"It's not for everyone," growls the grizzled, sword-wielding Armenian pawnshop owner (Game of Thrones' David Bradley), whose unromantic notion of vampire slaying includes mass decapitations and body burnings. Likewise, FX's deliciously freaky and gruesomely graphic The Strain (Sunday, 10/9c) won't be for all tastes. But the network is betting, probably correctly, that a midsummer popcorn feast of classic monster-movie horror, served without apology and blessedly free of irony, will resonate with fright fans eager to jump out of their seats, which turns out to be a Strain specialty. This could, and deserves to be, FX's Walking Dead-sized blockbuster.
Based on the trilogy of page-turners by fantasy visionary Guillermo del Toro (who directs the first episode) and Chuck Hogan, The Strain imagines a New York City beset by a rampaging vampire virus, transforming everyday folks into fearsomely ravenous fiends, following the ominous arrival of an ancient evil smuggled aboard a doomed airliner in the nerve-wracking opening. Upon beholding the empty (except for dirt) 9-foot coffin in the plane's cargo hold, a CDC investigator wonders, "Why would anyone put a latch on the inside?" Why indeed?
Straining for melodrama in its plotting and overheated dialogue, and surprisingly conventional by FX standards — not that there's any shame in delivering old-fashioned scares in high style — The Strain introduces a sprawling and eclectic cast of heroes, who even after four episodes haven't all met yet. Team leader Ephraim Goodweather (House of Cards' Corey Stoll, floppy-haired and appealing) is head of the CDC's New York-based "Canary" team, whose investigation into this terrifying outbreak is too often sidelined by the soap opera of his ongoing child-custody hearings. The aforementioned Bradley is a masterful scene-stealer as pawnshop owner Abe Setrakian, who once crossed paths with "The Master," harboring grisly evidence of their long-ago encounter and spoiling for a rematch, as he warns of "a thing of enormous power and terrible will, a will to devour the world and swallow the light."
Not terribly impressed with Ephraim's oversensitive team of CDC do-gooders (including Mia Maestro and Sean Astin), Abe barks: "You think that being good is enough? Being good means nothing, unless you are willing to do what has to be done." Among those who will eventually join the fight: Gus (Miguel Gomez), a mama's-boy ex-con from Harlem initially duped to do The Master's bidding, and Fet (Kevin Durand), a Ukrainian exterminator who soon realizes he's dealing with more than a rat infestation.
Being bad, of course, has its own scenery-chewing pleasures, with foes including a Mr. Burns-like human villain (Jonathan Hyde), representing something called the "Stoneheart Group" — which made me chuckle every time I saw the logo — whose decrepit dying body explains his fascination with immortality, however demonic. His mysterious sidekick Mr. Eichorst (a splendidly sinister Richard Sammel) gives deliciously bizarre new meaning to "putting on your face" in a later episode.
So generous in its jolts that you barely have time to dwell on the plot holes, The Strain may not be the most original thrill ride, but it's among the summer's most enjoyable, elevating its genre clichés with a pulp urgency that, like the monster's icky wormy offspring, gets under your skin and stays there.
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IT'S SHOWTIME: Even in the summer TV season, Sundays are getting awfully crowded. If bilious vamps aren't your thing, Showtime is pairing the sophomore seasons of its two most acclaimed shows of last year into a powerful combo of Emmy-nominated adult drama. The brooding Ray Donovan (9/8c) is joined by the enthralling Masters of Sex (10/9c), which in its second season is even stronger in its unflinching exploration of the mysteries of sexual attraction and behavior.
With Masters and Johnson's controversial sex study temporarily suspended, at the end of last season, likened to a "mummy's curse" and "nuclear rain" in its toxic fallout, and their careers in limbo as the new season begins, the obsessive Bill and his muse Virginia (Michael Sheen and Emmy-nominated Lizzy Caplan, ablaze with forbidden chemistry) reassess their professional and, more troublingly, clandestine personal relationship. Complicating matters is Bill's new status as the rigid father of a newborn child, an unwelcome reminder of his own traumatic upbringing.
But in the opening episode, their travails are upstaged by the heartbreaking turns in the marriage of Bill's tormented mentor Barton Scully and his desperately unhappy wife Margaret (the superb Emmy-nominated guest actors Beau Bridges and Allison Janney). Despairing of the barbaric social and medical attitudes in the late '50s toward his closeted homosexuality, Scully attempts to cure his "condition" and rekindle the domestic fires, only making matters worse. Adding a bit of welcome comic relief this season: the Broadway spitfire Annaleigh Ashford (Kinky Boots), reprising her first-season role as Betty, the sardonic prostitute-turned-trophy wife whose infertility is just one of her shameful secrets.
Masters and Johnson's work was all about bringing sex in its infinite varieties out into the open. The psychological richness of Masters of Sex positions it to be a worthy successor to the fast-fading (except in Emmy voters' eyes) Mad Men.
Dr. Bill would likely be fascinated to monitor the disturbing sexual behavior unfolding in Ray Donovan's boudoir as this absorbing series about a family of damaged souls embarks on its second season. Ray (Liev Schreiber) is having, but not enjoying, very rough marital relations with his long-suffering wife Abby (Paula Malcomson), the alarming frequency of which their earnest therapist (Brent Spiner) associates with the childhood sexual abuse Ray revealed toward the end of last season. Gruff and aloof and stubbornly closed off, Ray has no patience for this sort of navel-gazing — not when he's still busy putting out legal fires several weeks after the murder of family nemesis Scully, an act that propelled Ray's unrepentant rascal of a jailbird dad Mickey (Emmy nominee Jon Voight, having the time of his life) to flee to the beaches of Mexico, where he's conducting surreal conversations with local marine wildlife.
Mickey's the life of every party, but this breathtakingly venal cad could also be the death of his family, as Ray and his siblings — the childlike Bunchy (a poignant Dash Mihok), the palsied ex-boxer Terry (Eddie Marsan) — cope with the emotional and criminal fallout of their not-so-dear old dad's antics. Ray is especially annoyed to find himself in the crosshairs of the FBI's smugly ambitious assistant director Ed Cochran (Hank Azaria), whose investigation into the slaying of Most-Wanted Sully (among other scattered corpses) threatens to force Mickey back into his sons' unhappy lives. Meanwhile, there are Hollywood crises for Ray to fix — one amusingly involving an American Idol-style reality-TV contestant on the day of her live performance — amid distracting domestic traumas, including the anger issues of Ray's spoiled son Conor (Devon Bagby), who idolizes his disreputable grandpa.
Throughout, Schreiber projects an implacable scowl masking Ray's inner turbulence and festering psychosexual violence. Occupying familiar anti-hero territory with grim and often outrageous resolve, Ray Donovan is a sun-bleached noir and a character actor's paradise.
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