Some viewers accustomed to FX’s more sophisticated storytelling might be a bit put off by the pulpy tone of the network’s new vampires-as-a-virus drama The Strain (10 p.m. Sunday). It lacks the character depth of Fargo or The Americans and the gothic visual grandeur of American Horror Story, but The Strain has its positive attributes, including some suspenseful moments and decent scares.
It’s also a little gonzo: In Sunday’s 90-minute premiere, an elderly pawn shop owner (David Bradley, Game of Thrones, Broadchurch) talks to a beating brain he keeps in a jar full of liquid, then feeds it his blood in a scene reminiscent of moments with Management in HBO’s Carnivale.
The Strain is more commercial and less reality-based than other FX efforts, but it is enjoyably weird. Not only does the old man talk to the brain but also the brain emits little worm-like tentacles that are also later found in the cargo hold of a jetliner that lands at New York’s JFK airport with almost all of its passengers dead.
CDC investigator Eph Goodweather (Corey Stoll, House of Cards), a recovering alcoholic, is one of the first specialists on the scene, getting there after a marriage counseling appointment where his work phone keeps ringing, highlighting his lack of “presence,” according to his wife (Natalie Brown). This dedicated-investigator-torn-between-his-career-and-family trope is one of the ways The Strain feels a little pedestrian and not up to FX’s usually more nuanced approach. (Whenever episodes go to this hackneyed plot, it’s easy to lose interest in The Strain only to be pulled back in once the focus returns to creepier storylines.)
At JFK, Eph and his partner, Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro), creep into the Regis Airlines plane that landed and came to a halt on the tarmac. This is where evil has been unleashed.
Written by executive producer Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and Chuck Hogan and based on their graphic novels, The Strain premiere takes too long to get to the fairly obvious and expected place: The passengers had their blood drained by some sort of malevolent creature.
The second episode bogs down further, taking far too long to get to all the places viewers will suspect it’s going. It’s one thing for viewers to be a step ahead of the characters in a show, but when you wait and wait for the expected, it drains a show’s suspense.
Episodes three and four move the story along a little faster and offer up more unexpected moments, including one with a rock star who was on the plane.
The Strain is not a brooding vampires show. It seems to be more about corporate bloodsuckers, specifically those at the Stoneheart Group, owned by physically ailing Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde). He orders around Thomas Eichhorst (Richard Sammel), who’s got a pretty creepy pair of eyeballs and is eventually revealed to be first lieutenant to The Master (voice of Robin Atkin Downes), the lead bloodsucker cloaked in flowing robes.
Showrunner Carlton Cuse (Bates Motel, Lost) introduces several characters who don’t seem to connect much to the main plot at first, including a Russian exterminator (Kevin Durand, Lost) for NYC pest control. But surely there’s a plan for them down the road.
And what is the show’s plan? Last summer FX boss John Landgraf described The Strain as a limited series that will run 39-65 episodes. That’s still three to five seasons, which seems like it might be more than this show’s premise can sustain.
But we’ll see. The Strain isn’t great TV but it offers enough unexpected gross-out moments that it’s OK summer popcorn fare.
■ Cable arts network Ovation re-teams Mad Men and Harry Potter stars Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe in season two of A Young Doctor’s Notebook & Other Stories, a black comedy returning to the channel with four new episodes at 10 p.m. Aug. 19.
The series, based on the works of Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, is set in the small village of Mureyevo in 1918. Hamm plays an older version of the same character whom Radcliffe plays at a younger age.
But of more interest to Harry Potter fans, what did Radcliffe think of J.K. Rowling’s newest Harry Potter short story (about 1,500 words) released Tuesday morning at Pottermore.com? He doesn’t expect the short story to be made into a movie or to reprise his leading role.
“My inclination is to say, no, but I don’t think it’s a question, it’s not even a hypothetical,” he said of the prospect of starring in a new Harry Potter film. “I haven’t read it yet — I am going to read it — but I understand it’s a very, very short piece, and I’m not sure it’s something in and of itself worthy of adaptation to film. I don’t know. He’s 12 years older than I am now. I don’t think I’ll have to worry about that for a long time, I’m hoping.”