'The Strain': TV Review
FX's Guillermo del Toro scarefest is light on gravitas and heavy on entertainment, which may be a trade-off that the channel takes this time
There's been a lot of advance hype for the Sunday premiere of FX's modern/scary/weird vampire thriller The Strain, but lost in there for some people will be an essential bit of information:
It's pretty hokey.
That's in no way a knock on The Strain, which very clearly puts entertainment value above gravitas, but it's an important element if you rely blindly on FX to deliver things of heft, which most TV fans do. There's blood and scares galore in The Strain, with some amazingly imaginative visuals from director-writer-creator Guillermo del Toro. But the writing isn't a strength, the plot is cartoonish and outside of Corey Stoll trying to hold down the acting, well, yeah, there's lots of scares here.
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But hey, the horror genre only has a small number of series — The Walking Dead, and Penny Dreadful among them — that have the acumen to go deep, so perhaps that shouldn't be held against it.
Besides, once you are fully immersed in what The Strain really is — a summer series that wants to scare the crap out of you and hook you from week to week by being fun and entertaining, rather than, say, triumphantly ambitious — then you can just settle in and wallow in the gore.
The Strain is about, according to FX, "a mysterious viral outbreak with hallmarks of an ancient and evil strain of vampirism." Based on the series of books from del Toro and Chuck Hogan, The Strain has a central character who is basically the ancient king of vampires. His name is — mood music, please — the Master. It's also about Nazis and the end of the world. It has Samwise Gamgee, too. Oh, and an old vampire hunter named Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), who is now in his 80s and works in a New York pawn shop but once was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp and had a chance to kill the Master but failed. He's got this really awesome sword to do it with, too.
The series begins with a plane about to land in New York. But — cue the music again — something is clearly amiss in the storage area below. When the plane lands, it goes dark, hides in a remote part of a runway and all the passenger windows, save one, are down. Nobody has made a phone call out.
Enter Ephraim "Eph" Goodweather (Stoll), head of the Centers for Decease Control's "Canary Project." (That should tell you something.) What he and fellow CDC biochemist Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) find on the plane is, well, disturbing. Lots of The Strain is disturbing. It's supposed to be scary (and it is, when it's not being too hokey).
But you wouldn't have a series if Bad Things weren't on that plane and the need for Abraham and his sword — and others — to save the world did not exist. So you know what's coming, except that you don't in that The Strain has vampires unlike you've seen and del Toro has set the visual template to create scares.
Outside of Stoll, The Strain struggles to develop its characters in the first few episodes, but for the sake of acknowledgement and the wish that this might change, Sean Astin is there as CDC worker Jim Kent, whose wife has cancer and thus makes a pact to save her that he soon regrets. The wonderful Kevin Durand is here as — and this part is fun — Vasily Fet, a Russian exterminator for the NYC Bureau of Pest Control. Richard Sammel is magnetic as Thomas Eichhorst, who takes "human form" and is the Master's enforcer/walking bad guy. He hasn't aged. He was at the Nazi concentration camps and knows Abraham very well. He's gloating now that Abraham has lost and the new world order will begin. (Cue music.)
Is there a mythology to The Strain? Sure, but it doesn't seem that important or meaty (so far). Is there something like, say, an existential undercurrent to The Strain? Uh, not really. It's a horror series that gets gooey with blood and biting and gore. It might make you curl up on the couch in fear. It might make you excited to see the next episode because the previous hour entertained you.
That's probably all that FX wants. And that's really all you should expect.