Television, like everyone else, knows it is summertime. It’s too hot for art—’tis the season for schlock. Arriving in the next week are two sci-fi-tinged series that eschew certain warm-weather aesthetics (bathing suits, sunny locales) while embracing, inadvertently or otherwise, more important ones (B-movie thrills). The flaws in CBS’s Extant and FX’s The Strain are myriad, but they would both be a kick to watch at a drive-in (preferably one that lets you toss M&M’s at the big screen now and then). It says something about how far television has come that it can now serve up junk that looks and tastes this decent. Welcome to the summer of popcorn TV.
Halle Berry first appears on the Steven Spielberg–produced Extant haggard and puking, glistening lines of spittle hanging from her mouth. A movie star has descended to television—network television no less—and she is not putting on airs. Extant, which premieres Wednesday night, tosses sci-fi films from 2001 to A.I. to Sunshine in a blender, and serves up a psychologically minded speculative smoothie, complete with impregnating aliens, emotional robots, and vast conspiracies. No one element of this show feels original, and yet I would totally watch more, even if just to peep at the sleek futuristic garbage cans again. (In the future, our trash is very compact.)
Berry stars as astronaut Molly Woods, who has just returned from 13 months on a solo mission and yet is somehow pregnant. (The vomiting is morning sickness.) Molly has been alone in space, but for one multihour stretch when her ship’s computer—called Ben, and chattier than HAL—went offline, and something apparently inseminatory happened. Molly’s pregnancy is made further mysterious by the fact of her infertility: She and her husband John (Goran Visnjic) couldn’t conceive, a disappointment that led John to build them a son, Ethan (Pierce Gagnon), who seems like a normal, sweet, emotionally connected boy, except when he is possibly murdering birds. The cleverest and creepiest aspects of Extant all orbit around Ethan: There are no guarantees about how children will turn out, whether they are real or mechanical. If Ethan’s programming went awry and he were to turn on his parents, would that really make him so different from a troubled boy of flesh and blood?
Extant has a moody, muted tone: I assume it’s the eerie calm before the computer goes haywire or the alien bursts out of the womb, if you will. The Strain, which starts Sunday night and is based on a novel from director Guillermo del Toro, has no such restraint. The vampire-like beings it stars chow down on human blood by shooting a freakishly long projectile tongue out of their mouths, like monsters created after a particularly twisted session of dream interpretation with Dr. Freud.
The Strain wears its influences even less lightly than Extant. Nosferatu, Outbreak, V, Contagion, and dozens of horror movies are all part of its slurry. In the premiere, a plane lands at Kennedy Airport with all the passengers aboard but four seemingly dead. The CDC’s Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, a recovering alcoholic, ongoing workaholic, and tortured father (Corey Stoll in a bad wig that’s the show’s only real Twilight shout out) comes to investigate with his colleague Dr. Nora Martinez (Mía Maestro). They deduce that something aboard the plane was host to a tiny bloodthirsty worm capable of turning humans into something akin to vampires. Alas, they are not the sexy kind, but the hideously deformed kind, with spiky teeth, that projectile tongue, brand new internal organs, and no hair or genitalia.
While Extant tries to creep you out with what you can’t see, The Strain gorges on absurdities the way its infected characters chug blood. You could play a game of spot-the-cliché with The Strain: vampires, malevolent corporations, Nazis, Holocaust survivors, Latino petty criminals— Bingo! Del Toro directed the first episode and executive produces the series, and like his giant monster vs. giant robot movie Pacific Rim, The Strain has a kind of earnest and respectful fanboyishness, in which every single ridiculous element mandated by the genre is rendered seriously but not exactly unknowingly. His love for the material is so deep, he won’t wink at it, and that gives audience the freedom to laugh—sometimes, but not always, with the show.
It’s a common refrain that TV, by virtue of its length, can go deeper than movies, which only have two or three hours to sketch out a whole world. But based on the evidence of The Strain, were blockbusters given 10 extra hours, we’d just get a bunch of dull custody hearings and AA meetings, dozens more occasions for evil geniuses to have their plots go off without a hitch, and repetitive check-ins on self-evident storylines. When one of the survivors of the plane, a violently ill soon-to-be-vampire, goes home, we see that he has a dog: It’s not better that The Strain returns to him four more times before that dog is dead, it’s just slower.
While Extant does not feel quite as baggy as The Strain, it too seems to be carefully storing up more than enough rope to hang itself. CBS’s other summer drama, the Stephen King adaptation Under the Dome, started off semipromisingly, before getting floppy and inane when it rejiggered its plot so as to be able to go on forever and ever (or as many summers as it gets ratings). Extant, in its pilot, includes hints of every possible conspiracy it can. Should the show go on many seasons, its creators will be protected from the charge they didn’t know what they were doing from the start: The start is overloaded. But then, starts count. Extant and The Strain don’t have particularly promising futures, but their beginnings, anyway, go great with popcorn. The shows—and the popcorn—might be stale long before they’re over, but, hey, by then it will almost be fall.
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