There's a good chance that I am dumb. Silly me walked into The Strain thinking it would be "an FX show" just because it's on FX. The network is one of the best in the business, known for quality dramas that are serious, smart, and innovative; it's got a lock on the title of Television's Most Prestigious Network That's Not HBO (I have them neck-and-neck), and that's fact.
Well guess what, The Strain isn't serious, but it is smart and innovative for exactly that reason. FX is going way off-brand with this one; in a time when prestige cable dramas are all the rage, yet so few shows are actually worthy of the distinction (Low Winter Sun, Halt and Catch Fire, The Walking Dead, Tyrant, House of Cards, and The Bridge to name many, but there are many more), The Strain appears to be the beginning of a backlash toward fancypants cable series. It's like walking into your local dive bar to see your professor playing bass in a '70s-inspired psych-rock band with his tie, once a symbol of authority, wrapped around his head. FX is letting its hair down and taking its shirt off with The Strain, and dammit, that's awfully refreshing.
From creator and director and book-of-the-same-name author Guillermo del Toro, The Strain posits a "What if?" scenario in which vampires are real, eschewing the idea of the pasty fellas turning into bats, having issues with garlic, or sparkling while they flirt with underage girls. There's a decidedly scientific approach to these creatures, in the form of a potential outbreak transported to the U.S. via an eerily silent aircraft; a gooey, ejecting proboscis; and carrier worms that have been terrorizing weak-bellied and overcautious television critics in Los Angeles who can't stand to see them crawling out of eyeballs on billboards for the show. (You people who complained about them are total buzzkills, by the way.)
This approach provides the perfect entry point for our hero Ephraim Goodweather (the names on this show are part of the joke), played by Corey Stoll (House of Cards) and one laughable hairpiece (maybe The Americans). Eph, as he likes to be called, is a CDC epidemiologist whose marriage is crumbling marriage because of his tight tether to his job. If he takes time off, people die, he said while checking his phone during a therapy session that essentially ended with the diagnosis that checks his phone too much. We've seen this set-up a bazillion times before, but there's something about Stoll's chatty performance and his character's attack-the-problem-head-on 'tude that makes Eph instantly likable. "I'm the bad guy because I don't want this marriage to end?" he said when he felt like his wife and their therapist were ganging up on him. Later, Eph held a press conference and sucked the sugar right off the coat when he told the families of the plane passengers that pretty much everyone was dead. Eph's the kind of guy who puts it out there, which spurs our trust in him. His brand of honesty is rare in the real world. He's not the next great television character and I couldn't care less about his marital issues, but I admire the guy, and that's important in a person I'm going to watch kick vampire ass for three or four seasons of television.
Other characters were introduced equally fast, which is all the time a show like The Strain needed to spend on them. The standout among is Abraham Setrakian, played with gusto by David Bradley, who might be looking to even out his standing with the viewing public after starring as Stark-butcher Walder Frey on Game of Thrones. Setrakian knew a lot more about what happened with the dead plane than anyone else, and of course he did, because he owns a pawn shop that buys silver and he carries a cane that's merely the sheath for a really badass sword with an even badasser handle. He ain't afraid of no ghost (or vampire), and he's got warnings for all the whippersnappers out there: Things are going to get really bad really fast unless this "he" is stopped, whoever the "he" may be. My money is on the giant, cloaked, blood-sucking menace.
Elsewhere there's a gangbanger who was drawn into the plot for some reason, some shadowy corporate player (an always welcome Jonathan Hyde) who's running a vampire import business, and Eph's coworkers Nora (Mia Maestro) and Jim (Sean Astin), the latter of whom is (or was) in deep with the bad guys for reasons unknown. There's also a quartet of survivors from the plane, one of which is a rock star with a rock-star attitude (as he took off his Ian Astbury wig to reveal a crewcut, he said, "I'm in it for the pussy"). And if you didn't cackle with a groan when he was introduced, then you probably aren't picking up on The Strain's camp factor.
