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The Strain, episode 2: scarier than the Twilight vampires, but also more boring

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The Strain's Corey Stoll
The Strain's Corey Stoll
The Strain

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by one of Vox's many experts in subjects other than television to discuss the new vampire series The Strain. These articles are for those who have already seen that week's episode. If you are looking for a more general overview, here is our pre-air review. This week, Todd is joined by fellow culture writer, Alex Abad-Santos. Alex isn't just an expert in the culture at large. He also knows a lot about vampires, and he's going to talk about how The Strain does and doesn't match up to vampire mythology.

Todd: There are some pretty good scenes in this week's episode of The Strain. I'm thinking, in particular, of the meeting between Setrakian and Eichorst in jail, a meeting that revealed that the ageless Eichorst had been one of the guards at the concentration camp Setrakian was imprisoned at during the Holocaust. Whether playing off of the Holocaust in this way for a junky vampire show is at least vaguely offensive is something I'm undecided on, but the scene between the two is a doozy, if only because it features two actors who are really committing and have somehow found ways to make sense of their characters.

What's clear at this point of The Strain, however, is that the show is just going to slow things way down for the sake of slowing things way down. The total timespan of the book that inspired the series is about four days, and the series is already halfway to that count at the end of this hour. That's probably a necessity, but it also means that what had some degree of urgency in the book now feels ponderous. Eph even has time to go to an AA meeting in the middle of trying to figure out what this bizarre infection overtaking the city might be. (I like how he always announces when he's going to head off to a personal storyline, the better for us to ignore it.)

Anyway, Alex, let's not talk about all of that. Let's talk about vampires, specifically how The Strain plays around with vampire iconography. Obviously, the big change here is that these vampires have big tongue-ish things, sort of like insects' proboscises, that fly out of their mouths to latch onto their victims' necks for optimal blood-sucking. It's a very Guillermo del Toro device, but it also strikes me as hilariously inefficient. Your thoughts?

Alex: Proboscises is a very hard word to spell (I will be copy and pasting from Merriam Webster), but yes. Vampires in this series are using these proboscises to find their next meals. They're pretty gnarly:

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A scene from The Strain where a vampire girl attacks her dad.

These proboscises made me realize that there is a severe underrepresentation of proboscis-using vampires on television today. Usually,we see fangs. In True Blood, fangs are a sign of hunger or sexual excitement. In Twilight, fangs are a curse that's to be controlled and there seems to be unhealthy amounts of fang-shaming and fang-anxiety in that universe. And I have no idea what the latest happenings are going on in Vampire Diaries, but I imagine being a vampire is still pretty rad in that world.

These proboscises make it clear that being a vampire in The Strain isn't as fun as being a vampire is in other types of fiction. It's actually kinda gross. Your body is full of worms, you are hungry and cranky all the time, and you have a veiny, giant, tube-like appendage in your throat that you can't control. This is not elegant.

There seems to be a message from the powers that be that says: Hey, these vampires aren't anything like you've seen before (though they are reminiscent of the vampires in Blade II). And we're not like those other those other shows with them sexy vampires. Take us seriously.

Are you buying what they're selling?

Todd: Here's the thing: the utter seriousness with which The Strain takes its vampires kills a little bit of the fun for me. Yes, Emma feeding on her dad makes for a great shock scare (even though we more than know it's coming). And, sure, I am down for the only thing standing in the way of vampire hegemony being a crazy old pawnshop owner who needs to convince the CDC of the righteousness of his cause.

But then everything gets pushed just a step too far. The old man is a Holocaust survivor? Really? And our other hero is a recovering alcoholic who drinks milk in the field (presumably to keep from thinking about what he'd rather be drinking) and is fighting a custody battle? Are you sure about this, FX?

When the book version of this story was released, del Toro was fond of saying in the press that the vampires of this story weren't going to remind anyone of the Twilight vampires. And as you've pointed out, that's true as these things go. I'm not someone who's going to defend Twilight, really, but I am someone who doesn't mind when my vampires have a little personality. All of which is to say that the Twilight vamps have far more in the way of motivation and spirit than a generic tall dude in a swirling cape.

Obviously, I could be wrong about this. These vampires could turn into something more interesting than just a very generic set of monsters for our heroes to battle. But as it is, they mostly remind me of the Walking Dead zombies, except with even less going for them in terms of charisma. The real villain of The Walking Dead, after all, is utter despair and hopelessness (and I don't even like that show all that much). The real villain here is a poorly defined ticking clock. If the heroes don't stop the vampires within an amount of time that has yet to be defined then... something bad will happen. Or it won't. We don't know.

Is The Strain too serious for its own good? That's my conclusion for now, but I'm wondering if you prefer serious vampires.

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Alex: Todd, your analysis of the The Walking Dead sounds pretty profound for someone who doesn't like the show very much. Are you sure you're not a closet fan?

I think you're right though. I wonder how many shock proboscis feedings we'll be treated to before they get old. Or if the writers will bend some of the rules and give these vampires more of a personality? (So far, the only hopes we have are "sexy rocker dude" or "badass lawyer.")

Lost in the show's lurch toward unflinching seriousness, is that it's really quite successful when it embraces its own silliness. A small glimmer of that in episode two was Vasily, the exterminator. He is an Eastern European man with a cat. (Gentlemen with cats, like vampires with proboscises, are severely underrepresented on mainstream television. I would watch an FX series about single men with cats.) He seems to be having fun, and he's this weird presence to have on the edges of the show, even if it's not immediately clear how he fits in with everything else.

I do think that the show could use a dose of self-awareness. But this is often a problem with TV horror. I feel the same way about The Walking Dead, too. It would have been perfect if someone rolled their eyes when Sophia emerged from the barn after the show wasted half a season looking for her. Or if someone (anyone?) groaned when Andrea's name was mentioned.

It doesn't have to be this way. Penny Dreadfulthe pulpy, horror series that premiered earlier this summer rode its campiness into the hearts of critics and fans. Like The Strain, that show also featured vampires and "evil," but it got its point across with being fun and focusing on the characters, like the crazy-eyed Vanessa Ives (played by Eva Green).

That isn't happening on The Strain, though you can see the places where it's supposed to be happening, like in Eph's speech to his AA meeting. It makes you wonder what the show's point is. Is it supposed to be a fun ride? Is it supposed to be a "serious" show with some profound message about humanity? It really isn't delivering on either.

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Todd: You know, there's one place where this show is really working for me, and that's in the sections where we're following the characters who are becoming vampires. I like the way that their hearing seems to become tinged with the sound of ice crackling in a glass full of cold soda whenever they're tuning in on someone's heartbeat or the rush of their blood.

The best monsters work when they play off of something dark that we recognize within ourselves. Vampires usually play off of our desire to live forever and a kind of rapacious lust that's best expressed via the strangely erotic act of drinking someone's blood. By making these vampires into more obviously creatures, The Strain has managed to help them evoke primal dread a little more easily, but it's also removed some of that recognizable desire.

That's definitely present in the scenes where the characters deal with their slow transition from human to vampire. The makeup effects sell a lot of this, but there's also a haunting hunger in the characters' eyes, as they sit around talking about a lawsuit but clearly all just want to focus in on the thrum of someone's heart or the strange whispers in their head.

We've all been in a place where we feel like something inside of ourselves – maybe even as simple as the flu – is slowly turning us against ourselves. So these storylines, at least for now, work. But the problem comes when you consider what might happen next. This show can't just be people turning into vampires for three or four seasons. Can it?