July 21, 2014

THE SKED Pilot + 1 Review: “The Strain”


THE STRAIN:  Sunday 10PM on FX

A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot and the production of regular episodes: writer/producers may be hired or fired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics start to rear their ugly heads. Tone, pace, casting, and even story can change. Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.

Previously… on THE STRAIN:  A jet stops on the tarmac at JFK with–it appears–virtually all of its occupants mysteriously dead.  Missing from the cargo hold:  a huge, ornately carved box–sort of, um, like a coffin–filled with earth and with worms that squirm into human flesh.  CDC investigator Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and his closest (in all ways) associate Dr. Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) are on the case, but the person who knows more about what’s going on is sword-cane wielding Holocaust survivor Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), who has a wriggling, preserved human heart in his apartment, which he feeds with blood.  Before long, all those dead bodies on the airplane are arising in the morgue, and a super-powerful conglomerate and its elderly, ailing owner, Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde), are involved.  The news that the massive coffin has to be transported across the river to Manhattan before sunrise makes it pretty clear what’s going on.

Episode 2:  The risk for The Strain is that it will turn into Believe, which had the participation of visionary filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron as its pilot co-writer and director, but lost his services soon after, and quickly diminished.  Here the A-level talent is Guillermo del Toro (also co-writer, with Chuck Hogan, of the novels on which the series is based), who had moved onto other things when series episodes had to be produced.  Unlike Believe, The Strain has a experienced set of TV veterans picking up the slack for del Toro, with Executive Producers David Weddle and Bradley Thompson writing this week’s episode (the showrunner is Lost‘s Carlton Cuse), and David Semel behind the camera–but the hour was nevertheless a sharp step down from the pilot.

Until the last 5 minutes, which had some chilling bits, the episode felt like that section of a horror B-movie that kicks in after the first half-hour, where there’s a gap between suspense sequences and the characters do a lot of marching around as they exchange exposition (mostly from the villains) and vows to find out what’s really going on (from the heroes).  So we had a long scene where the Evil One’s chief henchman, the vaguely Christoph Waltz-ian Eichorst (Richard Sammel) had a menacing chat with the currently jailed Setrakian, and more about Eph’s troubled family life than we needed (not just a lengthy AA speech, but a father-son dialogue that made one long for a commercial break), and an even less necessary sequence about strife at the home of Gus Elizarde (Miguel Gomez), who unwittingly drove the coffin to Manhattan.  There was also the introduction of a new regular cast member, Kevin Durand as Vasiliy Fet, an exterminator whose importance isn’t yet clear.  It all felt as though the staff had sat down to figure out just how they were going to fill 13 hours of television with a limited amount of plot, and decided that after the thrills of the pilot, this episode could afford to meander.  In addition, while a certain amount of low-budget horror homage is implicit in the concept of The Strain, there’s a reason why those movies are usually just 90 minutes long, and nearly an hour of the genre’s tin-eared dialogue piled up at once can get actively painful.

There’s reason to hope, however, that this episode was merely a pause in a horror saga that will liven up as it proceeds.  The vampire daughter murdering her dad with some kind of giant ugly tongue-thing instead of the usual fangs (while “This Old Man” played cheerily on the soundtrack) was certainly a startling ending to the hour, and now that 200 vampire monsters are on the loose in New York, things should start happening more quickly.  Also, you can’t go wrong with microscopic examination of bloodthirsty worm-things.

Although it’s admirable in the abstract that The Strain wants to give its characters some depth, that seems to be where it’s weakest, despite good acting by Stoll (if not his awful toupee) and others.  The sooner it digs down into its bloody center, the better–which will also be its chance to make us forget that its guiding artistic spirit is off making much bigger-budget movies.  The series had a very strong start in the ratings at 1.2, one of the biggest on cable this summer, and if it can sustain the quality it had at the start, it could be a long-term substantial hit for FX.


PILOT + 1:  This Was the Popcorn-Break Part of the Movie

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."