Important note: These recaps function purely and exclusively in relationship to the TV series. If you’ve read the books, please be mindful of potential story and character spoilers for others in the comments.
Ephraim Goodweather (House of Cards’ Corey Stoll, looking awfully James Remar–ian with that toupee) is consumed by his job as chief medical officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s NYC HQ. He loves his wife Kelly (Natalie Brown) and 11-year-old son Zach (Ben Hyland), but damn if he even knows how to tie a tie or arrive to family counseling on time, let alone be more present at six o’clock dinners. He and Robin Williams’s Daniel Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire might, together, make the perfect man. Except where Hillard summoned heroism from within the pillowy bosom of alter ego Euphegenia, Ephraim exceeds his potential underneath a hazmat suit.
Only minutes into both “Night Zero” and the Goodweathers’ latest couples’ therapy session (which is really more of an intervention), our flawed protagonist is forced to loosen that white-collar noose and reemerge inside his hermetically sealed one-piece when duty calls aboard a “dead airplane” that’s inexplicably landed at New York’s Kennedy International Airport despite losing radio contact or following air-traffic directives. It’s ice cold to the touch, all but one windowpane shut. Looking up at what air-traffic operator Robert (Dov Tiefenbach, who you may remember as the tidy-whitied hippie in Harold & Kumar) deems this massive “building with wings,” its lone open portal signifies as a gateway to something unspeakable. To borrow a borrowed reference from Goodweather’s colleague Jim “Don’t Call Me Jimbo” Kent (Sean Astin) as Ephraim climbs toward Regis Air 753’s cabin, it’s akin to experiencing the reverse point of view of William Shatner’s panic-stricken Bob Wilson in classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
But by and large, The Strain’s opening 75 minutes (DVR multitasking be damned) doesn’t serve up too many obvious allusions to genre totems. Executive producers Guillermo del Toro, Chuck Hogan, Carlton Cuse, and Gary Ungar are primarily, and admirably, carving out an original work of television horror sourced from del Toro and Hogan’s The Strain Trilogy novels. Although by premiere’s end, one can at least surmise that Cuse — the very busy former Lost co-showrunner who also helms A&E’s Bates Motel and who’s developing the same cable network’s Americanized take on superlatively eerie French drama The Returned (which, like “Night Zero,” involves creepy, French-speaking, undead avatars of human beings making their way back to loved ones) — fancies these kinds of sentient-monster stories.
And oh, are there monsters. Most spectacularly, “Night Zone” introduces a towering, stealthy, hooded creature that can puncture your primary arteries with meta-surgical precision, implant viral parasites into your skin and jettison 500-pound skeletal coffins filled with soil from floor to ceiling in an instant. If you’ve seen Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho’s terrifically fun 2006 Korean cult flick The Host, picture in your mind that titular, tendril-y beast with some ghostly Japanese-horror panache.
When we first encounter the supernatural entity spooking out flight attendants working Regis 753, it’s a lot of CGI huffing and puffing, even if the implied carnage — 206 dead passengers and four freaked and quarantined survivors, to be exact — is impressive. Only later, when air-traffic boss Peter Bishop (Andrew Divoff, very much playing against type from roles in Another 48 Hrs., The Wishmaster, et al.) makes the crucial mistake of exploring what’s lurking behind the door to Cargo 3, do we see what happens when The Strain’s big baddie — who’s referred to thus far in implicitly capitalized pronouns like “He” and “Him” — feels like throwing its weight around, or maybe just gets hungry. For lame-duck Peter, that means an involuntary blood transfusion, twist of the neck and boastful curb-stomp.
Bishop’s brutal killing is a jolting bit of shock and eww, especially when most of the mini-movie swells with narrative business. Similar to the J.J. Abrams–directed epic that launched Lost, “Night Zero” is a mutant hybrid of feature film and traditional pilot episode. There’s also a historic, Star Wars–worthy battle between good and evil at stake. Aging, aspiringly immortal businessman Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) is this saga’s Darth Vader (let’s reserve Emperor status for “Him” until further notice), in service less to any one master than ultimate consumption and self-possession. His adversary, a Holocaust survivor named Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley, doing as Donald Pleasence might have done or Max von Sydow would do with the role), who operates a Manhattan pawn shop, will invariably mentor Ephraim on how to stop the love we feed on from eating us alive. That, and finally take out Palmer’s Mengele-ish vampire lackey Thomas Eichhorst (Richard Sammel, who may never be cast in a non-Aryan capacity ever again), a willing pawn if there ever was one.
Zoom in from that struggle, and early circumstances ensnare a myriad of stock characters, including (among others): Ephraim’s overzealous partner-cum-lover Nora (Mía Maestro), their politicking boss Dr. Everett Barnes (Daniel Kash), wrong-side-of-the-tracks Harlem gang member and Palmer’s gofer Gus (Miguel Gomez), Palmer’s dutiful but decent security man Fitzwilliam (Roger Cross), clichéd goth-rock star and flight survivor Bolivar (Jack Kesy, possibly directed to watch Andy Dick as Marilyn Manson) and super-attorney/753 survivor Joan Luss (24 and The River vet Leslie Hope). And over the course of one cool February night, their paths cross and fates get writ at points across nearly all five boroughs.
Though the bulk of domestic drama seems destined to take place in Queens, where Kelly and Zach shack up with Matt, The Strain’s pulse can best be captured in Manhattan. The site of this century’s most tragic infringement on Western self-assuredness is the only real place to update common del Toro themes of love and righteousness by staging a scenario that surpasses the sum of all our fears. Strain will be gruesome at times, and necessarily formulaic on occasion, but the show’s internal journey toward reconciling how love can be both humanity’s grace and downfall could be thrilling.
Apart from all that:
Nice choice casting Lance Henriksen for the voice-overs.
That Eclipse show we keep seeing signs for sure is foreshadowing of something.
Man, Pat Kiernan’s getting around lately.
That Gus’s brother, Crispin (played by Veronica Mars’s Francis Capra), was the wannabe robber at Abraham’s pawn shop is just cray-cray.
We’ll assume the 10,000 condoms on the manifest were Bolivar’s?
Not for nothing, but this episode could have ended three different times.
Chill, Emma’s dad.