It’s always a little troublesome when a show, and especially a series premiere, begins with a voice-over. It’s a choice that lends itself to simply explaining what’s happening rather than allowing the viewer to just jump in and get settled. The pilot for The Passage, Fox’s attempt at a Walking Dead-style post-apocalyptic show, begins in such a way. Amy Bellafonte (a delightful Saniyya Sidney), a 10-year-old girl seemingly on the run, tells us that everything has gone wrong. “So many things led to what happened. It was a perfect storm.” Thus begins an hour of very cliché, mostly dull drama.
After the initial voice-over, the episode moves to Bolivia, where doctors/scientists Tim Fanning (Jamie McShane) and Jonas Lear (Henry Ian Cusick) search a cave for a 250-year-old man. They believe this mythical figure could be exactly what the CDC and DOD are looking for. Alas, they get a lot more than they bargained for. As they enter the cave, they find a young man feeding blood to a very old-looking man locked in a cage. Fanning, in the first of many idiotic moves made by characters who can’t seem to make logical decisions, rushes toward the cage, asking if the man is sick and if they can help in any way. Despite the terrified protests of the young man, Fanning continues to the cage, unleashing what seems to be a vampire.
The vampire latches on to Fanning and the episode flashes forward three years to the workings of Project NOAH. NOAH is a largely illegal government operation that came out of Lear’s research and Fanning’s encounter with the vampire, which everyone refuses to call a vampire. After that bite, Fanning became immune to all diseases, but he also turned into a blood-sucking monster, so, all in all, it hasn’t been great. NOAH is trying to use that immunity to create a vaccine to inoculate humanity against all diseases, but the results haven’t been consistent. The test subjects are all prisoners, and so far no one has managed not to transition into a vampire.
NOAH is set up in Telluride, Colorado, where a number of scientists, doctors, and military guys are trying to get the vaccine going before an avian flu makes its way over from China. While the vaccine isn’t working, they’ve realized that the younger the patient, the slower the subject’s regression into a vampiric state. So, one doctor proposes an idea: if they want any chance of isolating a vaccine in the few months they have until the avian flu kills them all, they need to bring in a child as an experimental patient. Every other doctor thinks this is a disgusting idea…and they go along with it anyway.
That leads us back to Amy. She’s chosen as the test subject because she has no family, her mother having died of an overdose (in a cheesy, manipulative slow-motion scene). Agent Brad Wolgast (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), along with his partner Agent Doyle, is sent on assignment to retrieve her. Things go wrong immediately, as Amy, who’s staying in some sort of foster home, realizes that these men are lying about why she needs to go with them. She tries to escape, but Doyle chases her down, hits her, and throws her in the back of the car. Wolgast watches it all go down, and you can feel his cold worldview suddenly changing. He recognizes that what they’re doing is wrong, that this is a line too far—apparently he was totally fine bringing in every other “patient”—and that something must be done.
The Passage packs its series premiere with a lot of information and a lot of drama that never quite achieves the goal of making us want to watch more. There’s a very stilted, chemistry-less romance between Dr. Skyes (Caroline Chikezie) and an agent by the name of Richards (Vincent Piazza), and that relationship kind of embodies the problems with the premiere. The acting is wooden, the pacing is all off, and the show doesn’t take the time to make us care about these characters in one way or another. It feels like we’re watching two-dimensional caricatures, not people with their own feelings and motivations.
If there’s one exception, it’s the developing relationship between Wolgast and Amy. When Wolgast stops in at a carnival to give her one last bit of happiness before being thrown into the world of shady government medical experiments, he bonds with her in a very real way. They win a giant unicorn stuffed animal together—”that thing is awful,” he says. “No it’s not, it’s freakin’ awesome” she replies—and in that moment Wolgast knows he can’t take Amy to NOAH. So, he chokes out his partner and goes on the run with Amy.
What would make him do this? Well, The Passage has a propensity for exposition that clearly explains everything, so next up we find out that Wolgast has an ex-wife named Lila, and that it’s been three years since they lost their child. We don’t get many more details—in general, the show is very frustrating in how it obscures certain details to remain “mysterious”—but the idea is that Wolgast sees an opportunity here to save a child like he couldn’t save his own.
Back at NOAH, the latest prisoner, Anthony, is brought in, and we get a little insight into just how bad these vampires are. Anthony has a vision/dream of Fanning as a vampire, but it seems more real than imaginary. It’s as if Fanning can actually get into his head. It’s a startling image and one that makes it clear that this whole Project NOAH thing isn’t going to work out so well.
The episode ends on more of a whimper than a bang. Wolgast, who learns from Lila that Richards and the rest of the government agents are already hot on his trail, decides that the best way to keep Amy safe is to turn himself in. I have no idea how that makes any sense whatsoever, but he makes that decision anyway. Sure enough, once he turns himself over to a local sheriff and gets handcuffed to a chair, he thinks “maybe this isn’t a great idea.” He tells Amy to get the keys to the handcuffs as the government agents, including Richards, roll up to the police station in their big black SUVs. A shootout occurs, and there’s a tense moment where Richards tells Wolgast that he will shoot him because getting Amy back to NOAH is his only goal. Instead, Wolgast shoots a fire extinguisher, and he and Amy make a break for it. As the episode ends, Amy and Wolgast are fleeing down the road, those big black SUVs right behind them.