Review: 'The Passage' Is Off to a Brilliant Start With Heart and Bite

Contemporary television is, in many respects, dominated by two things: shows almost built for binge-watching and purposefully complex, open-ended plots that very much lend themselves to the former. Fox's upcoming The Passage, however, is neither of those things. Instead, it's direct, simplistic, and contained -- and that's what might just make it one of the most refreshing new series in a long time.

Adapted from the Justin Cronin novel of the same name, The Passage follows the story of a young girl named Amy Bellafonte (Saniyya Sidney) whose life becomes complicated by a secret, government project ostensibly with the goal of eradicating human disease. Unfortunately, as is the case with many shadowy government organizations in fiction, Project Noah's experiments have had some terrifying side effects. Amy is chosen to be a test subject in that program, but as promos for the series have already hinted at, she ends up being "the most important girl in the world."

While the miracle cure gone awry is very much a part of the story -- and it's important to note that while The Passage works very hard to avoid the term, the scary side effect is that it turns people into vampires -- the real core of the series is the relationship between Amy and federal agent Brad Wolgast (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), who is first tasked with collecting Amy and then chooses to defy that task to protect her.

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(Photo: FOX)

While that general premise leaves plenty of opportunity to become burdened and overcomplicated quickly, Liz Heldens (who adapted the book for screen) does an incredible job of keeping things simple. The show keeps viewers very much in the loop about what is going on, why it is happening, and even the things that have to be held back in order to create the tension that dramas such as The Passage require to remain engaging aren't held back too long. Each episode provides just the right amount of meat to the story to satisfy the viewer while keeping enough hidden that they will want to come back for more.

It's that balance that works particularly well; the episodes are satisfying enough that viewers will likely want to sit with what they've seen and spend time with it, not just wait for the full season to binge. With many contemporary shows, there's this urge to watch as many back-to-back as possible due to the questions each episode leaves viewers with, but The Passage doesn’t do that. What you see is very much what you get, and within that there is room to think and digest what's transpired with well-considered cliffhangers and teases. In that respect, The Passage is a show that invites the audience to sit down, slow down, and enjoy, an act that feels almost revolutionary in an age of streaming entertainment.

The Passage also does a solid job of remaining faithful to Cronin's best-selling novel while also avoiding most of its shortcomings. The novel, at times, is incredibly difficult to follow with too many moving parts frequently distracting from the otherwise engrossing apocalyptic potential-end-of-humanity plot. In contrast, the show keeps the high stakes of the situation in view without ever losing sight of Amy, and the few changes from book to screen actually enhance the young girl's story, bringing her to life in a way the book never quite could.

As for how Amy is portrayed, Sidney does an absolutely brilliant job with the character. Sidney's Amy is both incredibly resilient and believably vulnerable, and the young actor completely nails the nuance of that, giving Amy all the walls and defenses a child who has experienced the traumas this character has in their short life while retaining a sense of wonder. Gosselaar's Wolgast is also a memorable, well-balanced character with the actor portraying a man who is both caring and protective, but also a little gruff and brooding. Together, their dynamic is believable and relatable, and it's one of the true strengths of the show.

Overall, while The Passage may not have the complexity of plot that viewers have perhaps grown accustomed to, but it's that simplicity that makes it stand out from the pack. While many other series demand a deep commitment from the viewer, The Passage simply invites you along, and it's a journey we are certainly willing to take.

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Rating: 4 out of 5

The Passage premieres Monday, January 14th at 9 p.m. EST on FOX.