Corey Stoll (left), Mia Maestro

“You will not avenge anyone. You’re not a hero. Or a savior. You’re just a number.”

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The Strain is not a great show. Whether you like it or hate it after these first two episodes, to argue that it’s a great show is fighting a very uphill battle. As mentioned in the “Night Zero” review, the series has a strong cast and creative pedigree behind it, but neither of these forces have come together yet to make greatness. It would be quite the miracle for it—or any show, really—to do that in two episodes, but for now, The Strain must accept its standing as simply average.

“The Box” has its moments where it improves upon the pilot, but it still falls victim to the standard pilot redux nature of second episodes of any television series. It has not needing to introduce all of these rather cliched characters again working in its favor, but it still doesn’t succeed in making any of them come across as characters worthy of the time the show dedicates to them.

Eichorst taunts Setrakian with the above quote, but it might as well be directed at all of the characters in the series so far; none of them are necessarily heroes or saviors, and that’s what’s supposed to make them compelling as the strain spreads. With every introduction, whether it be Latino gang bangers, CDC officials, or pest control, The Strain makes it clear that it is not a show about heroes (with the exception of the show’s Van Helsing, Setrakian)—it’s about a group of people who just so happen to exist in this moment in time. Where The Strain fails is in actually following through in making all of these characters compelling.

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On the plus side, the Stoneheart Group storyline makes strides in becoming a more interesting part of the show in this episode, with Palmer’s zealotry driving an otherwise cryptic aspect of the series. Setrakian, Palmer, and Eichorst are still in their own show separate of the other two or three that exist within The Strain, but there’s an intrigue in this episode’s execution of the storyline that was lacking in the first. Palmer’s gung-ho excitement at meeting with the Master, only to end up in a mixed state of terror and awe at the sight, is a wonderful piece of acting from Jonathan Hyde and one of the more engaging aspects of the episode—just what the storyline and show needed.

Still, the Gus storyline is simply too weak, weighing the rest of the show down like an anchor whenever it comes onscreen.

It’s part of the bigger reason why The Strain hasn’t hit the mark yet. In the process of going from book to screen, the power of the source material can often be lost in translation. This is even the case with the best book to screen adaptations, but when there’s something with as dense of a mythology as The Strain must have, there’s the acknowledgment that while characters who may be important in the book need to be involved in the adaptation, the importance of said characters isn’t always immediately put on display. While neither The Walking Dead nor Game Of Thrones are perfect series, both have succeeded in making their characters accessible to those who haven’t read the books before. The Strain hasn’t tried to do that yet, and the characters and plot are suffering because of it.

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For example, Gus is probably one of the more important characters of the book trilogy, but for two episodes, his part of the show has been the weak link. And with the introduction of Vasilliy Fet (Kevin Durand, Lost), the exterminator, it’s obvious that he’s eventually important as well; but that’s not the case now, and it comes across as wasted screentime. To those who have read the books, there are probably strong feelings associated with all of these characters, good or bad. That’s not necessarily the case to the unfamiliar, and the wait and see approach can only last so long.

There’s an argument that often comes up when a genre show features a heavy lack of genre aspects: The show is about the characters, not any of the supernatural elements one would expect from such a show. A character’s daddy issues or drinking problems may not be interesting or even directly integral to the greater plot, but as long as they’re in service of the characters, all is well. If there are any staunch defenders of Lost’s “Stranger In A Strange Land,” this is most likely their argument. But a vampire show that focuses more on a custody battle than vampires feels like a bait and switch. If the characters aren’t interesting from the beginning, then the genre aspects really need to stand out.

However, the episode isn’t without its positives. With its standard 40-plus minutes, the episode benefits from its normal pace, unlike the 90 minute (with commercials) pilot. After all, there’s simply not enough in the show as it it right now to maintain more than 40 minutes of airtime. In fact, the episode gets the ball rolling with the steady glacial pace introduced in the pilot, now with the four CDC quarantine subjects exhibiting newer “symptoms”—such as finally craving the taste of blood, in the case of rockstar Gabriel. The best moment, however, comes in the form of the episode’s “Sweet Caroline” moment, this time to the tune of the children’s song “This Old Man.”

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Horror on television obviously isn’t the same animal as horror on film. There may be genuinely frightening moments, but they are fewer and far between on television. As far as horror aspects go in “The Box,” now that The Strain has gotten viewers hooked in, it doesn’t actually have to do much in terms of bringing the scary. The ability to provide scares on the small screen is an enviable skill, especially when it’s easy to go with stylized violence. The “This Old Man” scene relies on the pilot’s tactic of “harmless” music alongside true horror, with that reanimated little girl from the pilot finally killing her father, and it still works well, almost as well “Sweet Caroline.” However, one can only hope that The Strain doesn’t rely on this trope. Once is superb, twice is still satisfactory, but anything past this (at least this early on) is too much, too soon.

Besides, the series really needs to work on upping the quality level of everything else.

Stray observations:

  • The first step in the show achieving greatness? Everyone acknowledging that it’s not a box, it’s a coffin.
  • After spending a good portion of his storyline in the pilot complaining about not wanting to get divorce, Eph restarts his extra-marital relationship with Nora in this episode, because these characters aren’t defined enough to maintain previously exhibited traits.
  • Also, the world’s most tepid custody battle has already overstayed its welcome, but at least alcoholic backstory is here to save the cliched day. Corey Stoll’s Billy Zane hairpiece can’t save this.
  • Again, for you readers of the books: Are there any characters so far who were created specifically for the show? If so, do they come across as amalgamations of certain characters already in the books?

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