Wednesday, October 8, 2014

TV Review: The Strain (2014-)

Non-network television continues to score really great series that show the extraordinary power of television compared to movies. The latest example is The Strain. I can’t say that The Strain is the equivalent of The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, but it is one heck of a series and I’ve enjoyed it very much.

The Strain is a television horror series that premiered on F/X this year and it’s now completed its first season. You can still catch it on demand, however, and I believe Hulu has the whole thing at the moment. Created by Guillermo del Toro and based on a trilogy of novels of the same name, The Strain follows a CDC doctor named Dr. Ephraim “Eph” Goodweather. Eph is extremely talented, but not the best team player. He tends to take his job very seriously and he doesn’t care much about things like the economic effects of shutting down an entire airport, so his boss don't care much for him.
As the story opens, Eph and his team are called to JFK Airport in New York City because an airplane has landed and it’s sitting on the tarmac with no signs of life aboard. A disease of some sort is suspected. When Eph and his team board the plane, they discover four survivors who are only asleep whereas the rest are all dead. They isolate the survivors and send the bodies to the morgue.
At this point, the show feels a lot like the opening of a zombie movie... a high quality zombie movie, but a zombie movie. It’s not, however.

Eph is soon distressed to learn that the CDC has chosen to blame the airline for negligently allowing a gas leak on the plane to kill everyone and they release the four survivors from quarantine. Meanwhile, some key cargo from the plane is stolen, i.e. a massive carved box filled with soil.

The next few episodes follow Eph as his personal life falls apart (fortunately, this ends quickly in the series) and as he continues to fight with the CDC and continues to try to solve what really happened. In the meantime, we follow the four survivors as they become increasingly sick. Specifically, they begin to crave blood and their bodies begin to change in ugly ways. We also learn that the cargo was stolen by a rich man who is working for a German who is the agent of someone called “the Master.” These men have corrupted a great many people and in the first few episodes you see them call in favors. For example, they contact the CDC and get the investigation stopped. They hire someone to shut down the internet. And they have someone on Eph’s team under their control.
Soon enough, you discover that the four survivors are turning into vampire-like creatures. Moreover, the bodies in the morgue all come to life and vanish. Soon, this vampirism is spreading around New York City like a plague.
All told, this is an excellent series. It has high production values, solid writing, surprising twists, and great effects. The characters are compelling. Eph is a very likable hero. Prof. Abraham Setrakian, a Holocaust survivor turned pawn-shop owner, is fascinating, and his backstory (told in flashbacks) really adds to the story – something flashbacks often don’t do. The German villain, Thomas Eichhorst, a Nazi commander turned undead servant of the Master, is an excellent, creepy villain. And many of the minor characters have the kinds of moments that make the story feel rich and realistic, such as when henchmen realize they’ve made a mistake and they turn against their bosses.
The show isn’t afraid to kill main characters either, which is much appreciated in a show like this. The show takes its time too, which is also appreciated. In shows like this, there seems to be an impulse to get to the full on plague as quickly as possible, but that sucks the life out of those shows as it rushes all the high points and leaves little left to do except engage in fights. This show has resisted that and is building very slowly... steadily, but slowly. That leaves it lots of room to tell stories.

I highly recommend this one. It’s not Shakespeare. It doesn’t break all that much new ground, except the viral take on vampirism is pretty fascinating. What the show does do, however, is engross you with great characters and compelling storylines that will make you wish each episode was much longer than it is.



shawn said...

Yeah, I got to see the first 3 episodes and I thought it was pretty good, then episode 4 hit and the wife was home and awake at the time and said "Yuck, what is this junk?" Missed the rest of the season. Going to have to see it via netflix when it is released on disc. Looking forward to it.

Kit said...

Vampirism as a disease? Didn't Daybreakers do that?

But vampire Nazis? That sounds cool!

Anonymous said...

Hmm... maybe I should've watched this after all. It was kinda sorta on my radar and then I read a review of the first episode which was less than positive. (They called it cliched and stilted, with the usual awkward exposition.)

Of course, I rarely let reviews dictate anything but I was only marginally interested, plus I'm all vampired out after True Blood! But I'll check this out one day.

I did recently watch SyFy's High Moon, which was a TV movie intended as a pilot, but it wasn't picked up for a series. I was interested because Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies) was involved... but it was cheap and quite ridiculous. It had its moments and I appreciated that it wasn't dark and dour, but it was just all over the place.

AndrewPrice said...

Shawn, Same here. I had to DVR it and watch it late at night after everyone else went to bed. :(

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Yes, but in a different way. What they do here is a clinical approach to understanding why these people are turning into vampires and what causes their traits. That and the plague effect make this a cross between a vampire story and a zombie story, and that part feels very original.

