By almost any measure, "The Strain" is terrible. The FX drama, which was adapted by Guillermo del Toro, Chuck Hogan and "Lost’s" Carlton Cuse from del Toro and Hogan’s series of modern-day vampire novels, is not a cheap show: Sunday’s pilot, which moves from a crowded airplane to the streets of Queens to a Harlem pawn shop, has the production values of a modest Hollywood movie. But it feels, and especially sounds, like one.
The dialogue makes you cringe as it strains for the punchy poetry of a summer blockbuster: Within the space of a minute, the air traffic controller who’s investigating a craft mysterious stopped on JFK’s tarmac intones, "This is bad — real bad," and "We got ourselves a dead airplane." The central character, CDC epidemiologist Ephraim "Eph" Goodweather (Corey Stoll), feel as if he’s been assembled from stock. Who could have guessed that the show’s hero would be great at his job but terrible at the rest of his life, that he’d have a nagging soon-to-be-ex-wife (Natalie Brown) and a son (Ben Hyland) he rarely sees? His only other distinguishing characteristic is a fondness for cafeteria cartons of milk, a detail that is mercifully dropped after the pilot.
Apart from its casual sexism — there’s also a scene where Eph and his colleague Nora, played by Mia Maestro, strip to the waist for no real reason, "Star Trek Into Darkness"-style — the pilot’s flaws are mostly benign, but they’re plentiful. Every character, from Sean Astin’s amiable assistant to Richard Sammael’s immaculately Teutonic bloodsucker, is a stereotype of one form or other, every situation has been played out in dozens or hundreds of like-minded stories. There is no trope so shopworn "The Strain" won’t lock it in an affectionate embrace. And yet, by the time I finished the four episodes of "The Strain" FX sent out in advance, I was hooked.
"The Strain" is garbage, and I kind of love it.
In part, it’s a relief to watch a show that’s utterly bereft of the "quality TV" pretensions that so suffocate a series like "The Leftovers," which is co-run by Cuse’s former "Lost" compadre Damon Lindelof. "The Strain" has no interest in winning awards or buffing its network’s resume: As Time’s James Poniewozik put it, it’s better the less it attempts to be good. It’s a show that’s built for binge-watching, to be scarfed down like so many Doritos. It’s gory — the first episode ends with a man’s head getting pounded into pulp — but, unlike its infamous eyeball-worm billboards, it’s rarely disturbing. The violence doesn’t get under your skin, and it’s not meant to, any more than you’re meant to seriously ponder the suggestion that vampires played a part in the Holocaust. There’s a tacit awareness, never so pronounced as in an outright satire like "Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace," that you’ve seen all this before and none of it’s to be taken seriously. Just sit back and enjoy it, won’t you?
Some of "The Strain’s" actor grok its cartoonish nature better than others. Like his character, Stoll seems permanently out of his depth, as unconvincing as his terrible wigs, which look like a cross between a steel wool scrubber and a wire-haired terrier. (Should it turn out in a later episode that Eph’s toupée is an age-old enemy of the vampires that has been waiting for the perfect moment to strike, I will withdraw the complaint.) On the other end of the clued-in scale is David Bradley’s Abraham Setrakian, a veteran vampire hunter who recognizes before anyone else the ancient evil that has returned. Best known in the U.S. as "Game of Thrones’" Walder Frey, Bradley takes tears into his thin material as if it were a juicy steak, transforming a concatenation of genre clichés into a work of Pop Art.
"The Strain," I must repeat, is not A Good Show. But it and enormously enjoyable one, and one I wanted more of the instant I finished watching. It’s delicious, and I’m sorry.
"The Strain" airs Sundays on F.X. at 10pm.
More reviews of "The Strain"
Meredith Borders, Badass Digest
"The Strain’s" pilot isn’t necessarily scary, but it’s a lot of fun, and in moments it’s incredibly gory in a way that will make the most ardent grue-lover clap with glee (I know, because I did at two different scenes).
Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly
This is cult-classic, midnight-movie horror, designed in meticulous, mythology-respecting detail for comic-book readers and fangirls and -boys. And del Toro serves them well, with a deliciously sick sense of humor and cool steampunk touches. As we said, the show isn’t for everyone. But that special someone it is for? She’s gonna love it.
Willa Paskin, Slate
Del Toro directed the first episode and executive produces the series, and like his giant monster vs. giant robot movie "Pacific Rim," "The Strain" has a kind of earnest and respectful fanboyishness, in which every single ridiculous element mandated by the genre is rendered seriously but not exactly unknowingly. His love for the material is so deep, he won’t wink at it, and that gives audience the freedom to laugh — sometimes, but not always, with the show.
Brian Lowry, Variety
While there’s not much new to be done with the vampire genre, director Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s adaptation of their book/graphic novel plays like perfect summer popcorn fare, filtering the threat of marauding bloodsuckers through fears of global pandemic. At times the portentous dialogue can sound hokey, but for the most part, the slick pilot and three subsequent episodes set the tone for a series with enough of a hook to get under one’s skin.
Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com
I’m assuming the story has to intensify but I sometimes felt like episodes 2-4 could have been condensed into one. They lack the urgency and craftsmanship of the premiere. However, I’m invested enough to give the show time to get it back.
Merrill Barr, Forbes
Much like many Del Toro films, "The Strain" exists in its own box off to the side where it can be compared to nothing else on television. From the prospect of originality, it’s great. From the prospect of making sense, it’s hit or miss.
David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle
So many of the actors are obviously accomplished that it’s sad to see them struggling with a so-so script and comic book character development. Bradley (Walder Frey on "Game of Thrones") emerges with his dignity unscathed as he imbues the character of Abraham with dimension and credibility not provided by the script. "The Strain" is watchable, but with Guillermo del Toro and FX we expect more.
Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post
It’s not that "The Strain" fails to deliver on the grotesque imagery, but that’s just about the only element that recalls the rest of Del Toro’s oeuvre. What may be most shocking about the FX show is how dull, uninteresting and hollow all the characters are.