The Strain is a vampire apocalypse show brought to us from the books of the same name written by geek god, Guillermo Del Toro. Del Toro’s a talented creator to be sure, unfortunately The Strain falls into one of his less adaptable areas: a straight horror story. Del Toro’s real strength is in genre blending, mixing together the tones of action, horror, fantasy, anime etc. to create works like Pacific Rim, Pan’s Labyrinth, or his two Hellboy films. More often than not when he’s called upon to craft a strict horror story you end up with things like the curiously inert and lackluster Devil’s Backbone or the bland and forgettable Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. In the case of The Strain, Del Toro’s general disinterest in thrills and chills still abounds only now taking two distinct forms that fight for supremacy within the show: an emphasis on a grander mythos surrounding the vampire apocalypse and a series of plot contrivances to make a grander statement about the nature of life under tyrannical reign.
This spit in focus, along with the very dopey nature of a lot of key scenes from the source material, has plagued the TV show version of The Strain from the word “go”. The show spent its entire first season struggling to find a good balance between all three elements, ultimately coming down on the side of contrivance and meaning more than any other. This had the unfortunate impact of rendering a lot of the first season frustrating in the extreme as the show constantly twisted logic and reason to suit a greater metaphor rather than trying to perfect the metaphor to work in a logical world. However, Season Two seems to be taking steps to, if not necessarily solve these problems, at least avoid them. Last night’s 90-minute season premiere doubled down on mythos and felt far more at ease portraying some of the much sillier scenes from the source material. What’s more, there’s even some steps made to move away from a strict adaptation of Del Toro’s flawed novel series.
This seasons starts almost exactly after the previous one ended. David Bradley’s Abraham Setrakian, whose natural charisma and grit has helped him become the real star of the show, and his band of fearless vampire killers are secured in Brooklyn planning their next move. Meanwhile the villainous Master draws his plans deep in the heart of Manhattan’s subterranean expanse, shades of Del Toro’s Mimic. The big focus of the episode is on the previously introduced vampire council of elders from last season. This is a major plus for The Strain as the vampire council and their forces represent an essential quality that’s always evaded the human heroes of the story: competence.
This is one of those aspects that made The Strain Season One such an unsatisfying experience. The Master has an army of vampires and has allied himself with the enigmatic and extremely wealthy Eldritch Palmer, played by the highly underrated Jonathan Hyde. The vampiric forces are portrayed as so incredibly powerful they can “crash the internet” and block federal forces on a whim, this leaves the Setrakian and the human heroes as a completely empty threat to them. The Vampire Council are the first characters to ever appear in the series and create the sense there’s someone who can stop the Master. They’re a force that has a chance, so increasing the focus on them gives the series a greater sense of conflict. Ideally The Strain show will keep this focus and that sense of conflict strong going forward as it was tragically short-lived in the books.
Where the episode falls down is easily in the area of pacing and characterization. The 90-minute prestige format is a nice addition for the sleek and elite marketing design of the series, but it’s clear this is just a standard length episode padded out with a lot of commercial breaks. Even then there’s a lot of padding in this episode, specifically circling around the horribly miscast Corey Stoll as Dr. Ephraim Goodweather. Stoll is best as a borderline unlikable character, someone we can appreciate the idiocy of but also don’t empathize with as was his part on House of Cards. The Strain still seems to be laboring under the assumption that he can pull off “likable but broken dad,” though the show has backed off on pushing him as a main character which is a big plus. Most of the episode is made of just moving pieces around, getting characters in place or to meet or setting up future storylines but Stoll’s story is easily the weakest.
As a virologist he’s working to try to create a cure for vampirism and this is where The Strain’s format really hurts itself. We, the audience, are incredibly aware of the futility of Stoll’s plan because we know that you can’t have another season of a vampire apocalypse show if there’s no vampire apocalypse. In many ways it’d be far more daring and original if The Strain really did have the characters just cure the vampire apocalypse and worked up a season 3 concept that was more grounded in concept continuity than narrative continuation, but that’s not the show we’re watching.
The best sum up on The Strain Season Two premier is probably; baby steps. There are a lot of small problems fixed and the beginning of steps towards a better show, but it’s slow going and you get the sense there’s going to be a lot more flawed episodes before we get any genuinely great ones. Still, progress is progress and this is progress; check it out if you were on the fence after Season One.