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FX drama The Strain has some scary vampires, but not enough else

Sean Astin, Mia Maestro, and Corey Stoll in The Strain
Sean Astin, Mia Maestro, and Corey Stoll in The Strain
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's Strain novels are enjoyably pulpy trash. No one would ever mistake them for great literature, or even particularly good popcorn fiction, but they zip by quickly enough, and they get the job done. If you want to read books where humanity faces off with spooky vampires (rather than brooding, romantic ones), well, The Strain and its sequels aren't bad as far as fiction you can shut your brain off to goes.

What makes the FX series adaptation of the books feel so frustrating, then, is just how ponderous the whole thing feels. For a series about the potential end of the world, there's a surprising lack of dramatic tension throughout the first four episodes, and scenes seem to often just happen because a character hasn't had much to do in that episode yet.

The series was adapted for television by del Toro and Hogan, and it has an able steward in executive producer Carlton Cuse (formerly of Lost, currently of Bates Motel). All three men make intriguing choices as to how to expand the thinly sketched-in world of the books, and the show is doing the yeoman's work of delving into characters' back-stories and motivations, all of the stuff people keep saying they want from The Walking Dead. Yet it's as if by trying to make the series good, The Strain has had all of the blood sucked out of it. What was once pulse-pounding now is barely likely to merit a heart murmur.

A doomed flight

If nothing else, the series has a hell of a hook. A flight from Berlin to New York lands at JFK, then comes to a stop on the taxiway, dark and silent. While the airport scrambles to route traffic elsewhere, government officials, mostly from the Centers for Disease Control, race to figure out if an unknown pathogen was unleashed on board. In the meantime, there are shadowy men making shadowy plots in shadowy corners, a gigantic and ornate coffin in the plane's cargo hold, mysterious voices echoing in people's heads, and a series of pitched custody hearings.

Yeah, that last one doesn't really fit, and it speaks to why The Strain struggles in its transition from page to screen. The novel's characters were stick figures del Toro and Hogan could occasionally push in the direction that would make the plot go, and they were given domestic plots that were meant to suggest they were human beings, rather than forcing the authors to delve into their inner lives.

When looking for material to expand in the TV version of the series, Cuse and company (and the writing staff includes some genre TV heavy hitters, including Battlestar Galactica's David Weddle and Bradley Thompson) have mostly decided to delve more deeply into the interpersonal stories. But in the process of doing this, it becomes all the more obvious how little there ever was to exploit there. One character is torn between his job and his son. Another nurses a crush on her co-worker. An old man wishes to live forever but is stricken with disease. A former criminal who wants to leave crime behind really loves his mom. These are all stories any viewer will have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of times before, and even the threat of potential vampirism isn't enough to perk them up.

This is too bad, because The Strain unexpectedly has a surprisingly cool central character in its midst. The series has just chosen, instead, to make him a supporting player. As Abraham Setrakian, a Jewish pawn shop owner who has a history with the vampires, David Bradley simply guts out some of his iffier scenes, then finds the meat of the good ones he's handed. (A meeting with one of the baddies in episode two makes for a tremendously entertaining scene, laden with portent.)

Bradley is probably best known now for being the worst host ever on Game of Thrones, but he proves just as able at crotchety heroism here, and he's very good at simultaneously underplaying and beautifully selling Setrakian's tragic past. He's the only one who knows how to stop what's come to New York, but he's also old and feeble and can't get anyone to listen to him. Again, it's nothing particularly new, but at least it has a narrative drive behind it, and an actor who can make the material feel more meaningful than it probably deserves.

A cast given little to do

And it's not as if the rest of the catch is filled with slouches, either. Corey Stoll plays protagonist Ephraim "Eph" Goodweather (yes, this is his name), a CDC member who's dealing with the aforementioned custody hearings. Stoll was so good in the first season of House of Cards (playing the tragically doomed Peter Russo) that he essentially stole it right out from under Kevin Spacey, but he mostly flails here. He fully commits at all times, but his performance fails to unite the Eph who has to fight monsters and the Eph who's hoping to win joint custody of his son. Horror series really only work if they can pull the supernatural and the mundane into a kind of unity, and the two halves of Eph's storyline might as well be on two different shows entirely. (Helpfully, he always announces when he's headed over to the show with the child custody hearings, so the audience can go make popcorn.)

The rest of the cast is given less to work with. Mia Maestro tries to give Nora, Eph's co-worker, some shading, but the character she's asked to play could largely be described as "Insert Female Character Here." Sean Astin fares a little better as yet another CDC guy, but that's mostly because the series is comfortable coasting off of his name recognition. There are some fun bits with Kevin Durand as exterminator Vasily, or with Jonathan Hyde and Richard Sammel as the aforementioned shadowy men doing shadowy things. And any show that lands Leslie Hope and Regina King for small guest roles must be doing something right.

All of that probably sounds like The Strain isn't worth watching, and for most, that will be true. Yet for fans of horror – particularly the more opulent variations that del Toro practices in his films – there may be enough here to tune in a few times. See, The Strain usually doesn't work, but when it does work, it works ridiculously well. The pilot was directed by del Toro, and he offers his usual visual flair and beautifully designed monsters. (The reveal of what one of the bad guys looks like in a later episode is one of the best moments here, and the anatomy of the creatures makes for some striking action sequences.) In particular, a sequence in the pilot prominently featuring Neil Diamond is expertly crafted, horrific fun.

What's impressive is that directors of later episodes are largely able to copy what del Toro brought to the pilot, creating a New York that feels ripe with apocalyptic thinking, even before anyone starts sucking blood. There are scenes and moments that point toward something better coming, even if the first four episodes struggle to articulate what that something better might be. There's enough good in The Strain to keep watching, just for now, but it had better cut it out with the throat-clearing pretty soon. This is the kind of story that works better the less you think about it, and by extending it to 13 episodes, FX has unfortunately given us far too much time to ponder.

Created by: Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, from their novels
Starring: Corey Stoll, David Bradley, Mia Maestro, Sean Astin, Kevin Durand, Jonathan Hyde, Richard Sammel, Miguel Gomez, Natalie Brown
Debuts: Sunday at 10 p.m. Eastern on FX
Four episodes watched for review.

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