The Strain, FX's new horror series based on a trilogy of books by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, is a runway model of a show: it's beautiful and sleek and seriously dumb.
In the pilot, which aired last Sunday, a plane lands on the tarmac at New York's JFK airport. The lights are off and the plane is cold; every window shade save one is closed. All the passengers are mysteriously dead, except four survivors. It's up to Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), an epidemiologist who works for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), to figure out what's going on.
The show, especially the pilot episode, which del Toro directed, has a comic-book sheen, at once glossy and pulpy. Its heroes are Ephraim, or "Eph," and a grizzled Holocaust survivor named Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley, a.k.a. Walder Frey from Game of Thrones), who owns a pawnshop and keeps a living, writhing heart in a glass jar. He's straight out of Tales from the Crypt. When Abe sneaks into a hidden room behind the desk at his pawnshop, del Toro lights the secret chamber in garish red and green; the darkened plane where Eph and his co-worker/ girlfriend, Dr. Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro), conduct the initial search is bathed in eerie blue, accented by the yellow light that glows from the helmets on their hazmat suits.
The characters are also hilariously cartoonish: of the four survivors, one is a huffy lawyer with spring-loaded curls who snaps at the doctor zipping up her plastic quarantine tent: "I'm no ordinary passenger." Another is a Marilyn Manson-esque rock star who sports a long black wig and a forearm full of scars. "I cut," he shrugs. "For the fans." There's also a Russian rat exterminator played with gleeful zeal by the Canadian actor Kevin Durand, and the man responsible for the sudden appearance of vampires in New York – an evil old one-percenter who lives high up in a tower in midtown and craves immortality.
Plus, there's Stoll's wig, perhaps the real monster here. The bald actor has been adorned with a truly awful hairpiece, a wispy, dark brown mop that seems to have a life of its own; the hairline recedes just a bit too much on one side, and in a scene where Ephraim attends an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, The Thing threatens to undercut Stoll's poignant speech. You can practically see the glue. It's so bad that I almost wonder if it's intentional, an homage to the spectacularly cheap sci-fi/ horror movies of the 1950s, where the monster would have been a lot scarier if you couldn't see the wires poking out of it.
Of course, this is a Guillermo-del-Toro-backed cable series, and so apparently no expense has been spared: FX reportedly pledged $500,000 (U.S.) for "creature creation." We've only seen glimpses of the main "creature" so far, but it, and the effect it has on its prey, calls to mind H.R. Giger's creature creations in Alien. There are some deliciously gory set pieces in the first few episodes – not surprising considering the show's marketing campaign involved billboards plastered with a close-up shot of a worm burrowing through a woman's eyeball.
For all its goofy fun, The Strain moves at a pretty measured pace. By the fourth episode, there's still no citywide panic, no hordes of bloodsuckers drooling through the streets of Manhattan. The show treats a vampire epidemic as a public-health crisis; like The Leftovers – in which a global Rapture whisks away millions of people, leaving the survivors in a world that looks just as it did before – The Strain likes its supernatural elements to blend in amongst the everyday.
It's dumb fun, except for one aspect that's simply dumb: a subplot involving Ephraim's efforts to gain joint custody of his son after separating from his wife. The show strains at the effort to demonstrate how devoted Ephraim is to his work: His job is to oversee the health and safety of the public, not just his loved ones. But this is nonsense. The CDC is obviously so legitimately important – both in the world of the show and to the show itself – that his wife sounds like a petty nag when she complains that he works too much. She seems to exist solely to be proven wrong when the vampires attack. Eph's girlfriend Nora, who shares a job title with him, is also not much of a character – aside from making Ephraim look manly, she doesn't have much to do.
Oh, well. Maybe it's okay that The Strain labours under the weight of personal drama; it's not what I'll be tuning in for. Anyway, the show is so earnest in its absurdity that it's easy enough to overlook those wires poking out of it.