July 13, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “The Strain”


THE STRAIN:  Sunday 10PM on FX – Potential DVR Alert

Although capable of finer things (notably his Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth), the expert filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is one of those directors–you could call them Tarantinians–with a deep fondness for neo-schlock.  It’s resulted in projects like the Hellboy series, and also Pacific Rim, where del Toro was given such an expansive (and expensive) toybox by Warners that the movie itself was buried under a swollen running time and gargantuan imagery.

His turn to television with FX’s new THE STRAIN is, at least in its early going, much more satisfying.  It’s built on the proper B-movie scale, and although we’re usually a step ahead of the characters (the medical examiner all alone in the morgue late at night–things aren’t going to go well for him), that’s part of the fun.  The Strain is a vampire yarn that’s based on a series of novels by del Toro and his series co-creator Chuck Hogan (Lost‘s Carlton Cuse is the showrunner), and it mixes traditional elements of vamp mythology with the pretense of a more scientific approach.

Our hero is CDC Dr. Ephraim Goodweather–great name!–played by Corey Stoll, the standout from Season 1 of House of Cards (although here saddled with an unfortunate toupee).  Eph has all the attributes you’d expect from the good guy in a story like this:  he’s brilliant but brash, a recovering alcoholic and workaholic, with a troubled marriage (he’s fighting for joint custody of his young son and forcing himself to attend family therapy sessions) and a relationship with his beautiful chief associate, Dr. Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) that goes beyond the professional.  They’re called in when a jetliner mysteriously stops on the tarmac at JFK, not having completed its landing, and with everyone on board apparently dead.  Before long, weird wormy things are being discovered in the cargo hold, along with a 9-foot high, hand-carved coffin filled with European soil.  Uh oh.  Luckily, the show’s Van Helsing character, Holocaust survivor and pawn shop owner Professor Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley, cranky Filch from the Harry Potter movies, and vengeful Walder Frey on Game of Thrones), has felt a disturbance in the force, and he shows up at the airport with his sword cane and a dead certainty that the bodies of those aboard the flight must be be decapitated and burned.  If anyone listened to him, of course, there wouldn’t be a show, and by the end of the pilot (written by del Toro and Hogan, and directed by del Toro), the undead are awakening.

We only get a glimpse of the chief vampire in The Strain‘s pilot, but he’s clearly no Robert Pattinson-lookalike.  Del Toro goes back to the likes of Nosferatu for a really monstrous bloodsucking beast.  Del Toro and Hogan have also added some new unsettling wrinkles to the tale, including Cronenbergian organic growths on the internal organs of the vampire’s victims–organs that keep functioning (and eating) even when there’s no body around them.  The only dispiriting part of the mix is the all-powerful evil corporation that’s running interference for the vampire, probably a necessary plot device to keep things going but one that feels familiar in a dullish way (middle-aged men in suits stand around saying foreboding things to each other with European accents while they look out at a CG skyline).  That aspect of the story, along with the deliberately (one assumes) banal genre-movie dialogue, are potential weak spots, if the show lets itself get bogged down with them.

Most of The Strain, though, promises to be high-grade summer fun, less self-consciously serious than The Walking Dead but also not as flamboyantly silly as True Blood.  If it’s still Guillermo del Toro at less than his best, at least this time he’s not the only one enjoying himself.

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."