If nothing else, The Strain looks great. Guillermo Del Toro—who co-wrote the script with Chuck Hogan based on their trilogy of Strain novels—directs the pilot, and his gift for visuals runs through the first four episodes. The shot compositions are only occasionally inspired, but the effects work runs the gamut, from squirm-inducing to majestically creepy. Most impressive are the colors. The Strain pops, each location lit to bring out a vivid, striking variety of luscious blues, golden browns, and—as fitting for a thriller about a new variation of vampires—bloody reds. The hues are both lurid and surprisingly warm, suggesting a world simultaneously overflowing with vitality and horror, flush with life, and achingly vulnerable.
It’s a pity that nothing else is quite so memorable. As a novel, The Strain isn’t a classic; competently paced, and with the occasional clever twist on vampiric lore, it’s bogged down with flat, clichéd characters and a blandly forgettable prose style. In theory, a television adaptation of the material has the potential to transcend these problems. Putting actors in roles that seemed two-dimensional on the page could give them a chance to breathe, and a visual version of the narrative wouldn’t have to worry about sentences overloaded with clunky phrases and superfluous, unnecessary adjectives.
In practice, though, the TV version just takes the cliché ball and runs with it. The show is populated with a laundry list of thinly realized tropes: the protagonist who’s great at his job but just can’t manage his personal life; the co-worker who pines for him; the old man uncertain about facing down an ancient foe; another old man selling his soul for a chance at immortality. Some of these tropes fair better than others, but few are memorable. When the show tries to develop its ensemble, it stops the story’s momentum dead in its tracks.
At its best, The Strain is a nutty, freaky tale about a monster that lands in New York and starts infecting the city in a variety of increasingly terrifying ways. The segments of the show that focus on the thereat aren’t revelatory, but there is old-school fun to be found in the creature design, and the first four episodes have some enjoyable scare scenes. Unfortunately, a good portion of the show is spent on sequences that, at least for now, have little to do with the plot: In between fighting a menace he can barely comprehend, hero Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll, the aforementioned protagonist stuck in a Vocational Irony Narrative) is also in the middle of a difficult custody battle for his son, and that is exactly as exciting as it sounds.
The problem is a structural one. The Strain is heavily serialized, but none of the writers involved seem to know how to manage that; instead of episodes that rise and and fall over the course of an hour, each segment is a series of “and then this happened” scenes, many of which will presumably only matter further down the line when various characters start running into each other. As it stands now, the show is mixture of tepid family drama, tepid crime drama, goofy but basically acceptable sci-fi gore, and an epic saga about betrayal and corruption that could be something, but could just as easily collapse into the biggest cliché of all. (If you guessed the Holocaust would come up at some point, give yourself a very depressing cookie.)
In the leading role, Stoll manages to make what, on paper, seems like a loathsome creep (he’s introduced trying to browbeat his ex-wife and their therapist into granting him custody of their son) into someone who’s not completely off-putting. The actor has a gift for lowballing potentially melodramatic dialogue in a way that helps to underplay the awfulness, although he’d be better served by stronger material. David Bradley (last seen breaking hearts as Walder Frey on Game Of Thrones) fares the best of the cast as Abraham Setrakian, this story’s version of Van Helsing. One of the biggest disappointments of the first four episodes is how much his character is sidetracked, as his direct, no-nonsense approach to a crisis is the closest the show gets to real energy.
The rest of the ensemble is hit or miss depending on the dialogue they’re given, with only Kevin Durand making much of an impression as a Russian Pest Control expert—and it’s hard to know how good that impression is without having any idea how his character will fit into the overall story. Which is another major problem: Roughly a third of the way through its first season, The Strain still feels as though it’s getting ready to get someplace, rather than just going there. The scripts seem incapable of building tension, instead simply offering tense sequences at random intervals in a way that fails to generate the slow-burning suspense a series like this desperately needs to survive.
There are ominous signs of an oncoming crisis, and it’s possible that, once that crisis finally arrives, the show might shed its more tedious elements and become something worth watching. As of now, it proves roughly the same as its literary equivalent: a few cool ideas, and a whole lot of dross.