With The Walking Dead smashing rating records and Hannibal redefining what you're allowed to show on network television, the stage is well set for The Strain, which premiered at the ATX Television Festival ahead of its official July air date on FX. Based on a trilogy of novels written by Pacific Rim and Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro and novelist Chuck Hogan, the 90-minute series pilot feels more like the first half of a blockbuster horror fantasy film than the first episode of a cable TV series. Like The Walking Dead, it's gleefully violent. Like Hannibal, it's deeply in love with the monsters at the center of its narrative. Like any del Toro film, it's deeply weird, a little silly and totally engrossing.
In short, The Strain feels like the next logical step in the modern horror TV renaissance and it has the potential to be something special.
A folklore-inspired tale dressed up like a modern procedural, it would be easy to dismiss the The Strain as CSI: Transylvania (it takes place in New York City, but that joke is too good to pass up), but it promises something richer and crazier than a typical cop drama. House of Cards' Corey Stoll stars as Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, a bigwig at the Center for Disease Control who finds himself fighting to contain a plague that transforms its victims into walking corpses with a thirst for human blood. Yes, this is the CDC-vs.-vampires drama that you've always wanted, complete with tons of pseudo-scientific jargon and hints of a large mythology that'll requite a great deal of explanation. Aiding Ephraim in his quest are his two CDC buddies (played by Sean Astin and Mia Maestro) and a crotchety old vampire hunter played by Walder Frey himself, David Bradley.
The Strain takes its time getting going. The opening scenes are stilted and the wrong kind of silly, but del Toro (who cowrote and directed the pilot) finds his groove pretty quickly, slowly introducing the large cast of characters (and us) to a mystery that seems bad and quickly becomes cataclysmic. What begins with a quarantined airplane quickly becomes an orgy of occult objects, grisly violence, brutal murders, parasitic vampire worms and some of the creepiest practical effects ever created for television. The Strain is the loud and proud response to The Walking Dead's digital blood -- del Toro and his team never resort to CGI when latex will do and the results are as wet and gooey and disgusting as anything you'd see in a hard-core horror movie. In true del Toro fashion, there's a wink and nod to all of the gore -- the show wants to scare you, but it also wants you to have a good time. At its darkest, The Strain is geeky and goofy, feeling tonally in line with del Toro's Hellboy more than anything else. It may be based on a novel, but there's a comic book sensibility running through every scene that's just plain infectious. It's hard to imagine any genre fan getting to the closing credits and not being at least a little curious about what happens next.
Although the pilot spends plenty of time introducing us to the human (and nonhuman) cast, the real stars of the show are the vampires themselves. Although the details of their hierarchy remain unexplained, the episode showcases at least three different flavors of bloodsucker, with each one posing a unique threat. The most impressive of them is barely even on-screen. The mysterious "master" vampire only makes a brief appearance, but he makes quite the, uh, impression on a poor minor character in a scene that's second only to a nightmarish sequence that goes out of its way to ruin "Sweet Caroline" for your forever (seriously: put the kids to bed before you watch this).
That's not to say the cast is bad. On the contrary, Stoll is the exact kind of truly masculine leading-man presence that's been missing from TV for too long and aside from his truly unfortunate hairpiece, he's perfectly equipped to play a vampire-killing scientist. Astin and Maestro get less time in the spotlight, but both are competent enough in roles that, for the moment, are a little thin. Of the main cast, Bradley gets the least screen time, but his scenes are a doozy, giving him a chance to fight criminals, carry a sword around in public and have one-sided conversations with human organs. In its first episode, The Strain is more concerned with plot and monsters and generally being gruesome than it is with characters, but hey, that's what they invented second episodes for, right?
As a stand-alone episode, the first chapter of The Strain is beautifully shot and ridiculously entertaining and something that TV fans with strong stomachs should give a chance. But that's the tricky thing about television: it's impossible to tell if it'll be worth following in the long run. Although del Toro and Hogan were heavily involved in developing the series (and del Toro plans to helm as many episodes as possible), Lost and Bates Motel maestro Carlton Cuse will be steering the ship on a daily basis. While Cuse is a terrific showrunner with plenty of experience in crafting exceptional genre television, it's impossible to know where The Strain is going and whether or not it'll maintain the tricky tone and momentum of its pilot. Even readers may be left in the dark, since Cuse and del Toro admit that they had to create tons of new material to stretch the novel's story into a 13-episode season (the pilot ends around page 150 of the book).
Still, there's a confidence, on-screen and off, to The Strain that gives us hope. FX already has plans to adapt the other two books into additional seasons and hasn't been shy about keeping the series as tight as possible. Del Toro's direction is as assured and slick as his big-screen filmography, giving a subject as old and tired as vampires a new coat of paint. Unlike True Blood or Twilight (del Toro proudly says that there are no vampires with abs in The Strain), this feels like a sincere attempt to make one of the world's greatest shared myths vital and scary and truly threatening again. The great strength of The Strain so far is that it respects its monsters... while knowing that it never hurts to occasionally put your tongue in your cheek.
The Strain will premiere on FX on July 13 at 10 p.m.
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