This review contains some spoilers.
There are no sparkly vampires here. I repeat, no sparkly vampires. “The Strain” series on FX is based on the novel of the same name by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan.
The pilot episode, “Night Zero,” starts on a plane, generally a great claustrophobic setting due to it being a giant metal tube stuck in the air. It is en route to New York from Berlin when one of the flight crew realizes that something is moving in a cargo hold and calls another one of the crew to check it out. A very bad thing comes out of the hold, yet the fate of the passengers and crew are not known right away.
The beleaguered plane lands on an unused airstrip at JFK and is not responding to any form of contact by the air traffic controllers. Upon external investigation, an airport official realizes there are no signs of life, and all but one of the shades is pulled down. He then instructs another employee to basically call everyone who is anyone.
Enter Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), a CDC epidemiologist who is going through some personal drama with his family. He and his team, Jim Kent (Sean Astin) and Dr. Nora Martinez (Mía Maestro), are called in to investigate the dead plane to make sure nothing viral is going on, but, of course, it is something viral (kind of).
Also enter Abraham Setrakian (the always great David Bradley), a gruff pawn shop owner who knows a thing or two about a thing or two. After seeing a news piece on the incident at the airport, he realizes he knows the evil that is on the plane and has fought it before.
We are also introduced to the more nefarious types in the form of Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) and Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel). They are deeply involved in whatever machinations brought a horrible new evil to New York, and Eichorst has engineered a plan to bring it deeper into the city.
What ensues is 95 minutes of fun yet somewhat corny storytelling. There’s a monster, a lot of dead bodies, gore and some drama. I felt like I needed some heavily buttered popcorn, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I felt like I was watching a comic book, like an old EC horror title. I mean this in the best possible way. I will say I haven’t read the book; so I wasn’t sure what to expect. There’s a lot of cheese here, from dialogue to very broadly drawn characters that fit well worn stereotypes. Having said this, I still really enjoyed the pilot. It’s pure, pulpy horror, and that’s why it works.
The colors are over saturated with high contrast and feel like comic panels (particularly a scene involving a brief text conversation between father and son). The villains are very villainous, the heroes very confused and heroic, and the expert very curmudgeonly, wise and (of course) ignored when trying to help.
The gore here is more explicit than I thought I would see, and this was a pleasant surprise for a gore gal such as me. One scene in particular made me raise my eyebrows. There’s some language, but it works well within the dialogue, never being used just because “Ooh, hey, we are swearing on TV!” Although we got a glimpse on the plane, the full monster reveal (at about the 54 minute mark) worked great. It was appropriately creepy and had a very gothic yet almost alien feel. The scenes in the ME’s office were also a real treat and had me laughing toward the end.
Stoll, Bradley and Hyde were a delight to watch. Stoll’s Dr. Goodweather is a likable guy who is a total type A, even though he’s got family issues. I sense a deeper character there and I hope it’s explored more fully. I’m a fan of both Bradley and Hyde. You’ll know Bradley from the Harry Potter movies, Broadchurch and too many other roles to mention here. He’s very believable as the rather tortured Setrakian, a man with a sad past who knows too much. Hyde (“Titanic,” “The Mummy”) gives an almost regal feel to Palmer, and I want to like him even though I know he’s probably a very bad man.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
Unfortunately some of the dialogue was very hackneyed, and the stereotypical characters were enough to make me laugh. The lawyer from first class paraphrasing the classic, “Do you know who I am?” The wannabe rock star who’s kind of a jerk, but then is not what he seems. The gang-guy stereotype who is very much a gang-guy stereotype. The main characters escape this to some extent, particularly Goodweather and Palmer, but the rest feel very familiar. Some characters are pure window dressing right now and need more beefing up. I have hope that this will happen as the series progresses.
The gore may put some folks off. It’s pretty well done and something you don’t expect on regular TV, although FX isn’t really regular TV. Risk is not uncommon to the network. Those with a low tolerance, beware. There’s also a bit of nudity, but it’s a very small amount and is needed to properly tell the story.
I realize “The Strain” will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I happen to love tea. Oh, and if anyone working in the prop department is reading this, kudos on the box (no specifics). It’s awesome, and I want one.
GIVING CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE
“The Strain” was written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan based on the novel of the same name. The pilot was directed by del Toro. It stars Corey Stoll, Sean Astin, Mía Maestro, David Bradley, Jonathan Hyde and Richard Sammel.