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TV Review - 'The Passage" is a series to sink your teeth into

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“The Passage”

Cast: Mark-Paul Gosselaar (“Saved by the Bell” “NYPD Blue”), Saniyya Sidney (“Fences,” “Hidden Figures”), Vincent Piazza (“Boardwalk Empire,” “Jersey Boys”), Brianne Howey (“Scream Queens”), Emmanuelle Chriqui (“Shut Eye,” “Entourage”), Henry Ian Cusick (“Lost,” “The 100”)

Airs: The first season premieres at 8 p.m. Monday on Fox

The premise: Project NOAH is a top-secret medical facility in Telluride, where scientists are experimenting with a dangerous virus. A group of doctors are working to re-engineer the virus because it has the potential to cure a worldwide infectious outbreak, but it also could end the human race as it turns people into bloodsucking monsters.

Brad Wolgast (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) is a federal agent in charge of acquiring human volunteers for testing. When ordered to bring in a young orphaned girl as a test subject, though, he decides to protect her instead.

“The Passage” is based on the Justin Cronin best-selling trilogy of the same name. It’s written by Liz Heldens (“Friday Night Lights”). Ridley Scott (“The Martian,” “Gladiator”) and Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) are executive producers.

Highs: The character of Brad Wolgast shows Mark-Paul Gosselaar at his best, with the actor displaying incredible range. An Army veteran, Wolgast is cool, efficient and focused, and he’s not one for small talk. But Wolgast has a surprisingly strong sense of empathy. When he’s recruiting a death row inmate, there’s no hard sell; it’s just an opportunity to provide redemption. When dealing with 10-year-old Amy Bellafonte (Saniyya Sidney), he doesn’t boss or act disrespectful toward the young orphan. Just the opposite.

Wolgast has a big heart despite a gruff exterior. He’s also a man of action. When pressed, his military training shines, making him a force to be reckoned with. Mark-Paul Gosselaar plays all of these aspects of his character with ease. This makes Wolgast, who quickly becomes an underdog in “The Passage,” immensely likable.

Brad Wolgast is also complicated, as demonstrated in his close relationships. Clark Richards (Vincent Piazza) and Wolgast served together in the military and are like brothers. Richards is in charge of security for Project NOAH, however, and orders Wolgast to pick up the orphan. Lila Kyle (Emmanuelle Chriqui) is Wolgast’s ex-wife. They lost a child three years ago, and it broke them both, although they still have feelings for each other.

Several other fascinating characters include a conflicted scientist (Henry Ian Cusick) and a telepathic vampire (Brianne Howey). But the true star of the show is Saniyya Sidney. The 12-year-old actress performs with a maturity well beyond her years. Sidney is funny, sarcastic and tough. She and Gosselaar have an authentic father/daughter chemistry.

Lows: The first two episodes have Wolgast and Amy on the run, but the action shifts to Colorado in the third episode. The initial episodes are heavy on adventure and have a hectic pace. There’s as much danger when the cast finally comes together in Colorado, but the tone shifts as the series focuses on the mythological elements of “The Passage.” How that will affect the foundation of the series, the relationship between Amy and Wolgast, is uncertain.

Grade: (A -): I loved the Fox series “Pitch,” in which Mark-Paul Gosselaar played an aging baseball player who mentors the first woman to play in the Major Leagues. It was an underrated show, and his performance put Gosselaar on another level. Not that Fox agreed; it was canceled after one season. A lot of Gosselaar’s character from that series is in “The Passage.” I sure hope Fox gives this one a better shot at success. If so, the network will have a hit.

Gazette TV critic Terry Terrones is a member of the Television Critics Association and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @terryterrones.

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