“The Passage,” a hokey but mildly entertaining drama about an ill-fated scientific attempt to harness the immunity of rabid vampires, premieres Monday on Fox. It’s based on the best-selling 2010 horror-dystopia novel by Justin Cronin, which may or may not be recognizable to its devoted readers once television is done ravaging it. I see lots of bites and claw marks here, as if the novel was trying to escape a process that first tried to seroconvert it into a feature-film trilogy and eventually settled on making it a midseason network show.
Having slavishly followed all four seasons of FX’s simple yet satisfying vampire-virus saga “The Strain” (which was also based on a set of novels), I’m not one to stop a willing viewer from finding something to like in “The Passage’s” basic appeal. It’s got a pulse and you can sharpen a fang to it.
It’s also got an invitingly heroic premise, as a former FBI agent and war hero, Brad Wolgast (“Pitch’s” Mark-Paul Gosselaar), begins to doubt the intentions behind an already sketchy private-sector security job he’s taken, delivering death-row inmates to a secret Colorado science lab.
The inmates have unwittingly agreed to submit to drug testing in exchange for a commuted sentence and a cushier incarceration. Little do they know the drugs will turn them into powerful, bloodsucking creatures. These vampires seem catatonic whenever they’re not being fed a steady diet of animal blood in their holding pens, but it turns out they’re able to communicate telepathically with one another via Patient Zero, a human once known as Tim Fanning (Jamie McShane), an egomaniacal doctor who was part of the science team’s original quest for a miracle cure for diseases.
Good intentions are in short supply at the lab. A new avian flu in China threatens to become a global pandemic and the lead scientists (Henry Ian Cusick and Caroline Chikezie) make an amoral, desperate decision to try infecting a child with their vampire virus, believing that a younger immune system will accept and replicate the vampires’ resistance to disease, without the nasty side effects.
Wolgast is sent to Memphis to retrieve Amy Bellafonte (Saniyya Sidney), a 10-year-old girl living in foster care after her itinerant mother died of a drug overdose in a fast-food restaurant parking lot.
Amy takes one look at Wolgast and his partner and immediately smells a rat: “How come there’s no social worker?” she asks. “And how come they didn’t send a lady? They always send a lady.”
As Amy, Sidney demonstrates remarkable presence as a young actress, as well as the wary look of a person who knows it’s up to her to give a fair-to-middling TV show some real spunk. She takes off running and it isn’t long before Wolgast has joined her, troubled by the idea that he was asked to apprehend and deliver a child for testing purposes.
Once the two are on the lam, they immediately discover a “Paper Moon”-type chemistry that could sustain another three or four episodes at least. Alas, “The Passage” turns its attention to far too much mythology establishment — focusing on origin stories, filling in characters’ motivations with shopworn flashback narratives and defining the vampires’ powers, all so viewers will understand the full threat if the monsters escape.
That ultimate unleashing seems all but assured, thanks to plenty of blunt foreshadowing. Where Amy and Brad wind up in all that panic remains to be seen (Fox provided just three episodes for review), but already I liked it better in episodes 1 and 2, when they’re just two fugitives in a stolen car, eating powdered doughnuts for breakfast, winning stuffed unicorns at county fairs and learning to trust the surrogate parent-child instincts that are telling them to get as far away as they can.
The Passage (one hour) premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on Fox.