The Nazi is a really cool character with lots of little reveals spread throughout the first season. He's really creepy and the actor does an excellent job of playing him.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Haven't seen it.

I do recommend this one. It doesn't tread much new ground, but what it does do is tell the story very well and keep you surprised as the story moves forward.

Also, this is totally different than True Blood, which is really just a porno.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Yeah... I mean, no of course it's not porno [looks sheepishly the other way], but I only tuned in because I was curious and it was good enough to keep me watching. But the last couple of seasons, it was basically, "Will someone put this f---ing show out of its misery?!"

I'll have to check this out one day then.

And I'm a sucker for seeing someone's creative process and this book was released a while back featuring artwork, notes, etc. by del Toro.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I tried watching True Blood and I enjoyed the first four or five episodes, but then it became hyper-sexual and gratuitously gorey and it just lost me. I also understand it became a big and obvious gay rights metaphor.

As an aside, my favorite line: "You've got vampire in your cleavage." LOL!

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Thanks for the review, Andrew!
I'll see this when netflixpicks it up. Hulu doesn't have it. Atleast not yet.

PikeBishop said...

I did enjoy the new twist of a scientific basis for vampirism. That was something new and unique.


However, the Master's appearance was just too over the top and silly. It's like they took every horror film villain cliché and created an amalgam of them for his appearance.

PikeBishop said...

Andrew: on True Blood, while on a vacation trip with a True Blood fan, we watched a few episodes on the hotel HBO, somewhere in season #2. l learned

1. It's not a show you can just jump into (like LOST). Without knowing the background it can seem silly, and some of the dialogue comes off as laughable. "I am your maker (sneer) I COMMAND YOU!

2. The shows I saw dealt with the stereotypical "Whacko/fundamentalist/religious cult" That was just cheap lazy writing, a cardboard cutout villain. I was fascinated by the unexplored area of just how the major world religions would deal with the big Vampire reveal and how it would affect their theology. Especially the Catholic Church who are really tied into the idea of humanity, blood and flesh. Hmmmm. Great lost opportunity in order to show us Fred Phelps with garlic and stakes.

3. Ok, I get it! The Vampires are a metaphor for Gays! Yeah, I get it! Stop beating me over the head with it! Please!

tryanmax said...

I guess it's time to sign up for that free trial from Hulu.

Kit said...

I knew that True Blood was an allegory for gays and since I, as a rule, dislike allegories I decided to skip it. Trying to write an allegory almost always results in the writer trying to hammer the allegory into his story at the expense of good characters and story-telling.

I think Tolkien summed it up well: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence… I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

Anang said...

If you've seen Blade 2 (directed by Guillermo Del Toro) then you'll be familiar with this type of vampire that GDT has been interested in for a long time. A combination of body horror & murnau's nosferatu.
The problem with GDT is he's a leftist. Now that doesn't discount his creativity. Blade 2 was one of the first comic book action movies that is still entertaining today. Next came Hellboy which was another well directed, well crafted story. But after that GDT's political & ideological inclinations took over the telling of a good story.
GDT is from Spain, and his villains have always been the Francisco Franco types, old white rich men who are part of the patriarchy. This was not apparent in his earlier work but with Pan's Labyrinth it came to the forefront. Hellboy 2 completely destroyed & subverted the themes of Hellboy 1 where a demon chooses the side of good. Now the same demon is angered by global warming and mankind and george bush (all implied but talked about in the commentary track) so he quits.
Pacific Rim should have been an all out blockbuster for Guillermo. It had all the elements of a great story and again very creative artwork/direction/effects. But Guillermo had to be a rebel and like "not mainstream maaan" so he made all the heroes into weaklings and a captain planet like mish-mash of multicultural UN forces fighting space aliens; "american protagonists are just played out man". Guess what? Foreign audiences didn't care. They're not spending a shit ton of money to see brown & yellow people save the world. Red Tails anyone?
Sorry for the long rant. It ties into the strain because I read the trilogy of the strain with these thoughts in mind and the storyline similarly unravelled after the initial Dracula-in-present-time opening of the first book.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, You're welcome. Enjoy! :)

AndrewPrice said...

Pike, I agree in principle, but I was happy to see a return to form after the emo days of Twilight.

On True Blood, it definitely had a learning curve, but we started from the beginning. It was interesting and had interesting moments, but sex was definitely its selling point.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, This was a very good show. I won't call it great, but it was really enjoyable and it felt so different from what you otherwise get on television.

AndrewPrice said...

Anang, The politics of this one have been well hidden. It does follow the "old, bad, rich white guy" trope, but it hasn't really made any open political statements as of this point.

On Pan's Labyrinth, by the way, that was one of the problems I had with the film -- the leftist politics dominated the story.

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