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<em>Passage</em> to nowhere

Brianne Howey (right) in an episode of The Passage. (Erika Doss/FOX)

Television

Passage to nowhere

Fox’s new broadcast series fails where other drama adaptations have succeeded

A recent New York Times article titled “Why Traditional TV Is in Trouble” sifted through a variety of ratings data to figure out why the Big Four broadcast networks are losing ratings and becoming less culturally relevant. The authors might have saved themselves some trouble by simply analyzing Fox’s new drama The Passage.

The Times piece points out that the median age of a viewer for the highest-rated drama on broadcast, This Is Us, is 53 years. The median age for the second-highest-rated, The Good Doctor, is almost 60. And the median age for Empire, the soapy drama Fox pushes as young and edgy? Forty-eight.

Meanwhile, the cable and streaming dramas that have dominated watercooler chatter over the last decade skew far younger. Think 36 for AMC’s The Walking Dead, 30 for Netflix’s Stranger Things, and 31 for Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The disparity has Fox, which trails its fellow Big Four outlets, eager to draw younger audiences to an event series. Unfortunately, the network appears to have learned all the wrong lessons in trying to marry the future of media to the past.

Fox has promoted The Passage for months now, teasing the sprawling, genre-subverting novels the show is based on (like Game of Thrones!), the mysterious monsters (like The Walking Dead and Stranger Things!), and the dystopian world (like The Handmaid’s Tale!). But in the end, all Fox seems to have seen in these complex series is a delivery method for jump scares, sex scenes, and bloody battles with vampires.

In the three episodes of The Passage previewed for critics, at least a dozen changes undermine Justin Cronin’s novel trilogy about government scientists who accidentally unleash a horde of vampirelike “virals” on humanity. Some of those changes trample the books’ spiritual themes: Serious, prayerful Sister Lacey, survivor of a Sierra Leone massacre, is for some inexplicable reason reduced to an American combat specialist who insouciantly refers to God as “she.” Beyond that, we get no sense of a religious life from her or the other nuns who, despite their pettiness, are the only ones with enough discernment to sense early on that the world is about to change in very bad ways.  

The showrunners retained the name “Project NOAH” to describe the medical experiments that create the virals, but they scuttle other Biblical allusions. In the novels, we have 12 male virals who follow the lead of Zero, the first one created. No New Testament reader could miss the significance of this image. But apparently network executives can. One of the men is now a conveniently young, attractive woman, available to participate in steamy scenes. Also newly up for romance: two members of the NOAH team who barely had names in the book.

Meanwhile, someone apparently decided the setup of government researchers playing God required greater motivation than greed for acclaim, power, and money. Now they’re trying to stave off a pandemic.

Why undermine the wracked consciences these characters will eventually have to grapple with? If you can say to yourself, “Sure, I created vampires, but I was only trying to save the whole world,” then you can’t really be such a bad fellow, can you? FBI agent Brad Wolgast (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is likewise taken from complex and relatable in the novel to flat and clichéd, from a pathetic figure who bothers his ex-wife with midnight calls to a traditional, iron-jawed hero whose ex is chasing him.

All of this, along with a ridiculously impatient, condensed approach to its source material, suggests that Fox misunderstands what’s drawing young audiences away from broadcast. It’s not because new-media dramas show more sex and violence. If that were the case, comparatively clean series like Stranger Things and Downton Abbey wouldn’t find surprising success. 

Instead, it’s these dramas’ innovative narrative approaches, combined with more honest and deeply developed characters, that are spurring the cable/streaming revolution. Fox has squandered an enormous opportunity to follow their lead.