A trio of creepy titles debuted this summer, and your personal preference may dictate which you prefer, although one show stands above the other two in terms of quality and intensity, and perhaps surprisingly (or perhaps not), it is the Fx Network entry that is can’t miss television.
From Executive Producer and horror master Guillermo Del Toro, The Strain is a very different kind of entry in the horror genre. Blending equal parts vampire story, zombie apocalypse and virus pandemic thriller, The Strain smartly uses its gore factor to provide just enough revulsion to shock us without driving us away.
That’s a good thing, because this is one of the best-cast TV shows I’ve ever seen. Corey Stoll, who was so outstanding in House of Cards as tortured Pete Russo, is appropriately driven as CDC Viral Expert Ephraim Goodwater. He’s joined by his muse and conscience in the person of Mia Maestro as Dr. Nora Martinez. And the real stroke of genius is adding David Bradley (Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Game of Thrones) as WW II survivor and sword-wielding vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian.
The vampires are decidedly gross and unsexy, and the show effectively combines mythology and science to create a creepy, weird and intensely suspenseful setting. This ain’t Twilight, this ain’t even True Blood. If you’re a fan of, say, The Walking Dead, then The Strain has likely been your summer fix. I’m thrilled to advise that it’s already been picked up for Season 2. This show is a winner.
IF YOUR TASTE runs more to the macabre hidden behind the veil of the mundane, then you might prefer HBO’s The Leftovers, from Lost creator Damon Lindelof.
The Leftovers posits an interest premise – what if 5% of the people in the world all suddenly vanished without a trace. The answer the show offers is that much of the world would go bat-shit crazy. That includes small-town Sheriff Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and his estranged wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) who has joined an annoying cult of silent smokers known as the Guilty Remnant. Frankly, the only way the Guilty Remnant could be more annoying is if they followed you around repeating everything you say, and when people retaliate against the relatively harmless cult members with violence, you feel a certain guilty sense of satisfaction.
While The Leftovers has all of the slightly skewed elements that made Lost compelling, Lost had the sarcasm of Josh Holloway’s Sawyer and the cock-eyed optimism of Jorge Garcia’s Hurley. By contrast, this show is joyless, and most episodes leave you feeling Lost, but Lost if the only characters were John Locke and the Korean guy who never talks.
The lone exception is standout Carrie Coon as resilient Nora Durst, whose entire family disappeared in “The Departure” but who nevertheless managed not to join an annoying cult or shoot a bunch of dogs. The show screams for more of her and less doom and gloom, but unless a con artist named Sawyer shows up in Mapleton, I don’t think we’ll get there.
LAST UP, from BBC America, comes Intruders, a somewhat convoluted drama about regular people who become possessed by trapped souls. Creepy behavior ensues.
To be fair, Intruders hasn’t given us nearly as big a sample size as the other two shows, but early on, some obvious troubles emerge. The show meanders, spending far too much time in one of the lead character’s (John Simm) mundane search for his missing and possessed wife (Mira Sorvino). The misstep here is that it’s difficult to have much of a connect with these characters when there’s been no back story or character development. That may come in future installments, but so far, I’m bored with this pair.
Ditto a “soul assassin” (James Frain) who wanders around looking for possessed innocents to shoot and kill. This character produces a certain sense of dread while on screen, but is utterly pitiless and, since we again have no context for his actions, is a bit boring.
The standout in this show is young Millie Bobby Brown as Madison O’Donnell, a possessed 10 year old who gleefully runs away from home and proceeds to age inappropriately get in people’s faces and bark at them. Brown smoothly transitions between precious and adorable innocent and tiger-lady from hell, and her screen time feels like the awesome 5 minute roller coaster ride you had to wait 30 minutes on line for.
I can give Intruders a partial free pass because, like I said, I have a smaller sample size. If I had reviewed The Leftovers after just two episodes I’d have trashed it completely, but it has picked up a bit once it had more time to develop its characters. Of course, The Strain trumps all of this – I loved that show after 10 minutes of episode 1 and it hasn’t wavered since.
For whatever reason, magic is back on TV, and hooray for that. Masters of Illusion is a 30 minute series of quick hits showing professional illusionists rattling off tricks rapid fire, with occasional narration by Dean Cain. Penn & Teller Fool Us has the titular duo trying to figure out auditioning acts secrets on the fly, but the best of the magic offerings is Wizard Wars, which pairs up magicians into teams and then gives them random objects to use in a routine. The winning team then squares off with the “wizards,” a permanent panel of pros who also come up with routines on the spot. The judging panel again includes Penn & Teller, but the real key to Wizard Wars is the spontaneity and variety it offers to the genre.
Educational TV. Things we learned from watching TV this week: 1) Breakfast pizza is the most important pizza of the day (The Colbert Report); 2) You can’t spell Quvenzhané Wallis (Late Night With Seth Meyers); 3) Bi-nerdy people love Star Trek AND Star Wars (Conan)
Time to bid a fond farewell to Chelsea Lately, which ironically ended its run just prior to the death of TV legend Joan Rivers. Without the caustically funny Joan Rivers, a pioneer in late night talk, there’d have been no Chelsea Handler, a caustically funny good looking blond from New Jersey who occasionally bashes celebrities. The resemblance here is more than passing.
Time to bid a not so fond farewell to True Blood, which went Dexter in its almost completely unsatisfying finale. While a seriously weak last season doesn’t take away all the great moments this show had to offer leading up to the end, it makes you wonder if TV execs shouldn’t start asking “How’s it end” when they get pitched a new idea. This also just makes you appreciate shows that end strong that much more. Viva Le Breaking Bad!
The series premiere of Utopia airs September 7 on Fox.
The season premiere of Boardwalk Empire airs September 7 on HBO.
Sons of Anarchy begins its final season on Fx on September 9.
The series premiere of Z Nation airs on Syfy on September 12.
Real Time With Bill Maher returns to HBO on September 12.
TV’s a big place and I haven’t been to all of it yet. Got a favorite show you’d like me to comment on? Post a comment below, contact me on twitter @RobLazlo. or shoot me an email: [email protected] I welcome your input!