest” is pulling in rat­ings, the weird­ness of “Pas­sage” just might pro­pel it to vic­tory.

‘THE PAS­SAGE’ BY FOX

EL­IZA MORSE/FOX

Ma­jor Ni­c­hole Sykes (Caro­line Chikezie) leads a team of gov­ern­ment re­searchers in Fox’s “The Pas­sage.”

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