I suppose I should say this upfront: vampires are not for me. I’m not against them — there are a handful of vampire movies (The Lost Boys, Nosferatu) and books (er, the Bunnicula series) that I do enjoy — but I generally don’t seek out vampire narratives. Still, I was excited for The Strain, to see how Guillermo del Toro’s creative brilliance translates to the small screen and because FX is a network that I find increasingly interesting. But The Strain isn’t interesting. The vampires are different from the creatures we know, the story is packed, and there is an emphasis on epidemiology and history throughout. But at its core, The Strain just bored me.
For what it’s worth, the pilot episode, “Night Zero,” does a solid job at creating a suspenseful and gruesome environment. There is an intriguing story here, as a plane lands at New York’s JFK airport with everyone on board dead, except for four people, from an unknown cause. The CDC, led by Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), is called in to investigate, and things just go downhill from there. There is a giant box/coffin on the plane, the survivors are exhibiting strange side effects, and Queens is suddenly overrun with vampires.
The vampires are the best part of the show, as you would expect, but only because they aren’t hiding underneath dark black cloaks, eager to sink their teeth into the necks of others. Oh, there is neck biting, of course — during a threesome, because FX needed something a little sexier than sexy CDC officers sexily putting on their hazmat suits — but these vampires prefer to turn their victims through disgusting worms (hence those godawful posters) and, I don’t know, puking up bigger worms? Who knows! It’s all very gross, but it’s goofy gross. It’s repulsive, bloody, and excessive — which I normally like in a supernatural show that goes all-out with its budget, but it doesn’t impress here, perhaps because there’s nothing that impresses here.
Sure, The Strain looks good on the screen because of the great cinematography and well-choreographed horror. There are scary scenes, including an especially creepy one involving a child at the end of the pilot, and some fun campy scenes, such as a vampire attack scored to “Sweet Caroline.” Also, at one point, a man gravely announces, “We’ve got ourselves a dead airplane,” which is maybe the funniest line that has ever been uttered outside of on-purpose comedy. Unfortunately, these short moments of delightful entertainment are few are far between, and tend to get bogged down by everything that’s wrong with the show.
Horror tropes and stereotyped characters abound in The Strain. There is a sex-obsessed rock star, there are Latino criminals (one is Francis Capra, better known as Weevil from Veronica Mars, who desperately needs a better vehicle for his talents). There is a larger conspiracy theory at play and also Nazi/Holocaust references and a man searching for immortality. There is, I assume, an overarching and nauseating theme of the power of love amid a world of vampires. I can’t get myself to care about this.
The dramatic human conflict at the center of the show is tortured Ephraim’s custody battle over his floppy-haired son. Ephraim, his ex-wife, and his son derail all the action with the most obnoxious storyline — and not just because they annoyingly sign every text message with their name, which is the most unbelievable aspect of this supernatural world. It slows down all the gory, occasionally fun parts of The Strain in a frustrating way. The Strain is irritatingly slow sometimes, wasting its time on drawn-out AA meetings full of obvious and overdone dialogue or by repetitively going back to “suspenseful” but pointless storylines that have lazy, predictable payoffs — if they even have payoffs at all.
The Strain shouldn’t be a show for anyone, and it certainly isn’t a show for me, but it will inevitably click with plenty of horror fans. The Strain knows horror, and it’s having a hell of a lot of fun bleeding that knowledge all over the place. It’s stupid popcorn entertainment — if you can stomach eating popcorn while watching heads get smashed in — and it has the benefit of premiering during the summer. It’s just ridiculous enough that you’ll have no guilt about spending a free hour a week with it, though I wouldn’t cancel any plans to catch an episode.