Despite a Rocky Start, FX’s The Strain is a Bloody Good Time [Review]

A malicious Vampire disease threatens humanity in The Strain. [source]

A malicious Vampire disease threatens humanity in The Strain. [source]

FX’s latest original series, The Strain, is about halfway through its freshman season, so now is as good a time as any to look at its ups and downs. On the one hand, when it works, it’s among the best, most evocative series on television right now. However, when it’s not clicking, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of the excesses of drama TV in the 2010s.

Adapted from Guillermo Del Toro’s series of horror novels by Del Toro himself and LOST alum Carlton Cuse, The Strain follows CDC doctor Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) as he investigates a mysterious passenger plane full of corpses. He and his team quickly discover something ancient and evil has been unleashed, as the passengers, both living and dead, are transformed into horrific vampire monsters by parasitic worms. Goodweather finds allies in co-worker and former paramour Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro), Holocaust survivor and seasoned vampire slayer Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley, finally playing a good guy) and Vasily Fet (Kevin Durand), an exterminator who senses something has gone wrong. They are opposed by the creatures as well as their human allies, including Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde), an elderly billionaire seeking vampiric immortality.

The show opts for a slow burn over the first couple of episodes, which is a double-edged sword. Del Toro and Cuse are masterful in their use of lighting and sparse score to build a sense of dread and revulsion. Subtle body horror sequences are punctuated with solid scares or gore, and the show is careful not to overplay its hand too early. The mysteries are revealed pretty satisfyingly, and you’re never so in the dark that you don’t know bad things are afoot.

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David Bradley gets his Van Helsing on as Abraham Setrakian. [source]

The downside to this approach is that there are a lot of different techniques on display for maintaining and prolonging this tension, not all of which work. FX tends to favor a roughly outlined five year plan for their new shows, so I can see the fear of pulling the trigger too soon. However, when you compare it to the other big monster genre show on TV, The Walking Dead, the pace is positively glacial, even considering TWD’s ups and downs. The cast is large and relatively sprawling at this point, so almost every time things reach a tipping point with one story, the focus switches back to a character blissfully unaware of the vampiric outbreak. While I understand the necessity of cooldown scenes between scares and dread, there’s only so many times this trick will work. A more effective use of time the show has explored in recent episodes is flashbacks, which continue to move the audience’s understanding of the story forward, even if the characters remain in place. The weakest technique is looking at the various personal lives of the leads, which brings me to my major complaint: Dr. Goodweather himself.

It’s not that Corey Stoll doesn’t do a great job; he does. It’s not even that Goodweather isn’t a strong protagonist in the context of the investigations; his intensity and drive give way to panic in a believable, grounded way. When it comes to the subplots he’s given for his private life, well, let me know if this sounds familiar:
• He’s a white man in his late 30s.
• He’s separated from his wife, and in the midst of a custody dispute for his son.
• He loves his kid but just works too hard at his job, that’s all.
• He’s a recovering alcoholic BUT he goes to AA BUT he doesn’t like it, so you know he’s not a square.
• He had an affair with a pretty co-worker a year ago but his wife doesn’t know and don’t worry, she seems like a bitch anyways.
• His wife is seeing a new guy who seems like a jerk but also a better father figure, oh no.
• Etc. etc. etc.

Corey Stoll's Goodweather suffers from some Draper fatigue. [source]

Corey Stoll’s Goodweather suffers from some Draper fatigue. [source]

Goodweather’s backstory is essentially cobbled together out of clippings from every major drama lead in the past ten or so years. There have been great stories told about unfaithful, damaged husbands on TV, but so many shows learned the wrong lessons from them. We don’t need Goodweather to be a Don Draper or Tony Soprano figure. We just need him to kill vampire monsters. I understand the impulse to flesh out a character’s history, but in this case it actually goes to show how underwritten the character really is. Even now, as the “prestige era” of TV drama is fading, there are still a dozen or two shows starring lying, self-destructive men we’re told we should like anyway. The other leads are slightly more diverse (an elderly Holocaust survivor, a conflicted Hispanic ex-con) but there’s still huge opportunities for diverse leads that are missed.

The good news is that as the season is passing the midway point, some of the problems are starting to take care of themselves. The cat is out of the bag with enough characters that the producers don’t treat the vampires quite so much like the shark from Jaws. We’ve had some severe gross-out moments and violent action, and things don’t look like they’re going to slow down. The sheer necessity of the stakes is also taking care of the Goodweather problem, ignoring the “embattled dad” storylines in favor of actual relevance to the vampire plot. I doubt we’ll see any more of the custody hearing from his son, which I no one who tuned in for vampire worm monsters is likely to mourn too much. The effects continue to be convincingly disgusting, especially as demand for severed heads and the like ramps up. It took a little while, but it feels like The Strain finally came out to play.

This may not have been the most ringing endorsement, but I have been and continue to enjoy The Strain. The premise plays to both Del Toro and Cuse’s strengths as showrunners, and it’s a great example of various types of horror done well. There were definitely growing pains, and it played into some of the more tired tropes of the late 2000s-early 2010s, but thankfully they appear to be behind us. It’s worth catching up on, and worth checking out.

The Strain airs on Sunday nights at 10pm on FX.

Post By Joe Stando (49 Posts)