The Strain, Season 1, Episode 1, “Night Zero”
Written by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Airs Sundays at 10pm EST on FX
We live in a burgeoning era of horror television. American Horror Story will begin its fourth season in the fall, and The Walking Dead will start its fifth. Penny Dreadful just finished an excellent debut season, and Netflix’s Hemlock Grove just put up its second season. True Blood, Supernatural, Bates Motel, Sleepy Hollow, Grimm. And of course, the most horrifying show currently on television, Hannibal. Horror is all over our TV screens, but if there’s one person who deserves their shot at it (presuming David Lynch isn’t interested), it’s Guillermo del Toro.
With films like Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone and Cronos (not to mention his many forays into horror producing), del Toro has established himself as a skilled horror auteur. He wasn’t satisfied with the screen, so he joined with author Chuck Hogan to write a trilogy of vampire horror novels: The Strain, The Fall and The Night Eternal. Full disclosure, I haven’t read any of them, so please avoid spoilers in the comments. The critical reception to the books was pretty timid, but del Toro had always envisioned it as a TV series, anyway. Luckily, it seems to be paying off so far.
Which is to say that the pilot is an absolute mess, and yet it is so entertaining that I find myself forgiving most of its flaws. The decision each of those aforementioned horror shows has to make is how seriously to take itself, with American Horror Story and Sleepy Hollow on one end and The Walking Dead on the other. The interesting thing about The Strain is that, based on the premiere, it takes itself extremely seriously in its basic presentation, meaning that everything is played straight and there aren’t any obvious attempts at humour. That said, there is a creeping self-awareness at play, thankfully, letting us know that del Toro et al. are very conscious of how silly this all is.
And The Strain is plenty silly. The creature, or what we’ve seen of it so far, seems to be some kind of ridiculous tentacle-ized version of a vampire, who brutally curb stomps one victim to such a horrifying degree that it inevitably becomes comical. It’s full of ominous and portentous comments about the coming fall of Manhattan, and other absurd dialogue that has no place outside of a 1950s pulp novel. Sometimes, it works, and other times – like a thickly stereotypical Hispanic man – it really doesn’t (sample line from him: “They gonna send me back to the bullpen…I can’t go back.”).
That’s the thing about this show so far. There are several truly affecting and chilling moments (“Daddy…I’m cold”), and some fantastic (if cheesy) action scenes, but the rest of the time it suffers from the Walking Dead syndrome. This basically means that it hits the big moments, but once people start opening their mouths, it slowly starts to unravel. I mean, I was tired of dad-is-too-busy-with-work-and-his-family-life-suffers storylines at least a decade ago. It will be interesting to see how the show’s writing changes from here on out, where the writers will hopefully be given more room to play instead of being drowned out by exposition and (light) characterization.
Del Toro does manage some nifty directing here and there, notably with a couple of striking tracking shots and a few isolating character shots. That said, very little of this episode feels distinctly like a del Toro creation, outside of a few of the big moments. I’m unclear on how involved he’ll be going forward, but it seems to me that he left as little a mark as possible on the premiere so that the style of later directors won’t change the tone of the series at all. This makes sense on a practical level, but it’s still somewhat disappointing.
The Strain appears to be a vampire horror show by way of Contagion, and to del Toro and Hogan’s credit, it works better than it sounds like it should. Corey Stoll, playing our hero Ephraim Goodweather (really?) at the CDC, is a big part of that. Stoll is a fantastic actor, and everyone else seems better just by interacting with him. Most of the other characters remain archetypes at this point (or less), though hopefully that will be quickly remedied (I’m particularly hopeful that Nora will have more to do than just follow Ephraim around like a mouse).
So far, it’s hard to know what to make of Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain. In the weeks to come, what I think will make or break the show is how adeptly it can balance the serious and straight-faced presentation with the inherent silliness and cheese. For example, the standout scene for me in the premiere was the morgue sequence set to “Sweet Caroline”, which was both very creepy and, in the end, absolutely hilarious. If the show can continue to deliver stuff like that on a weekly basis, I may even consider letting go of that marriage counseling cliché nonsense.
– Jake Pitre