There has been a record amount of new scripted programming on basic cable since late May -- most of it quite entertaining, and all of it more than any one person can hope to follow. So it means something when I say that FX’s upcoming “The Strain” is likely to be the biggest television event in a very eventful summer. I just watched the pilot last night and I can’t keep quiet about it -- even though its premiere is two weeks away.
“The Strain” is a monstrous thriller -- as in monstrously good -- with a first episode that grabbed me like no other has since “Fargo,” another FX production that only recently concluded its premiere season. “Fargo,” a miniseries franchise that will surely continue in some form given its success with viewers and critics, came along in the spring and instantly took its place alongside the best television programs of the year. If the quality of “The Strain” holds up beyond its pilot, I expect it to move right up there and keep “Fargo” company.
The “Strain” pilot is not something to be watched on a smartphone or smallish portable device: Rather, it is so cinematic in so many ways that, like much of “Fargo,” it belongs on a big TV screen -- in fact, the bigger the better. Indeed, I think both would have worked well in movie theaters, especially “The Strain,” which is certainly a greater thrill ride than anything that has taken up residence at my local multiplex this summer. I can imagine the palpable tension in a room full of hundreds of people watching it together in a fully immersive hi-tech environment. I can imagine FX (or whichever company might actually release it to theaters) having a lot of fun with in-theater promotions: Worms dropping from the ceiling at key moments or splayed all over concession stands, for example.
I could even imagine the 13-episode season of “The Strain” playing as a six-part serial in movie theaters. That’s how much fun the pilot was to watch. (Could movie serials of some kind that play out in weeks rather than over years work in the current media landscape? What would Millennials make of them?)
Early buzz about this show has identified it as yet another vampire thriller. Well, I’m as tired of vampires as everyone else -- especially sun-proof vamps so attractive they could find work as Abercrombie & Fitch models at bright beachfront locations -- so I wasn’t all that jazzed about it. My bad: “The Strain” doesn’t even belong in the same thought pattern as so many recent vampire tales.
The involvement of acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labryinth”) as executive producer and co-creator (with Chuck Hogan) should have fueled my anticipation more than it did. (Del Toro and Hogan wrote the 2009 novel “The Strain” on which the series is based. It was the first novel in an eventual “Strain” trilogy.) He’s known for bringing a very distinctive and formal style to the work about which he is most passionate. “The Strain” isn’t overly stylized, but it has a dramatic formality that elevates it above an ordinary shock-filled horror show. As outlandish as the plot here can sometimes get, del Toro knows how to make it all feel real.
As those giant, somewhat revolting big-city billboards featuring a worm crawling out of an eyeball have made clear, “The Strain” is not for the squeamish. There is blood and gore and viscera on display throughout. The overall tension is unrelenting, even when the story slows down for a few moments to explore the personal lives of the people who are fighting an ancient, viral menace not easily explained.
I imagine that advance reviews of this show will probably contain more details than they should and that immediately following its premiere on Sunday, July 13 busy bloggers and frenzied episode re-cappers will spoil just about everything. I’m not going to do that here, largely because I went into the “Strain” experience totally cold and enjoyed every hot minute of it. Those people who haven’t read the books and don’t know the story are in for something quite unlike anything they have seen before on series television -- or even in the movies.
Most importantly for FX, I imagine young men will tune in to this series in droves.
I will note that Corey Stoll (who played a pivotal and ill-fated character in the first season of Netflix’s “House of Cards”) is just terrific as Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, the head of the Center for Disease Control Canary Team in New York City and a man with ill-timed family problems who finds himself at the forefront of the torrent of terrible events that begin right at the start of the pilot. Also great is David Bradley as Abraham Setrakian, a pawnbroker who plays a key role in everything. Bradley has had a sensational few years with unforgettable roles in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (Walder Frey of “Red Wedding” fame), BBC America’s “An Adventure in Space and Time” and “Broadchurch” and now “The Strain” (not to mention all those “Harry Potter” movies).