It's hard to make good stupid TV.
By that I don't mean "so bad it's good" or any other phrases so worn out they've ceased to have meaning. I mean a show that is about something stupid, and knows it's about something stupid, and somehow makes you care about that very stupid thing. These are usually (though not always) genre shows, and they often have tones that vacillate wildly between deeply serious scenes and outright camp. They often struggle to get that mixture just right.
The Strain experienced that exact struggle in its first season. Outside of a couple of solid episodes (and one genuinely entertaining midseason hour), the vampire drama always felt like it was trapped by its own desire to be taken seriously. It could have been gloriously silly, but the show was on FX and, thus, too good for that.
Things did not look much better headed into season two. Where the goal of the first season was to kill the Master, the head vampire, the goal of the second season is to find a book. That's right — the second season's major goal could be accomplished by checking a card catalog. (Okay, it's more complicated than that, but give me my joke.)
And yet The Strain has slowly wormed its way into my affections, as surely as one of the show's vampire worms burrowing into a victim's eye. It has figured out how to be stupid and entertaining, all at once. How? Read on.
1) The series has embraced camp
There are so many things on this show that don't stand up to logical scrutiny, even within a universe where vampires with long stingers for tongues are slowly but surely taking over the world. Giant, seemingly earth-rending events happen, and a few scenes later everyone has forgotten about them.
Our hero, Eph (Corey Stoll), develops a bioweapon to take out the vampires, and it works. But when he's temporarily foiled by the villains, he instead decides to assassinate wealthy billionaire Eldritch Palmer (who's in on the vampire conspiracy). "Something changed in you in Washington," his mentor tells him, and this is the kind of character development the show goes in for — characters filling in other characters about what seems different about them. It's the kind of series where people can fall in love after a particularly intense hug.
But to its credit, The Strain seems more willing to embrace its inherent ridiculousness this season. Stoll, who spent a lot of the first season emoting up a storm, now plays everything with a very slight wink. He's even lost the terrible wig from season one! Similarly, the characters now include a former luchador and a weird vampire hitman who tracks down others of his own kind while wearing a hoodie. Not everything works, but the series is finally willing to wink at itself, at least a little bit.
2) It's totally okay being multiple shows in one
In any given episode, The Strain will zip from horror show to historical fiction to love story to post-apocalyptic tale, then loop back around and drag in anything else it can find. In the first season, this felt undisciplined and completely random. In season two, however, as the series has left the books it's based on further behind, things have become even more disconnected. And, weirdly, it works. There's exactly no time to get bored.
There's perhaps no better indication of this than the show's new opening credits, which reimagine the series as a kind of comic-book opera, showing off all of the characters as action heroes and reminding me weekly that the show has a cast of dozens, many of whom seem stuck in their own series, unseen by the audience for weeks at a time.
The show that follows rarely lives up to that kind of grandly pulpy vision (for one thing, its budget is too small), but The Strain is at its best when it embraces the sprawl and tries to be all things to all people, if only for a few minutes of each episode at a time.
3) There are way more flashbacks
The first season doled out the flashbacks sparingly, choosing to focus on the preexisting relationship between vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian and vampire lieutenant Eichhorst. The two had known each other because Eichhorst had been a Nazi in his pre-vampire days, while Setrakian was imprisoned in a concentration camp. These flashbacks were basically fine, but they occasionally felt like weird diversions, an attempt to up the seriousness quotient of a goofy show.
In season two, the flashbacks are all over the place, and they often play as weird little short films stuck into the middle of everything else. They only add to the series' feeling of being an epic produced on a shoestring budget, a middle-school Halloween pageant. (Trust me. This is a compliment.)
In particular, the season's opening segment, involving the birth of the Master, was terrific. Directed by co-creator Guillermo del Toro, it was filled with the horror expert's many personal fascinations and obsessions, and it built tension expertly, the characters more and more isolated as vampires stalked and killed them. It also concluded with a very tall man having his mouth stuffed full of dirt and worms, so that was something.
4) Vampire kids are creepy
By far the strangest plot of the season has been Eichhorst and Eph's ex-wife, Kelly (now a vampire herself), turning a school of blind children into superpowered baby vampires who serve as Kelly's personal attack squad.
It's a completely ludicrous notion, especially when it underlines that by far the series' weakest element is its insistence on focusing on Eph and Kelly's battle for the soul of their son, Zack, the show's absolute worst character.
But, look, The Strain has just realized what many of us have known all along: Vampire kids are super creepy. There are scenes where they skitter up walls, or dodge gunfire, or just coo and cower as Kelly passes by them that nicely underline just how unnatural they seem compared with everything else. Horror often works best when it embraces the divide between the natural and the supernatural, and these weird little vampire kids are the season's best example of that.
5) It's finally starting to feel like the apocalypse is happening
The first season and a half really suffered from the sense that even as a massive vampire plague was breaking out, New York City continued on, business as usual. The nadir of this might have been a subplot in which several newly introduced characters attempted to make a food delivery from their restaurant, even though they kinda sorta knew that vampires were everywhere. Compare this with, say, Fear the Walking Dead, where the uneasy sense of the apocalypse breaking out is everywhere, and you'll see just how jarring it could be.
The problem The Strain had was in conveying just how little time had passed over the course of the series. The first season only covered something like six days, but to viewers, who had watched it over 13 weeks, it felt much longer. Conveying the passage of time is a constant struggle in TV, and it's not a problem The Strain really solved.
Fortunately, and for whatever reason, the vampire apocalypse is finally upon us. New York City has mostly shut down. Travel to DC is almost completely over with. Other cities are beginning to fall. It took a little while, but the vampires are in control, and our heroes feel like they're fighting a losing battle.
The latest episode concluded with a brave band of Brooklynites fighting off a vampire invasion by firing endlessly upon a chainlink fence, then battling said vampires in the streets, before the timely intervention of some UV lights. It was everything the show does well — completely ludicrous plotting, slightly cheap production values, and a goofy sense of self-assurance. And that's to say nothing of the scene where Samantha Mathis (Samantha Mathis!) drove around rallying the good people of Red Hook to her cause by shouting inspirational words through a speaker mounted to a car.
Things are finally falling apart in earnest, and they're getting stupider by the minute. And when you're The Strain, that's a good thing.
The Strain airs Sundays at 10 pm Eastern on FX. You can watch previous episodes at Hulu and FX Now.