Tuned In: FX's 'Strain' packs little suspense


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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – Some viewers accustomed to FX’s more sophisticated storytelling may 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 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.

Ovation re-teams Don Draper, Harry Potter

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. Mr. Hamm plays an older version of the same character whom Mr. Radcliffe plays at a younger age.

But of more interest to Harry Potter fans, what did Mr. Radcliffe think of J.K. Rowling's newest Harry Potter short story (about 1500 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."

In addition to the return of "A Young Doctor's Notebook," Ovation debuts "Young Marvels" (10 p.m. July 16), a docuseries about artistically gifted children, including a 12-year-old cellist, an 11-year-old opera singer, a 13-year-old modern dancer, a 14-year-old male ballet dancer, an 8-year-old male ballroom dancer and more.

Chain saw guy featured

The story of James Valentine, who survived getting a chain saw embedded in his neck while cutting trees in Ross in April, will have his bizarre medical story featured on “Untold Stories of the ER” (9 p.m. Friday) on Discovery Fit & Health.

Paramedic supervisor Scott Garing and trauma surgeon Christine Toevs play themselves in re-enacted scenes — shot in Vancouver, B.C. — and Mr. Valentine is interviewed about his ordeal.

Mac is back

MTV’s “Mac Miller and the Most Dope Family,” starring the native Pittsburgh rapper, returns for two new episodes at 11:30 p.m. July 23.

Mr. Miller lives in an L.A. mansion with his closest friends when he’s not on tour. In the season two premiere, he’s in Dublin opening for Lil Wayne and decides to search for his Irish roots.

Renewals

Disney Channel ordered season two of the comedy series “I Didn’t Do It.”

“Amazing America with Sarah Palin” will return for a second season on the Sportsman Channel in early 2015.

Spike TV’s “Thrift Hunters” received a 10-episode, second-season order with new episodes airing at 9:30 p.m. Sunday this fall.

IFC’s “The Spoils of Babylon” will get a sequel: The six-episode “The Spoils Before Dying,” based on another fake novel by fictional author Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrell), will premiere in Summer 2015.

Channel surfing

The “MDA Show of Strength Telethon” will air as a two-hour broadcast over Labor Day weekend on ABC for the second time at 9 p.m. Aug. 31. … MSNBC debuts “Jose Diaz-Balart” at 10 a.m. Monday, airing live from Miami with the Telemundo anchor front and center. … At 10:30 p.m. July 24 Lifetime debuts “Undone With @AmanddeCadenet,” a live weekly half-hour talk show about pop culture hosted by British TV personality Amanda de Cadenet. … Matthew Sandusky, son of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, talks to Oprah Winfrey about his accusations of childhood sexual abuse against his father on “Oprah Prime” (9 p.m. July 17, OWN). … The recent return of reruns of the old WTAE children’s’ show “Cappelli & Company” to WBGN, Channel 59 (11:30 a.m. Sunday through Friday), is now accompanied by a website where episodes, songs, music videos and sheet music are for sale: https://cappelliandcompany.com/shop-cappelli/.

A portion of this column originally appeared online in the Tuned In Journal blog. Post-Gazette TV writer Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour. Follow RobOwenTV at Twitter or on Facebook. You can reach Rob at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com


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