Let’s get this out of the way: Corey Stoll’s wig is slightly ridiculous, and we need to get beyond that to enjoy the murderously intricate toy box that is Guillermo Del Toro’s The Strain. I’ll try not to bring it up again. Hairline Discretion is Advised.
Based on the trilogy of novels, Guillermo Del Toro and co-writer Chuck Hogen (Who is responsible for the novel ‘Prince of Thieves’ that eventually became Ben Affleck’s The Town) were granted the opportunity to bring their vampire horror tale, The Strain, to life in TV-MA format by FX.
The Strain is a medley of styles that could prove to be something fascinating, but the potential of which has yet to simmer into anything that can be recommended to a general audience. It’s a contemporary take on a vampiric plague of the undead executed in a story much more akin to the viral contagion zombie action films of the last decade (see I Am Legend and World War Z for examples.)
Aside from the presence of a Coffin filled with mulch, and Richard Sammel in his million dollar suit noting that he doesn’t particularly miss breathing, you would never know that the antagonists spreading this plague were vampires judging from the pilot alone (assuming you didn’t read the book or read descriptions going into it.) This is not necessarily a bad thing due to our modern culture dealing with an over-saturation of vampires, particularly on television, in the last few years.
Instead of focusing on fangs and
wigs wings, Del Toro tries to make his own mythos with an occult, some frostbite and vicious worms that function much like skin crawling scarabs, blending ancient mythology with true-to-life contagion scares.
The show’s protagonist is a Center for Disease Control (CDC) Agent, Doctor Ephriam Goodweather, who is introduced in a very compact introductory scene that reveals his workaholism that prevents his presence for his ex-wife (Natalie Brown) and his son. While the stapled in backstory for Goodweather is rigid, Corey Stoll (House of Cards) proves to be enthralling while his character is doing what he does best: which is making the general public, thusly the audience, discomforted by the knowledge of the unknown amount of disease we as a species host and carry, and how we really “touch our faces” with these germs more than we’d like to admit.
The Strain, while it hasn’t made clear what it’s vampiric goals are yet, functions well as a viral outbreak drama, feeling very much inspired by Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. With this aspect of the show, you have visual sets and dialogue that are finely edged and sleek with chrome, giving it a more science fiction feel. The demonic side of things is mostly contained within the coffin and the serial killer Dementor within, but more notably (since I’m on a Harry Potter kick) is David Bradley, who is the storefront manager for, what looks to be, Del Toro’s personal Pawn Shop of Horrors in Harlem. He is introduced in, possibly, the most compelling scene of the episode, where a couple of thieves try to take advantage of the unassuming man, however, Bradley’s character, Abraham Strakian, quickly demonstrates that his temper is more unsettling than Corey Stoll’s hairpiece. (Dammit.)
He is by far the most captivating characters of the show thus far, mostly because Bradley is extremely talented, but also because he’s the guy who actually has all the answer to what the hell is going on.
I don’t mean to insinuate I didn’t find enjoyment out of this; I like Guillermo Del Toro quite a bit. His imagination is wild and boundless. I think his film career has restrained his storytelling ability due to it’s tendency to make a spectacle of things, and it is difficult to grow ensemble groups of characters, such as in Hellboy or Pacific Rim, in less than two hours in order to add his pickings out of the creature box. However, I feel that his smaller films like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth are his best work. I don’t know if this is because the effects budgets were smaller or the character work was much more focused, or maybe both. I find it exciting that he is moving back to television for the first time since the start of his career, as we’re in a period where it is equally, if not more, respected in it’s quality as film, as allows added time to develop these characters; a liberty that film does not have. I think that over time, particularly with something derivative of his previously written work, The Strain will find it’s proper footing and an audience, albeit a very niche one.
The trouble is judging The Strain based on it’s first episode. I jumped in looking for fun, which is there, one needs to look no further than the episode’s use of Neil Diamond. However, Night Zero, as an extra half hour long first episode, is really just a lot of setup. It is building up both our science driven characters and our fantasy horror characters, but it also is setting up a mythos.
How does this virus spread? What is the purpose of the worms? Why are there severed hearts, and why are they tumorous? How does this mulch dwelling vampire transport things so quickly? I’m willing to suspend my disbelief, but watching The Strain with no knowledge of it’s path is like being given a puzzle box in a pitch black room and Guillermo Del Toro whispers behind you, “Don’t worry, you’ll be able to piece it together… but the pieces are unlike anything you’ve ever seen.”
That sounds exciting, creepy and shrouded in mystery. However, an audience will need be cautiously spoon-fed more than the promise of these three adjectives to keep us coming back week to week, but I have hopes that they know what they’re doing. Let’s see how this plays out together, shall we?
Episode 1×1 ‘Night Zero’ (6.5/10)