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TV Review: The Strain, Season 1

The Strain
Do you really want your horror to be known as "fearless"?

Vampires haven't been terrifying in a long time. It is therefore fitting that The Strain approaches its subject as an outbreak of a disease, starting with an almost procedural-style investigation of a quarantined airplane full of dead people. There's a methodical escalation of events, however, that include an old coffin, a horde of the undead, and the paralysis of a city under seige by something it refuses to believe is even real. By the end of the first season, this is a full-on vampire tale, with its heroes and villains set up to fight a terrible battle for the soul of the human race.

Handled by anyone other than Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse, neither of which is a stranger to horror, this show--an adaptation of a book trilogy written by del Toro and Chuck Hogan--would probably not be successful. Like most things steeped so heavily in a niche genre, it dances on a fine line between originality and self-satire, trying desperately to please its target audience while carefully avoiding the clichés that would be ammunition for critics. It's difficult to tell a vampire story in a unique way, but The Strain succeeds in carving out a different path to its familiar destination than any of its notable predecessors.

The story centers mainly on the character of Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (called "Eph" and played by rising star Corey Stoll), a high-level worker with the CDC whose job has come between him and his family. He and his wife, Kelly (Natalie Brown), still seem to love each other to some degree, but they have separated and are in the midst of a potentially nasty custody disagreement over their son, Zachary, when the aforementioned plane is brought to Eph's attention. Eph and his team, which include Eph's former mistress Nora (Mia Maestro) and his good friend Jim (Sean Astin), quickly determine that there is something extraordinary aboard the downed airliner and that a fast-moving, highly deadly, and unprecedented parasitic illness is the culprit.

Corey Stoll
This guy is a hell of an actor, with or without hair

Behind the scenes, though, strange political machinations, many orchestrated by a dying billionaire named Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde), contain the story as an industrial accident. Eph is discredited (and later arrested), the quarantine he worked so hard to set up comes crumbling down, and the parasite is let loose on an unsuspecting Manhattan. To keep the story quiet, Palmer elicits the help of Dutch Velders (Ruta Gedmintas), an infamous hacker, who for the right price essentially shuts down the entire Internet and phone service for the greater New York area. As the vampire plague rapidly grows from the three released survivors of the fateful plane trip, the city descends into a chaos of looting, rumor, and misinformation, so that by the time anyone of import can comprehend what's really happening, it will be far too late to stop it.

Fortunately, Eph, with the help of Holocaust survivor and veteran vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley) and surprisingly resourceful Ukranian rat catcher Vasiliy Fet (the incomparable Kevin Durand), knows what they are up against and is determined to put a stop to it. Behind it all is a mysterious figure known only as The Master, the head vampire that Setrakian has sworn vengeance upon and who must be killed in order to end the terror. The Master is rarely seen, however, with the bulk of his work done by his undead henchman Thomas Eichhorst (Richard Sammel), a former Nazi commander who still calls Setrakian by his numerical concentration camp designation.

There are plenty of other characters in the mix as well, including a gangbanger named Augustin Elizade (Miguel Gomez), Nora's dementia-riddled mother Mariela (Anne Betancourt), Palmer's personal assistant, Mr. Fitzwilliam (Roger Cross), who is having a crisis of conscience, and an enigmatic and heavily militarized vampire known only as Vaun (played by the severely underappreciated Stephen McHattie) who appears to be working to stop The Master as well. All in all, it's a dense story that threatens to collapse under the weight of so many characters, but for the most part, the show is careful to keep each episode focused on only a few characters at a time.

Guillermo and friend
Your friend looks a little ill there, Guillermo

Granted, there are plot threads that don't seem to be going anywhere and are easily forgotten about when they fall out of the spotlight for an episode or two, though nearly all of the characters do intersect at least once throughout the season. Most notable among these is the story of Augustin ("Gus"), whose story seems almost entirely irrelevant until the final act of the final episode, which makes clear that his character will play a critical role moving forward. Those who have read the novels will probably be more prepared for this than those who have not (such as myself), but the storytelling is almost painfully deliberate, with the writers taking great care to set the dominoes in place before letting them fall. Unfortunately, there are a few dominoes that really are pointless, such as the introduction and almost immediate disposal of one of the survivors' husbands, Roger (played by Battlestar Galactica alum Aaron Douglas). Indeed, much time is spent with the Luss family, only to have them completely dropped from the narrative about halfway through the season, with no reason to believe they'll ever be seen again.

Still, the atmosphere, the directing (especially in the three episodes done by Peter Weller), and the acting all carry the show through its more sluggish or seemingly meaningless parts. The first few episodes are also carried by the strange mystique of the vampires, as they are explored from a medical perspective before they are ever identified by name. This take is different, to say the least, as the undead creatures expell an impossibly long, snake-like appendage from their throats in order to feed and who largely behave more like midless zombies than seductive vampires. Unfortunately, the obviousness of their appearance makes the reluctance of many characters to acknowledge them all the more unbelievable. Early on, the plane survivors show painfully obvious signs of infection--pale skin, coughing blood, deep red eyes, and more--but they all carry on as though everything is fine. Similarly, towards the end of the season, vampires have been swarming the night streets for over a week, and yet people are still talking about whether or not Manhattan should be quarantined and when cell-phone service is going to come back on, as though nobody has noticed all the damn vampires yet.

There's just the right amount of weird, too

Don't let my complaints get in the way of how well this show does what it sets out to do. Despite some narrative meandering, some difficult-to-swallow plot beats, and the mildly disappointing reveal of The Master (he looks like a guy in an overpriced Halloween costume), this is an incredibly good horror show. The cast is excellent, the characters are engaging, the effects are stellar, the story is original where it needs to be and familiar where you want it to be, and the fact that it's based on an existing story rather than being spitballed week by week in the writer's room means that it has the momentum to tell a coherent narrative. There's even a few running themes and motifs if you dig deep enough (for example, the idea of how hard you hold on to love and life even when it seems hopeless to do so is explored by Eph's family life, the devil's wager made by Eldritch Palmer, Nora's mother who is holding on depite losing her mind to senility, Setrakian's flashbacks to the Holocaust, etc.), making for some poignancy just beneath the surface. There are also plenty of moments to please fans of vampire-fighting action--one whole episode is devoted to a handful of heroes trying to survive in a beseiged gas station, for instance--and far more gore than anyone has any right to expect, even from a network as daring as FX. I couldn't be happier that the show has been picked up for a second season, because vampires are finally terrifying again.


Anyone who wants to see Guillermo del Toro's take on the vampire mythos will not be disappointed.

-e. magill 10/9/2014

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