But no one in their right mind gives a solid shit about these characters. Any importance they add to the story is just a bonus. What we're here for is to have our pants scared off, probably while giggling a little, and The Strain's pilot contained a few scenes that shot my pajama bottoms clear across the room. If you struggled to get through some of the character moments and dialogue ("It's like a dead animal," said one of the first people to encounter the lifeless plane, and yes, I LOVE that line for its awfulness), I hope you at least appreciated the flawlessly horrifying sense of anticipation and dread as Eph and Nora explored the jet full of ghostly corpses. Or the stewardess riding the cargo hold latch like it was a mechanical bull while some mysterious beast threatened to explode from beneath it. Or that same mysterious beast latching onto a guy and sucking out his insides and then re-enacting the final moments of the Mountain versus the Red Viper in Game of Thrones' big Season 4 fight. These are the types of scenes we'll live for on The Strain, and they're a delicious romp.
There might be an even scarier element in play, though, if the end of "Night Zero" is a sign of things to come. The poor medical examiner suffered two unequivocal tragedies when the bodies from the plane got up and gang-ate him AND he had to listen to "Sweet Caroline," the most awful song ever created. The rising corpses amped up the idea of an outbreak, building toward the episode's most frightening moment. I'm talking, of course, about little Emma, or whatever little Emma became after being drained on the plane (those dead eyes! That gray skin!). The voiceover at the beginning and the end of the episode blew some hooey about love being our downfall, and apparently one little girl's love for her father compelled her to walk all the way from the morgue to her daddy's house in the dark. Total Salem's Lot vibes, and that movie scared me so badly when I was a kid that I haven't been able to watch it since. Emma's reunion with her father opens up the idea of The Strain being able to tell these kinds of stories—of the dead returning to their loved ones—if it wants to, though I don't think the show has that much of an interest in it. It might just be the way the virus spreads, so those of you who like to complain about being loved by no one, maybe you're in luck.
All this goofy horror fun isn't easy to pull off, and there are plenty of people out there who don't like a good laugh soaked in blood or intentionally flat dialogue. But del Toro has skillfully walked the tightrope by creating a hyper-realistic setting that helps excuse the weak writing. The Strain exists in a world that feels like an alternate reality that's been lifted from a graphic novel or comic book, much like del Toro's Blade II or Hellboy; it's a lot like ours, but it's just different enough that we're not mistaking it for our own. The distinction between the two is underscored by big blocks of color that splash everywhere thanks to off-camera lights. Blues, ambers, and, of course, reds splatter characters' faces and heighten the comic feel. The result is a beautiful visual (that scene inside the plane!) that establishes The Strain as an escape and vacation from our own lives.
A mere one hour into The Strain, the series is a drive-in horror that offers a new bite (har) on the vampire genre, and it will never win any awards that don't include "technical," "effects," or "-ography" in the title. It's dumb at times, paralyzingly frightening at others, cliché almost always, and gleefully proud to be all of the above. It's clear that del Toro has shaped The Strain into a loving descendant of the golden age of horror and monster movies, when we knew what the characters would say before they said it and what they would do before they did it, but we didn't care because there were MONSTERS. A handful of early reviews dismissed The Strain as dumb and boring, but they were written by joyless people who don't like to have fun. Me? I like to have fun. I'm happy to embrace the show's silliness, just as del Toro and showrunner Carlton Cuse seem to want to do, and I love what it is so far. Too many shows never get a hold on their identity, but The Strain knows exactly what it is: a bloody and fun summer escape. I'm dying to see more.
– What's up with Setrakian's organ in a jar? Obviously it has some of those wormy things in it, and he feeds blood to it. My guess? It's the heart of one of his loved ones that was infected by the vampiric virus, and he keeps it around as a harmless pet.
– Totally unnecessary stripdown scene with Eph and Nora as they were prepping to enter the plane. When I saw that, I was like, "Oh, okay. It's going to be that kind of show."
– What do you think is the deal with elderly billionaire Eldritch Palmer? And that weirdo with the eyelids Thomas Eichorst?
– Eph texts like a 12-year-old girl.
– Do you hate "Sweet Caroline" as much as I do?
– I plan to cover the show each week, so please come back each Sunday night!
– Because The Strain is based on a series of novels (which I have not read), I ask kindly that you avoid posting book spoilers in the comments. Let those of us who haven't read them enjoy the story for the first time, please!