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Good, Scary TV: FX’s ‘The Strain’ Could Catch On, Like a Virus
July 11, 2014  | By David Bianculli

TV’s newest supernatural genre series, FX’s The Strain, takes on the familiar topic of vampires – but in a way that’s inventive and dazzling, as well as, yes, biting…

The Strain is based on a series of books by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro, both of whom co-created the new FX drama, working with show-runner Carlton Cuse, formerly of ABC’s Lost. The Strain premieres Sunday night at 10, moving FX into the Sunday night TV arena, where the biggest and boldest series grapple for viewers and acclaim.

HBO earned its bones on Sundays with The Sopranos, and a string of hits up to and including True Detective. Showtime is counter-punching with the likes of Ray Donovan, Masters of Sex and Penny Dreadful. AMC has run the table with both Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and even the broadcast networks fire some major salvos here. Sunday is when CBS presents The Good Wife, and PBS presents such popular series as Sherlock.

And now, FX presents its first Sunday night TV series, hoping it’ll go viral. Which, considering the subject matter, is deliciously appropriate.

The Strain is about a very mysterious event that requires open-minded specialists to be brought in to investigate and explain. A jumbo passenger plane lands in New York, but no one gets out or responds. Everyone seems to have died as suddenly as those frozen-in-time victims at Pompeii, though the plane landed safely, and equipment on the ground picks up a sound, if not a sign, of life.

Three decades ago, this would have been a job for Ghostbusters. Two decades ago, it would have gone to Mulder and Scully on The X-Files. But in this new 2014 TV series, the guy who answers the call to action and slips into his high-tech protective gear is a scientist named Ephraim Goodweather, who leads a team of investigators at the Centers for Disease Control. And what he finds, on the other side of that airplane hatch, is a series of mysteries within mysteries, the less of which is revealed the better.

But in broadest strokes, Eph and his cohorts find themselves trying to identify, understand and eradicate a mysterious virus that kills most of its victims almost instantly – but isn’t through with them yet. And eventually (four episodes, each of them entertaining, were provided for preview), Eph comes to understand that the disease he’s fighting isn’t a new one, but an ancient one, with the strength, resilience and ruthlessness that comes with surviving for centuries.

Eph is played by Corey Stoll, a dynamic actor who had me when he played Ernest Hemingway’s Midnight in Paris. Since then, he’s appeared on Netflix’s House of Cards and elsewhere, but this is his first major TV series lead – and he handles it as expertly as you’d expect.

Even more impressive here, and the real reason to give The Strain a try, is del Toro, who not only co-wrote the novels on which this is based, but directed the pilot and is overseeing the visual look as well. This is fabulous news, because del Toro’s strong cinematic credits include Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy and Pacific Rim. Some of the images in these first few hours will stay with you, creeping you out and burrowing into your brain like a… well, like something you’ll see before long in a typically creepy scene in The Strain.

I’ll come back to The Strain, and discuss the metaphorical implications of its story line, at some later point – to do it now would reveal and ruin too many of the surprises. For now, just watch. Sometimes with your fingers covering an eye or two – but watch.

For a full review that includes a clip from The Strain, hear my review on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross website.

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