The Passage comes with a best-selling novel pedigree – but will the show last long enough to make good on it? Sam Brooks reviews the new show which premiered on TVNZ last night.
“I’m the girl from nowhere. The one no one will miss. I’m Amy Bellafonte. This is how the world ends.”
Everything good and everything bad about The Passage is summed up in this voice-over, which comes about 15 minutes into the first episode of the show. The good? It focuses on Amy Bellafonte, the girl who ends up saving the world or some semblance of it, and the incredible child actress playing her. The bad? The writing is clunky and uninspired.
But the most worrying part of that voice-over is that it sets up a long story, and I’m not sure if The Passage is going to be around anywhere long enough to tell it.
There was a time when if a show rated well enough or got enough buzz, it could quietly keep going for five years or more without anybody really realising it. 7th Heaven ran for 11 seasons, you guys. Then something shifted. People started watching terrestrial TV less, and networks got really, really worried about ratings. Shows would get cancelled two or three episodes in. If you lasted a season, it was a miracle. If you got a second season, it was basically the second coming.
Now we’ve got streaming and nobody knows how many people watches anything (which is strictly not true, but just go with me). Netflix holds its ratings closer to its chest than a newborn, so nobody has any idea if there’s five people still watching Orange is the New Black or five million. Even worse, with algorithms now taking the place of focus testing, shows can be crafted to reach specific audiences and critics, while hitting the (still completely private) targets that networks and streaming services have for their shows.
The Passage, an adaptation of Justin Cronin’s sci-fi pre-apocalyptic series of novels, seems like a show crafted in this new, algorithm-tested era, for an era when shows had the luxury of running for years on end. Unfortunately for The Passage, it’s a network show in 2019, and three episodes in you can feel it stumbling on the thinnest possible ice.
The Passage is not shy about shoving its pre-apocalyptic premise in our face right from the start. In the space of ten minutes, we see doctors finding an old man in a cage in Bolivia, who attacks them as soon as he’s released, turning one of their number into a vampire (even though the show adamantly refuses to call him a ‘vampire’, that’s absolutely what he is). Then suddenly, the world is facing a global pandemic and the cure is… yes, something to do with this not-vampire.
Moral compromises are quickly made, and it’s decided that the best way to find a cure is to experiment on a child, as opposed to the death row murderers they’ve been using until this point. Oh, also, the experiments involve turning them into not-vampires. It’s a lot of set-up to cover, and The Passage nails it no better than I have described it. If you listen closely enough, you can hear the development executives frantically thumbing through the pages of the first book and highlighting the parts they absolutely need to include. A hundred pages becomes 15 minutes, and with each page that gets shaved off, so does nuance and specificity.
By far the best choice that The Passage makes is in regard to the two leads, Amy Bellafonte (the brilliant Saniyya Sidney) and Brad Wolfgast (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who has comfortably landed in the Hot Dad™ era of his career). Early on in the first episode, Wolfgast has to apprehend Amy and bring her to the Evil Scientists who are in charge of saving the world while also producing more not-vampires. Gosselaar radiates such uncommon decency that we know he’s going to befriend Amy and go on the run with her, and it’s their relationship that forms the unlikely backbone of The Passage.
Unfortunately, there’s not much to this iteration of The Passage thus far. A cursory Google shows that this is a series that spans the course of a thousand years, and three episodes in we’ve hardly gone three days. If this was in the halcyon days of the 90s, when Stargate SG-1 ran for approximately 35 seasons, it would be an almost guarantee that The Passage would make it through at least 500 of those thousand years. But as a flagship, mid-season, replacement on a mainstream US network? I’m not so sure.
If you’re not deterred by the fear of investing valuable hours in The Passage only to find it unceremoniously dumped, then there’s good in it to hang onto. There’s a very current self-awareness around the genre that means it doesn’t take itself quite as seriously as you might think, and performers like Kecia Lewis – playing an ex-military, ex-nun hermit who takes in our unlikely pair – and Brianna Howey as the justifiably murderous not-vampire Shauna Babock, are able to inject enough life and specificity into their roles to make them interesting.
But, this isn’t the sort of show that lasts long in our current televisual era. To make it, you need to have huge amounts of hype (your Mirrors Black, or your Tales Handmaid) or you need to be the kind of long-running juggernaut that has a huge in-built audience with no sign of declining (NCIS or Law and Order: Sex Cops). A new genre show, even one based on a million-selling trilogy, has an uphill battle, and I don’t think this one will make it before the snowball of ‘nobody’s watching it’ flattens The Passage beneath the avalanche of history.