ATX Television Festival: THE STRAIN Pilot Review

Meredith got a sneak peek at the FX pilot directed by Guillermo del Toro. What did she think?

This weekend I attended the ATX Television Festival in Austin, Texas. This was the third year of the fest, and I've covered it every year. The programming is always fantastic, especially considering the festival is only in its junior year, and this weekend I was most looking forward to checking out the pilot sneak peek of FX's The Strain. Director and executive producer Guillermo del Toro (who created the series based on his own trilogy with Chuck Hogan) was in attendance, along with showrunner Carlton Cuse and stars Corey Stoll, Sean Astin, Kevin Durand (who actually doesn't appear until the second episode of the series) and Mia Maestro. They gave an entertaining Q&A to a packed house at the Paramount's State Theatre in downtown Austin. 

And how was the episode itself? In a word, great. I'm so thrilled about this series, which premieres July 13. The pilot was directed by del Toro, and it looks incredibly cinematic and, frankly, expensive. It's a jam-packed hour, and I actually wish the pilot were a two-hour event, because the episode moves so quickly that several key moments aren't given a beat to land. While that makes for a rushed hour of television, it also makes for an exciting one, and The Strain's pilot is nothing if not exciting. 

I wrote about the premise of the trilogy, which I quite like, here (you can also see the trailer at the link), and the first episode covers the first twenty-four hours or so of the events that lead to the eventual outbreak of a vampiric virus hitting the streets of New York City. Stoll plays CDC chief medical examiner Ephraim Goodweather, a decent man who is, nevertheless, too busy with his work to give his wife the marriage she deserves. The episode opens with his rush to the last of a series of court-appointed family therapy sessions taking place during the year-long separation between Eph and his wife, Kelly (Natalie Brown). She's seeing someone else, and their son Zach (Ben Hyland) isn't happy about it - and neither is Eph. But at the crucial sink-or-swim moment of his marriage, Eph is called to an epidemiological crisis that's going to keep him awfully busy for the foreseeable future.

A plane has landed at JFK Airport via autopilot - and it hits the tarmac with all of the lights off, the window shades drawn and no sign of movement inside. Eph and his fellow CDC agents, including Maestro's Dr. Nora Martinez (with whom Eph has been entertaining a flirtation during his marital separation) and Astin's Jim Kent, are called to investigate. They find a plane filled with 206 dead passengers and only a small handful of survivors (including goth rock star Gabriel Bolivar, played by Jack Kesy). They also discover, in the bowels of the aircraft, an enormous, ancient wooden box carved with intricate designs and filled with soil and tiny, malevolent-looking worms. Meanwhile, a Holocaust survivor and antiques dealer named Abraham Setrakian (Harry Potter's David Bradley) hears about the plane on the news and fights his way to the airport, desperate to talk to the CDC about what he knows of a centuries-old evil. 

All of this takes place in the first third of the episode, and to say any further would be to spoil, but so much more happens in this breathless episode. The Strain's pilot isn't necessarily scary, but it's a lot of fun, and in moments it's incredibly gory in a way that will make the most ardent grue-lover clap with glee (I know, because I did at two different scenes during the screening). The performances are all solid and engaging, particularly House of Cards' Stoll as Goodweather, which feels like inspired casting. Eph's a bit of an asshole, but he's charming and ultimately good-hearted, and Stoll had me rooting for a complicated character in the first sixty seconds of our acquaintance with him. 

Knowing what I do of how The Strain plays out, the pilot kicks off these events perfectly, and I'm dying to see the second episode already. Unfortunately, I'll have to wait until mid-July for that, but I'm eager to review the show further and dive into the next great horror series with you guys, particularly during Hannibal and American Horror Story's hiatuses. But the good news about this delay is that if you haven't read the book yet, you have time. Check it out at the link below, and get caught up before The Strain premieres!