In the wake of the success of Twilight and its reconstruction of vampires as sexy heartthrobs, a counter-reformation occurred among dedicated horror writers and filmmakers. Their rallying cry was that they would reclaim vampires, presenting them again as classical monsters hungry for blood and slaughter, not prom dates. The new FX series The Strain, based on the novel trilogy of the same name by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, emerged as part of that reclamation and, while it certainly presents vampires once again as monsters, there’s nothing classical about The Strain’s take on bloodsuckers. That’s about the only vital element, however, that the series offers in its debut.
Vampires in The Strain look and act nothing like what you’d expect. Rather than pale, courtly European aristocrats or even countryside-ranging lupine packs, these vampires are like something out of Lovecraft (Del Toro’s influence, no doubt; he’s famously been trying to film At The Mountains of Madness for years): huge, hulking figures with sloppy yard-long proboscises that slap wetly onto the faces of their victims to extract their vital juices. In draining them, these vampires spread vampirism, but do so differently than their antecedents. In The Strain, vampirism is a viral infection spread by tiny, wriggling silver worms that jump from vampire to victim in the space of a kiss.
With the vampire-as-virus as its core concept, it’s no surprise that the series’ main human characters work for the Centers for Disease Control. Foremost among these is Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), a man so obsessed with his job that he’s had to give up the drinking it drove him to and is losing his wife and son because of it (is there any other kind of lead character on this sort of show?). Early in this Del Toro-directed episode, we follow Goodweather to family therapy where he tries to salvage his relationships, while the show tries to provide a grounded backstory to make us care about him. Neither effort succeeds.
Luckily, Goodweather is extracted from the session by the event that begins the vampirism outbreak destined to consume most of this season’s 13 episodes: the landing at New York’s Kennedy International Airport of a flight with every passenger and crewmember dead. There’s a pleasing allusion here to the Demeter, the ship that carries Dracula to England in Bram Stoker’s novel.
The Demeter’s ghostly arrival is the subject of mystery, and the Aegis flight offers the opportunity for an engrossing forensic examination of the plane, the bodies, and their circumstance. Instead, the scene is rote, lacking tension and scares (the first third of the 90-minute pilot is scareless). This is our first opportunity to see Goodweather—presumably a hotshot epidemiologist—and his colleague/lover (of course) Nora Martinez ply their trade. There’s great pleasure in seeing a complex task done exceedingly well, but here, the duo is flat. Despite scientific dialogue, UV lights that reveal hidden details, and a nice jump scare when it’s revealed that 4 passengers have survived, Goodweather and Martinez hit their marks and nothing else. Contrast that with the crime scene investigation conducted by McNulty and Bunk in episode 4 of The Wire, Season 1, which demonstrates the pair’s skills by having them communicate with no word other than “fuck” as they re-examine a murder scene and discover that the previous investigators missed crucial evidence. That single scene imparts a lot of information about the pair and carries us deeper into an otherwise challenging first season.
Goodweather and his team of scientists aren’t the only seen-them-before heroes stalking the vamp-irus. There’s also Abraham Setrakian (played by David Bradley, aka Game of Thrones’ Walder Frey) as the owner of a pawn shop who is—believe it or not—more than he appears. Beyond being a crusty old dude surrounded by junk (what’s with Del Toro and that archetype, by the way?), he’s also a badass who thwarts a robbery attempt with a calm explanation of what he’ll do to the would-be robbers with a very large knife and, of course, he’s encountered the vampires before and knows—just from a short TV news account about the mystery plane—that the vampires have returned. He promises a heart-like organ infested with the viral worms that “this time, I cannot fail” (see what I mean about nothing new?), packs his sword-hidden-in-a-cane (the series so badly wants us to think he’s a super-cool badass), and heads for the airport.
Things don’t go much better there. Instead of imparting his crucial knowledge to the people who need it most, he rants like a crazy person and is carted off by both that worn-out trope and the cops. Surely, if he’s faced the vampires before he knows there are better ways to address the situation than looking like a crackpot?
Speaking of looking a bit touched, as the episode rambles towards its conclusion, Goodweather gives the worst press conference ever delivered on fiction TV. The CDC hotshot says, on live television, that 200 people died, 4 survived, and no one knows why. But they want answers and he promises not to quit until he gets them. Imagine this for a second: The Strain doesn’t take place in our world, but presumably its world isn’t so different as to allow an official whose job includes projecting confidence, control, and tamping down panic to blow it this spectacularly? In any other world, he’d be fired the minute the cameras turned back to the newscasters.
There’s more to the episode, including a super-powerful, shadowy corporation that knows about the vampires (you don’t say!), and in fact may be run by vampires who were also Nazis, the extremely unsafe handling of a potentially infectious piece of cargo, an appealingly original color palette whose limpid Tempera ambers, teals, and blues coat everything they encounter, and some very poor decisions that will trigger the outbreak that decimates New York. There’s also the lingering sense that The Strain, with its virus, apocalyptic outbreak, and infected who shamble around suspiciously similarly to zombies, has The Walking Dead square in its sights.
The Walking Dead doesn’t offer a new take on zombies, but it does provide characters compelling enough to carry the drama. The Strain’s conception of vampires and how vampirism spreads is new enough to get the outbreak underway, but unless it can deliver some more new material in subsequent episodes, it risks containment after only a few infections.