Depending on who you ask, describing The Strain as “The Walking Dead with vampires” is either high praise or an immediate reason to not tune in. Never mind that the comparison is reaching a bit, since the pilot of The Strain is only the beginning of the madness. Plus, with “Night Zero,” The Strain is currently nowhere near as slow as The Walking Dead. But the very concept of vampirism stemming from a virus—an origin story typically reserved for zombies—is going to bring the comparisons it out. The Strain giving vampirism the epidemic backstory makes the show appear more like a zombie tale than a modern day vampire one.
Of course, the typical modern day vampire has its detractors, with vampires in pop culture becoming more toothless as the years pass. Long gone are the days of Nosferatu’s grotesque Count Orlok. From the seduction of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, and Antonio Banderas as sexy bloodsucking fiends in Interview With The Vampire, to Angel and Spike (both attractive in their own tortured way) wooing a vampire slayer, to the vampire-in-name-only nature of Edward Cullen and company in Twilight, sex appeal has become more important to the vampire genre than creating a terrifying monster. This sex appeal has turned the vampire into an idealized monster, removing the fear one should supposedly have toward it—despite any heinous acts these characters might commit. (The same applies to the werewolf and even the zombie.)
For The Strain to bring back the truly monstrous version of the vampire, it chooses not to focus at all on the sexual aspects of the vampire or any metaphors for addiction stemming from blood lust. It instead goes with vampirism being the result of parasitic worm-like creatures—a twist that, while not really discussed much in the pilot, is actually a fascinating one. It’s certainly a refreshing reprieve from the usual love triangles of modern vampire stories.
Unfortunately, the pilot as a whole doesn’t have a lot going for it outside of its introduction to The Strain’s different take on the modern vampire. In fact, The Strain’s pilot may be quicker-paced than The Walking Dead, but syrup being faster than molasses doesn’t really make them all that much different.
With “Night Zero,” The Strain is immediately revealed as a few different shows in one, each one being thrown at the wall in hopes that they’ll all stick. Unfortunately, even if they don’t stick, that doesn’t stop them from being thrown back at that wall.
The episode follows a few different character threads, attempting to connect them each with this singular vampire threat, but at the same time, these characters are also so very much working on different playing fields. Corey Stoll, Mia Maestro, and Sean Astin are in no way on the same show as Miguel Gomez, and David Bradley may be on the same show Jonathan Hyde and Richard Sammel, but they’re still on a different show than the other actors.
The Stoll, Maestro, Astin show is the most solid one from its introduction, because it’s the only one where the audience isn’t left completely in the dark for the sake of maintaining bland mystery. However, these scenes are full of clichés and one-dimensional characters. Stoll’s Ephraim “Eph” Goodweather (a name that can only exist in a world where vampires are real) is a genius, which, as anyone who’s ever watched a television show on a major network knows, means he’s terrible at his personal life and has at least one quirk (drinking milk at the scene of an outbreak) that really accentuates his difference from everyone else. Eph’s introduction as a control freak unable to accept the dissolution of his marriage is almost completely dropped as soon as he gets to work; he’s actually the boss in his work environment, yet none of that controlling character exists in any of those scenes. It’s backstory that only matters when it’s time to talk about it.
Still, the investigation behind the outbreak is much more fascinating than the cryptic interactions between Eldritch Palmer (Hyde) and Thomas Eichorst (Sammel), the masterminds behind vampires coming to the states, and it’s streets ahead of anything to do with gang banger Gus (Gomez). Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s script puts too much stock into the assumption that the audience will care about these characters immediately, especially Gus, who is both under the thumb of Eichorst and brother to a small time crook (Veronica Mars’ Francis Capra) who just so happens to try to rob vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley). Of course everyone is connected. Given the fact that Carlton Cuse is The Strain’s showrunner, the obvious Lost comparisons can (and will) be made, but with how much of stereotypes Gus, his brother, and their mother are, a Crash comparison is probably more apt.
Being a horror series, stereotypes are bound to show up, but it’s the subversion of such stereotypes that separates the best from the so-so. Right now, The Strain chooses to embrace these stereotypes, with no signs of it ever changing course on that. With the extended time for the premiere, the episode could have easily added more characterization to begin. It just doesn’t.
But the fact that it’s a horror show that unflinchingly wants to be a horror show works in its favor. The biggest hint is the “Sweet Caroline” scene, which is probably the most terrifying—and yet still somehow humorous, in a morbid way—of the episode. While the opening teaser comes off like one from a comedic episode of Supernatural, the “Sweet Caroline” scene—despite appearing toward the end of the episode—speaks more to the type of horror The Strain will provide. It’s tense, it’s gruesome, and it’s the most fascinating scene of the episode. It’s Guillermo del Toro’s best work in an already beautifully directed (the introduction of the coffin is also a well-shot scene) episode.
The Strain has all of the tools to be a solid show. The cast is strong, as are the creative powers behind it. “Night Zero” is lightweight for FX, perhaps resting on its laurels because of the type of leniency that supposedly comes along with being a summer television show. Right now, a few middle fingers and “shits” are the only thing differentiating it from a Fox show.
- As is probably apparent, I have not read any of The Strain trilogy. However, I have the books and will start reading them soon. I am curious though: Do the books ever explicitly call them vampires? Is it fair to even call the creatures on the show vampires at this point?
- Also, for those of you who read the books, is Matt (Drew Nelson), Eph’s ex-wife’s new man, supposed to be a not-so-secret jerk? His decision to trash talk Ephraim right to the son comes across as a big red flag and reason for him to be vampire food sooner rather than later.
- The David Bradley, quasi-Van Helsing show has the type of backstory that might be more used than a 9/11 backstory: the Holocaust survivor backstory.
- Having spoken to a few people about The Strain before it aired, I found that none of them had even known what the show was about. My brother assumed it was a show about zombies, which is perfectly understandable.
- The Strain may not be similar to current vampire stories on television, but it does bear a very slight resemblance to the other new outbreak show on the air, The Last Ship.