MovieBob’s Take: The Strain Premiere Was a Strain to Watch

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Will del Toro’s The Strain improve in upcoming episodes? I hope so.

From the outset, The Strain (full disclosure: I have not read the book on which the series is based) seems to have a pretty good underlying hook: What if Irwin Allen — whose big, broad, star-laden disaster movies had set the template for the genre in the 70s (big casts, a set of intersecting characters and stories frame around an unfolding central calamity) — had made a Zombie Outbreak feature?

It further compounds that premise by swapping out vampirism as the Big Threat, and mashing together a modern Michael Crichton-style science-based treatment of the concept (viral parasites, CDC investigations) with a generous helping of old-school gothic horror kitsch; so a team of outbreak-specialists locking down an airport (complete with 24-style timestamps) can be suddenly interrupted by an elderly vampire-slayer who turns up looking like Geppetto and brandishing an ornate sword-cane, while a street criminal is hired to hijack and move “cargo”… in the form of a big eerie coffin that either contains or is sought by a hulking, stompy monster. Did I mention that Not Van Helsing keeps an (apparently) self-sentient human heart in a jar in his workshop, talks to it and feeds it like a goldfish?

Plus, its coming courtesy Guillermo del Toro; who’s really, really good at exactly this genre. And the whole production carries his signature aesthetic of creepy opulence, where every space is big and filled with throbbing, breathing detail and everyone only buys lightbulbs in either blue or orange — unless it’s an exterior location, in which they have both. Just by virtue of affect, The Strain looks more “cinematic” than almost anything else on TV; including movie-derived shows like Fargo.

So why does it kind of suck? [Ed’s note: Opinions on The Strain are mixed here at The Escapist. Dan enjoyed it.]

Don’t get me wrong, The Strain (based on the first installment, at least) isn’t exactly a dud. And if it’s sole offering is a weekly dose of Guillermo-isms in the form of gothic monster-mayhem, well… I’ve certainly heard less compelling reasons to watch a fundamentally silly series. But it’s surprising and disconcerting that a series with this pedigree feels (apart from aesthetic detail) more like most other high-concept Summer TV offerings (read: big broad ideas a network wouldn’t take a chance on in the Fall cast and crewed by the lower-tier creatives who’re the only folks working in the Summer) than the “event” it seemed poised to be?

Granted, it’s early yet. The problem with appraising the growing amount of modern TV fare that feels more like a plus-sized movie chopped into segments — designed more for Netflix binge-watching than nightly broadcast when it comes to audience-pleasing — is that not every long story is designed to be coherent and “grabby” right off. It’s very possible that The Strain is building to something that will prove greater than the underwhelming way it kicks off; it’s just that at this point it’s hard to see how.

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It opens promisingly enough, with flight attendants discovering, mid-flight, that something is alive and moving around in the cargo hold. “Something” turns out to be some variety of immense creature, and when (after a cut to opening credits) the plane touches down at a major metropolitan airport, almost everyone on board is dead or without recollection of what went down. The obvious reference point here is a modernizing of Dracula, where the ship ferrying the Count’s coffin to London arrives with a dead crew. Speaking of Dracula, missing from the scene is an ornate wooden “cabinet” that seems to have left behind traces of foreign soil crawling with parasite-like worms.

Again, not a bad start: A Dracula-inspired spread-of-vampirism story refitted into a modern “outbreak” thriller. But the promise starts to slip early on as the characters are introduced and none of them seem particularly engaging, likable or even well-performed. Sure, the Ensemble Disaster affect calls for a large crew of broad stock-types; but it’s the work of the actors that sets, for example, a slog like Dante’s Peak apart from a campy triumph like Volcano (or, to a lesser but more recent extent, Sharknado.) This crew, frankly, doesn’t give one much call to even care to learn their names, let alone root for their success or failure.

The ostensible protagonist is Corey Stoll as Ephraim Goodweather, (good lord, but that name! Why can’t you be more good, show???), a CDC “Canary Team” agent who comes off like every ornery doofus you’ve ever met who landed a government job with “agent” in the title and thinks that entitles (or requires) him to act like Jack Bauer. David Bradley as Abraham Setkarian, the aforementioned aged vampire-slayer, has the requisite “grandfather figure in a Guillermo del Toro movie” look and verve down pat, but he’s an action figure — not a character. The street-tough turned unwitting-thrall driving not-Drac’s not-coffin into the city feels like he stepped out of a deleted scene from Crash (the maudlin racism one, not the car-crash sex one) and Sean Astin turns up seemingly to shore up Geek Cred (he’s a Goonie and a member of The Fellowship!) but his main function as a character is a twist that would’ve felt pat even without the “obvious-good-guy-so-obviously-NOT-a-good-guy” stunt-casting. And let’s not get started on the ominous Vampire(?) Businessmen who stand in their sleek penthouse office looking out over the city smirking about the damage they aim to do, who feel like they walked in off the set of one of the Blade movies — ironically, the two less-good ones that del Toro didn’t direct.

Maybe it will get better. I want it to get better. Both because I’d like to watch a gonzo disaster/zombie/vampire/outbreak mashup that lived up to that premise for awhile, and because del Toro could really use a legitimate mega-success that didn’t come with a qualifier of “Overseas… eventually.”

But so far, one could be forgiven that the “strain” in the title refers to the effort needed to sit through it. Too bad…

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Image of Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.