TV used to be a barren wasteland in the summer. It was home to countless reruns and programs the networks didn’t deem good enough to air when people were huddled into their homes to avoid winter’s cold embrace. These days, between the fact that we now have DVRs, people hate doing things away from their 15 different devices and appropriate chargers, and how widespread glorious, glorious air conditioners are, TV executives have actually started scheduling new programming in the summer. Quality programming, at that!
The Strain is the child of director Guillermo Del Toro, author Chuck Hogan, and Lost’s Carlton Cuse. It’s based on a trilogy of novels that Del Toro and Hogan produced back in 2009. Television hasn’t historically been the most receptive venue for horror, but there’s so much niche programming now. There’s also the success of The Walking Dead to look at. This is the same network that brought the world the over-the-top guilty pleasure American Horror Story.
FX has been marketing the shit out of The Strain leading up to the show’s premiere. And that marketing has been a bit… disturbing. The disturbing factor and subsequent controversy work in the show’s favor. The Strain isn’t pulling any punches. It’s a gross horror show with an almost comedic edge, very much in the vein of Del Toro’s previous work. If you were to tell me that this takes place in a unified universe with Hellboy, Pacific Rim, and Pan’s Labyrinth, I wouldn’t bat an eye. There are worms that burrow into your skin, leech-like brains, vampiric zombie creatures, and a mysterious old man that looks like he was pulled straight from Del Toro’s mind (played by David Bradley of Harry Potter and Game of Thrones).
It’s not going to be the deepest show you watch on TV, but it looks like it’s going to be a fun ride, especially for horror fans. And if you’re trying to place where you know lead protagonist Corey Stoll from, just picture him without hair and drinking heavily.
The Bridge is an adaptation of a Danish/Swedish show that explores a criminally underexplored area: Mexican-American relations on the border. The first season fell thoroughly into that “good, not great” area. It’s well filmed and acted, but The Bridge just seems to be missing something.
Right off the bat, Season 2 has some added intensity. The first season got bogged down with its serial killer hunt. It slavishly followed the original. As we’ve seen in American adaptations (like the pilot episode of The Office), that’s never a good thing. You have to make a story your own.
The elements unique to this version of The Bridge are what really make it work. It’s the exploration of the cultural struggle between Mexico and the U.S. This world produced what Grantland’s Andy Greenwald refers to as “The Weird Bridge”. Characters like Fausto, a Mexican gangster that wears a polo shirt and a trucker hat or Linder, who… well, I’m not sure how to describe Linder. He’s a strange dude. His Wikipedia description is simply “a ‘lone wolf’ trying to survive in a near-lawless borderland.” That’s no help!
Considering The Bridge finds its strength in the unusual border world of El Paso and Juárez, their lead law enforcement characters might not be sufficient enough to properly explore it all. A surprising strength of the show in its first season was Matthew Lillard’s damaged reporter Daniel Frye and his partner Adriana Mendez (Emily Rios, you probably know her as Andrea from Breaking Bad). Frye could easily be just a character that’s around to kick when he’s down, but he brings a certain spark whenever he’s on screen. He’s a mess and he doesn’t mope about it. He embraces it. He’s fun to watch and Rios plays a good straight woman (not going for irony since her character is a lesbian) off of Lillard. Promoting them to series regulars for season 2 was a very smart move.
That’s not to say that the lead detectives are bad. Diane Kruger and Demián Bichir are very good as Sonya Cross and Marco Ruiz, however the characters are tough to chew on. The Bridge can be a very dark show. The first season beat the holy hell out of Marco and now he finds himself wallowing in pain and self pity. As for Sonya, people have a tough time dealing with her Asperger’s Syndrome. She can’t express herself or deal with things in a socially normal manner. The way she approaches men for sex is unusual, as is how she processes her sister’s murder. Some would describe it as downright fucked up. It’s different, though, and it shows that The Bridge is trying to change things up from the norm.
The Bridge lost one of its two showrunners in Meredith Stiehm between seasons. Stiehm returned to Homeland, hoping to bring that show back to its former glory, leaving Elwood Reid to run The Bridge. Reid seems to be in tune with the characters and what works with the show, so hopefully that means season two can shift the show from the “good” category to “great”.
But look, The Bridge managed to use Kevin from The Office in a serious role, and you should give it a shot for that reason alone.
Masters of Sex
Masters of Sex and The Bridge are very different shows that came out around the same time and fall into that “good, not great” area. Unlike The Bridge, there isn’t something particularly wrong with Masters ofSex. I’m not quite enamored with it. I might be alone in that regard, as the show is doing quite well on Metacritic with a score of 85. Masters of Sex is clearly aiming for that Mad Men sweet spot of period drama featuring people with hilariously outdated attitudes when compared with today’s society. Women with thoughts of their own? Why, that’s unheard of!
Strong female performances and characters is where Masters of Sex excels. Lizzy Caplan was a question mark coming into this series, mostly known for her comedic work on shows like Party Down. She’s proven herself very capable of handling a lead dramatic role. Caplan’s character, Virginia Johnson, is the primary spark on Masters of Sex. Allison Janney is terrific as a middle aged woman finally learning about her sexuality. Julianne Nicholson has a compelling storyline as Dr. Lillian DePaul, a strong advocate for pap smears. Women are the foundation of this show.
Caplan’s co-lead, Michael Sheen, does a fine job as William Masters, but he’s a difficult character to warm up to. He’s kind of an asshole, at least in his personal life. Masters does have some interesting facets. His relationship to his parents and how it affects him as a father is key to understanding his chilly exterior. Beau Bridges has a more emotional storyline, as a gay man who can’t be what he really is. Unfortunately, commitments to undoubtedly well paying but considerably less ambitious television have limited Bridges and Janney’s time on Masters of Sex.
Season One’s biggest hurdle was the character of Ethan. Setting him up in the pilot as the kind of man who would slap a woman in the face for refusing to be his and only his did the character no favors. They spent the rest of the season trying to lighten him up and make him appear as this perfect choice. A stabilizing force that Virginia shouldn’t say no to, but had to due to her feelings for Dr. Masters. But I just couldn’t get that image of him slapping her out of my head. Ethan has been reduced to a recurring role in Season 2.