Vampires, Witches, and Aliens: Television's Winter Premieres Escaped from Halloween
Two book series adaptations and a sci-fi melodrama reboot launch next week.
- The Passage. Fox. Monday, Jan. 14, 9 p.m.
- Roswell, New Mexico. The CW. Tuesday, Jan. 15, 9 p.m.
- A Discovery of Witches. Available Thursday, Jan. 17, on Sundance Now.
Who says television isn't diverse? Here we are, the first real TV week of 2019, and already we've got new series on vampires, space aliens, and witches. Multiculturalism rules! Especially with all those fangs.
The best of the bloody bunch, somewhat surprisingly, is The Passage, based on a trilogy of vampire-apocalypse novels by Justin Cronin. It's been lurching around in development hell for 11 years, morphing from a movie to a series of three movies to a TV series as different producers got hold of it.
Just a couple of years ago, it seemed even more doomed than its characters as a mob of network suits was demanding reshoots and flinging characters into the sea by the bunch.
But the pilot has finally emerged, not too battered, though its resemblance to Cronin's books has grown much blurrier. Characters have vanished, romantic triangles have been inserted and the general ambiance has, in some ways, grown cruder. But quibbling seems silly. Vampires are overrunning the world! How ya gonna look away?
Still at the center of The Passage's plot is a secret government mission known as Project Noah, an attempt to develop an anti-aging vaccine from a virus collected in the Bolivian highlands.
The source of the virus is a 250-year-old man who feeds on blood, but the government researchers resolutely refuse to refer to him by the v-word or draw any adverse conclusions from the fact that the death row inmates to whom they're feeding the virus have all gone crazy and blood-sucky.
Instead, they note that the younger the inmate, the longer it takes to succumb to the virus' side effects. From that they draw the obvious medical conclusion: If we just get a 10-year-old homeless girl who nobody will miss too much and inject her, then everybody goes home happy in time for cake and ice cream!
It doesn't work out that way, starting with the unexpected growth of a conscience by the government agent assigned to transport the homeless girl to the remote Colorado mountain laboratory where Project Noah is headquartered.
Agent Brad Wolgast (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Pitch) isn't sure exactly what Project Noah has in mind for little Amy Belafonte (Saniyya Sidney, American Horror Story: Roanoke), but he knows it can't be good. The project's violent reaction when he decides not to hand her over only reinforces his belief.
Cronin's novels stretch across a period of more than a hundred years in multiple settings and environments, and it's impossible to say yet how far the series will follow. (There's probably enough story to carry it for 10 seasons or more if the viewers approve.) It's impossible to say, just yet, which characters will dominate its bleak panorama of a predatory world.
But in the three episodes Fox offered up for review, the relationship between Sidney and Gosselaar is definitely the tentpole. Their chemistry is extraordinary as her cynically mistrustful character (she is, after all, the orphaned daughter of a overdosed crack whore) becomes entwined with the hard-as-rock agent. And even when she's alone in a scene, Sidney operates at multiple levels, When the camera closes in on her dark eyes as she says, "I didn't used to believe in monsters, but I do now," it's impossible to know if she's talking about the vampires or their government wranglers.
To the extent that The Passage is political, it's the age-old horror/sci-fi skepticism about science empowered by government but untempered by moral considerations, the same perspective that's driven everything from the big ants of Them! to the relentless microbes of The Andromeda Strain.
That's not the case with The CW's over-politicized space-alien soap Roswell, New Mexico, in which Donald Trump's name is never spoken but nonetheless echoes throughout every scene.
It's a remake of Roswell, the 1999-2001 drama in which teenagers in the New Mexico desert romanced super-powered intergalactic hotties left over from that UFO crash 50 years ago.
To update the series, its characters have been pushed from their teens to their late 20s and a few 21st-century gender-hipness elements have been inserted. But the main change is that some of the characters are now Hispanics bitterly persecuted by ICE and that president who shan't be named. Get it? Aliens from another galaxy and aliens from another country, all being pushed around by The Man!
The ham-handedness of Roswell, New Mexico, cannot be overstated. There's a podcaster spouts stuff like "Aliens are coming, and when they do, they're gonna rape and murder and steal our jobs!" Oh, my gosh, is he talking about Mexicans or little green men? And a space creature still grieving a youth lost to cultural imperialism: "We grew up watching movies where aliens abduct people, violate them, blow up the White House!"
All this political angst is complicated by sibling rivalries, gypsy fortune tellers, vengeful cops, military madness and interspecies gay sex, the latter suggesting that The CW has found something very interesting in its demographic research. Nonetheless, I suggest you wait for the no-doubt-forthcoming TV version of West Side Story in which the Sharks and the Martians settle their differences with laser-powered switchblades.
Somewhere between The Passage and Roswell, New Mexico, lies A Discovery of Witches, airing on the streaming network Sundance Now. Based on Deborah Harkness' All Souls Trilogy of novels, it stars Australian actress Teresa Palmer (The Grudge 2) as Diana Bishop, an American scholar visiting Oxford to research a book on the history of alchemy.
Her interest, however, is more than academic: She's a witch, albeit mostly non-practicing. She fits in well at Oxford, which turns out to be larded with disguised witches. But her discovery of a long-lost 17th-century text draws the unfriendly interest of the campus vampires—lotsa them, too—who need to patch up a glitch in their ability to reproduce. (The biting-necks stuff, that is; no vampire gynecology, at least in the first few episodes.)
It takes A Discovery Of Witches a long time to show any signs of a pulse, mostly because Palmer is cute as a kitten but also about as threatening. Her frequent exchange of mean looks with the vampires is significantly less scary than her producers seem to believe.
But the arrival of the sultry Finnish witch Satu Järvinen (Malin Buska, The Girl Queen) near the end of the pilot provides a jolt of adrenaline, or whatever its witch equivalent is. Among other things, Satu turns on a pursuing hunter and burns the ground out from under him, plunging him into Hell. That's the sort of thing to get the plot moving, or at least, the vampires biting.