'The Strain': This summer's stunner

Staff writer

Premiering this weekend: The show most likely to be this summer's breakout hit.

A creepy epic, "The Strain" arrives with enough frightening flair to engross — and gross out — viewers who are missing "The Walking Dead."
The FX drama, debuting at 10 p.m. Sunday, starts with the mystifying horror of disaster aboard a plane. Health experts scramble to understand the crisis while affluent villains consolidate power. Turns out the craft has transported the seeds of catastrophe, a strain of vampirism, to New York.

The show's assets start with co-creators Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, who deftly adapt their "Strain" novel. Del Toro directed the gripping, gruesome pilot, and the gifted Carlton Cuse ("Lost") serves as show runner. Heading a strong cast are Corey Stoll ("House of Cards") as a health official with family problems and David Bradley (the Harry Potter films) as a pawnbroker with steely resolve.

"The Strain" is more elaborate than "The Walking Dead," from the grotesque makeup to the villains' chain of command to the methods for surviving. "The Strain" also has more humor. For a show about the undead, it has a lot of life, wit and promise.

In a call with reporters Wednesday, Cuse said the plan is for the show to last just five seasons, no matter if it's a big hit.

"We are moving into this new phase of television of audiences embracing stories with beginnings, middles and ends," Cuse said, citing "True Detective," "Fargo" and the end of "Breaking Bad." "You have to recognize the audience wants to see a story that comes to a conclusion. TV has been a first act and an endless second act. The best television is giving you a three-act experience."

Del Toro said the second and third books in the "Strain" trilogy could generate a fifth season. But he was definite about the TV series: "It needs to end when it ends."

Co-author Hogan is part of the writing staff. Del Toro directed the pilot and said he remains "obsessively" involved by supervising makeup and effects. Del Toro explained that the show's look; it has few colors, but when red appears, there's a link to the vampires.

"The Strain" follows the narrative of the first book this season, Cuse said, but the series add characters and different dramatic developments. The goal is not to translate the book into a TV show, but to make the best TV series possible, Cuse said.

Del Toro said the origins of the Master, the central villain, will be saved for season two. Del Toro said the series has "a very elastic relationship" to the book but is respectful of the novel so the book fans won't be alienated.

The series is gross by design. Del Toro takes a detailed, biological approach to explaining how the old vampires' bodies have fallen apart.

"You need to show an audience you're not kidding," del Toro said. "By atmospheric, creepy moments or visceral punch or hopefully both, you're going to be able to deliver the goods," he said. The goal is to make viewers feel queasy and unsafe because that is what is expected with the horror genre, he added.

After watching the first four episodes, I can say "The Strain" delivers the goods. It's a knockout.

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