The Strain Is So Close Yet So Far From Being a Great Horror Show

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Left to right: Mia Maestro as Nora Martinez, Corey Stoll as Ephraim Goodweather. Photo: Michael Gibson/FX

The Strain, which returns for a second round of blood-feasting this Sunday, is a silly show with grandiose and sublime passages. That and its patchy storytelling make it one of the more frustrating dramas on TV.

This FX series from Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim), novelist Chuck Hogan, and producer Carlton Cuse (Lost) has a touch of Walking Dead syndrome: There aren’t all that many different kinds of scenes, the violent action in them is repetitive, and the characters are not deep enough to deserve careful scrutiny nor flamboyant enough to seize your attention as great midnight-movie characters might. Every episode includes scenes of vampires being surprised while slumbering in darkened rooms or sewer tunnels, creeping towards the humans that disturbed them, then feasting on them or getting shot, stabbed, beheaded, eviscerated, nuked with “sunlight bombs,” and otherwise eliminated.

This action is modeled on Aliens and movies inspired by Aliens, including del Toro’s own very good Blade II, which seems to have supplied much of this series’ comic-book-ish sensibility (it’s the kind of show where people bellow, “Silence!”) as well as its visual sense and production-design details (such as the blood-drinking tentacles that sprout from vampires’ mouths, their tips unfolding like serrated lotus flowers). The series’ directors keep finding ominous, at times strangely beautiful ways to show the feedings and the vampire exterminations, but the lead-ins and punch lines are often tiresomely similar: Somebody does some thing really stupid, like opening up a giant coffin or storage container or going down into a basement that they know contains a vampire because they actually saw it sitting there in the corner making icky faces and hissing, and then they run in the other direction, and Oh My God Somehow the Vampire Is Right Behind Them!

Granted, this is a horror TV problem as well as a Walking Dead or The Strain problem: There are only so many ways to envision stalking, surprise, and gruesome death in entertainment like this, and when a show runs 13 or 26 or however many episodes, it’s going to start running out of variations. The story indeed is going somewhere — the intrepid band of vampire hunters is trying to track and kill the leader of the vampires, the Master, a seven-foot-tall behemoth played by actor Robert Maillet and dancer Roberto Campanella — and near the end of season one the story gained another dimension: Apparently there’s a vampire turf-war going on, between the Master’s bloodsuckers and a group of rivals with some kind of ancient grudge, and the grudgers are trying to recruit some of the humans as soldiers. They started with Augustin "Gus" Elizalde (Miguel Gomez), who got kidnapped last season and introduced to a chamber full of ancient vampires slumbering in elevated chairs around a blood-slicked floor (an image that wouldn’t entice me to join their organization, but different strokes). The recruitment continues in season two, with the rival vamps attempting to sign up another of the show’s heroes. Yeah, I got it, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but could you put a robe on or something, and quit making that growly noise?

I find myself wishing the show’s action were not just livelier but more urgently connected to the plot. The violent showdowns sometimes feel thrown in, as car chases were thrown into 1970s movies. The climactic confrontation in season one’s “The Master,” between the title character and his personal Van Helsing, the elderly pawnshop owner and Holocaust survivor Professor Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), was an exception. Cleverly written by Cuse and Hogan and directed by Phil Abraham (a veteran of The Sopranos and Mad Men), it displayed an almost Spielbergian sense of how to give an action scene its own story, complete with problems that need to be solved on the spot. Chief among these was how to help the prideful but slow and weak professor after he’d insisted on a one-on-one confrontation with his old nemesis. The solution of his protégé, Center for Disease Control agent Eph Goodweather (Corey Stoll plus toupee), was both tactically clever and visually striking: Smash particular windows in the room with bricks so that shafts of sunlight blasted the Master like a series of body blows. But this scene would’ve had a lot more impact if it hadn’t been preceded by so many perfunctory scenes of vamps being shot and cut up, and if we hadn’t witnessed a less memorable confrontation between the heroes and the Master a couple of episodes earlier: in a sewer tunnel, followed soon thereafter by the professor saying he hadn’t confronted the creature in decades and was worried that he’d never see him again.

The characterizations are infuriatingly not quite there. The cast is across-the-board strong but often underused, especially Mia Maestro as Eph’s partner Nora Martinez, who hovers in the back of scenes while guys do most of the bantering and problem-solving. And the writing never goes as far into borderline-camp as it clearly wants to. This is the kind of series where Ukrainian-American exterminator turned vampire-hunter Vasily Fet (Kevin Durand) quotes Marcus Aurelius, and the Master’s physically declining human facilitator, Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde), acquires the heart of the professor’s late wife and tells his assistant, “This is the heart of someone who has been turned. I thought it would make a nicely ironic addition to my collection of my own failed organs.”

All it would take is a slight push to move The Strain into the realm of midnight movies like Flesh for Frankenstein, whose title character screamed, “To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life ... in the gallbladder!” But I doubt the series has the nerve to go there, except occasionally. It’s too dour and grim sometimes, and other times too blithe and safe. It can’t decide if it’s a melodrama of delirious verbal as well as visual excess (keep an eye out during the July 19 episode for a spectacular shot involving a severed head and a bathroom mirror) or a controlled and solemn parable of good versus evil. And it’s seemingly not deft enough to navigate between those poles, as Hannibal does so gracefully. It keeps establishing predicaments and rules and then amending, revising, or forgetting about them. I’m still not sure how much chaos has been inflicted on New York City by the vampire epidemic. Sometimes things seem postapocalypse-level bad: There never seem to be any people on the streets, citizens are disappearing left and right, mass communication has been disrupted, and there’s looting. But in other ways it seems that life is going on as usual. Government functionaries still make petty policy decisions, press conferences are still held, and the transportation grid seems to be holding up. What does Washington think about this? What does the United Nations, which is headquartered in New York, think? Why hasn’t the United States been sealed off from the rest of the globe?

The Strain offers just enough moments of eccentric personality (mostly Vasily’s) and just enough spookily beautiful filmmaking to make you not want to throw in the gore-soaked towel. I don’t hate-watch this show, I hope-watch it. But I wish there were more to see, and more evidence that the filmmakers have really thought about what they’re showing us.