The Strain: TV review

TV's latest take on vampire horror has little to offer beyond cheap scares and gore

Sean Astin, Mia Maestro and Corey Stoll in The Strain

Premieres Sunday, July 13 at 9pm on FX.

There are few contemporary filmmakers with a monster-making resume like Guillermo del Toro's. With his first attempt at American television, the writer/director is adapting the trilogy of novels he cowrote with Chuck Hogan, a mash-up of vampire horror and epidemiological thriller. While the show has earned a lot of ire for its unsettling eyeball advertising campaign (do NOT click on that if you're still digesting something), the episodes themselves fails to offer anything that inspires a comparable reaction.

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When a plane lands mysteriously at JFK with no contact from the pilots and no sign that anyone onboard is still alive, a CDC team is called in to investigate it as a potential act of bio-terrorism. Drs. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) find some extremely odd pieces of evidence while poking about the plane—traces of ammonia, a giant box in the cargo hold filled with soil and some wriggly white worms. What's more, a handful of the seemingly dead passengers turn out to still be alive. While Eph and his team race to find answers about the mysterious parasitic outbreak, they are unknowingly combatting a larger conspiracy that is intentionally trying to loose the plague on New York City.

At this point in the cultural zeitgeist, pretty much anyone that's interested in vampires has had their thirst well-quenched. And yet, The Strain seems intent on approaching its subject matter as if no one else has been here before. So much time is spent on the characters slowly discovering the realities of the vampiric virus, so little attention is paid to the warnings of David Bradley's all-knowing harbinger and no mention is made of the existence of vampires in fiction. This vastly undercuts the perceived intelligence of the CDC doctors we're made to connect with because the audience automatically smarter than them.

The joy of Del Toro's gleefully active imagination feels completely absent in the muddy landscape of The Strain. The sense of wonder that is so common in his creature-filled resume is, instead, replaced by protracted inevitability. It takes several hours of show time before Ephraim comes close to realizing that he's in a monster story and, when it finally comes, the realization is so quick that the character is given almost no chance to grasp the weight of the new world he finds himself in. It's a story that is at once filled with a profound sense of urgency, while also maintaining an mind-numbingly lethargic pace.

There's plenty of grotesque horror imagery, especially in the del Toro–directed pilot, but the wriggling vampire worms and bloody corpses can't make up for the lack of momentum in the story or the thinly drawn character ensemble. In trying to approach horror from a procedural point of view, del Toro and showrunner Carlton Cuse have sucked all the life out the genre.

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