When a visual stylist like Guillermo del Toro creates a television show, you might expect that whatever he creates will pulse with originality. However, in the case of "The Strain," the new FX horror series premiering this Sunday, that sadly isn’t the case.
There’s something about the horror series that feels overly familiar: Not just its basic appropriation of the vampire mythos (though, to be fair, its take on the concept is fairly original), or the opening sequence of the pilot, in which something goes terribly wrong on an airplane. ("Fringe" viewers will feel their deja vu pricking.) Instead, it’s another genre-bending series that hopes to draw in interest by depicting the mystery through the eyes of an increasingly dominant cliche in American television.
Protagonist Ephraim Goodweather ("House of Cards" stand-out Corey Stoll), a CDC doctor investigating the plane incident and the chaos that erupts around it is a white male in his late 30s/early 40s, obsessed with his work, separated from his wife, trying to maintain a connection to his young son, and in a complicated relationship with his female underling.
It’s a character prototype that has become a tired fixture in the TV landscape. Which is depressing, because "The Strain" has real potential to explode the idea of vampirism in a series setting. Based on the novel trilogy by del Toro and Chuck Hogan, with "Lost"’s Carlton Cuse serving as showrunner, the show’s strong horror footprint is not immediately present. But once the action gets going, "The Strain" doesn’t hesitate.
(Obligatory "Lost" commentary here: The fact that "Strain" is based on a series of books offers promise that unlike "Lost," clear answers as to what’s going on will likely be provided at some point. Though beyond the mysterious organization headed by Jonathan Hyde, which seems to be the chief architect of the ensuing epidemic, there aren’t too many inexplicable plot elements to worry about. No polar bears in sight.)
"The Strain" is notorious at this point for its billboards and posters featuring a worm crawling out of a human eye; but not only is that image not featured in the pilot, it’s also not a great encapsulation of the pilot. Instead, Del Toro attempts to blend elements of the highly underrated "Blade II" into a serious cable drama; the fact that it almost works is pretty compelling.
Because right now the most interesting thing about "The Strain" is the fact that it holds its secrets close; the first episode is an hour and a half long, but deliberate in its pacing — which means it takes its sweet time to get to its biggest moments. (Though when those moments hit, there’s no pulling back; the pilot includes at least three solid, shocking moments of grotesqueness, including a character death that wouldn’t feel out of place on "Game of Thrones.")
"The Strain"’s slowness, and its focus on minutia, might prove to be frustrating on a long-term basis — as a viewer, I know I was much more interested in, y’know, the potential vampire threat than whether or not Ephraim (not a great character name choice there, by the way — his nickname is "Eph") can handle himself in front of a press conference.
But the show’s emphasis on the effects of what amounts to an outbreak within the general population means that "The Strain" has an especially grounded basis in reality. Which is, to be frank, one of its most compelling elements. Vampires have been treated as romantic heroes and as the stuff of nightmares. The concept of the vampire as disease, though, is unique. Well, it’s at least far more original than the show’s protagonist.