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The Strain premiered with a cliché-ridden, contrived convoluted mess o’ horror tropes, and this week’s episode is not much better. “The Box” follows the first episode’s design with a couple of chilling images and scenes padded with a lot of horrible sounding dialogue, clunky exposition, and uneven performances. Despite the shorter running time, the episode unfolds in a frustrating pace, with unclear story progression and jarring cuts. The episode somehow comes across as narratively overstuffed while at the same time showing very little story progression. Yes there are a lot of characters, but they don’t all need to be featured in an episode to portray a full story. And the lack of story progression could be compensated by interesting character development or world building (especially this early on in a series), but even with attempts to open up the world and add background to some people’s lives “The Box” is a tedious and dull endeavor.
The characters remain flimsy excuses for human beings, mere templates of types, walking/talking clichés being pushed around at the writers’ various whims and fancies. There is no nuance or even logic to the way these characters behave. Nora and Eph being the most frustrating of all. All through the hour we follow them running around fictional New York at times enforcing their CDC supremacy over some people and at other times failing to assert themselves as authority figures and struggling to be heard. Which is it? Are they the underdogs, or do they have some power? It is whichever serves the scene best, apparently. How can they just take over a crime scene (which is incredibly suspicious and worth investigating criminally) and dictate to the law enforcement agency that found the body in the first place? And when met with opposition by their supervisor and the “Secretary of Health and Human Resources” they are completely bulldozed.
“Do you want to crash a seventy billion dollar economy and seven stock markets into a free-fall on a hunch?” asks Margaret stressing the severity of a possible medical quarantine. One definitely wouldn’t want to impact this giant system on a hunch. But it isn’t a hunch! Eph and Nora have gathered enough information to justify their pursuits, just bring out one of those wormy thingies (of which we know they have collected) and actually show these people your concrete evidence. These strange creatures, which have manifested out of seemingly nowhere, are enough to give almost anyone pause. Instead Eph (hilariously) overreacts to a personal dig and gets scolded and told to take a few days off. Never do either Eph or Nora attempt to communicate what they have learned in this bizarre investigation. Gah!
Speaking of Eph, while the character was annoying and arrogant in the premiere Corey Stoll played the part fairly well and was tolerable to watch. But with this episode the series attempts to further humanize Eph and add some depth, and actually ends up doing quite the opposite. He is the worst. His dilemma with his family could not be more generic and predictable (he is so not going to make that custody hearing); every scene where he interacts with them is absolutely painful. And all this talk of him being so busy and into his work that taking a couple minutes off to see his son is such a huge sacrifice is completely dismissed when he goes to an AA meeting in the middle of this impending crisis. And delivers an uncomfortably long exposition-heavy monologue, another cliché piled on to the story. Of course we need a scene in which the protagonists articulates his internal struggles instead of the writers trusting the audience to perceive such things through the performances. Nothing in his speech gives us any new information about the character or makes him a deeper, more nuanced individual. Instead it strengthens the idea that he is a one-dimensional character, there is just not a lot going on there. And while Stoll is certainly a capable actor, even he could not make his way out of that monologue with a serviceable performance.
On the plus side, the show is quickly becoming a pretty consistent source of unintentional comedy, which might be the only reason to keep watching. This episode gives us the introduction of Kevin Durand as the ridiculous Vasiliy Fet a “health inspector” who surely has an ulterior motive. Durand hams it up with a preposterous Russian-sounding accent that is so over the top it imparts a humorous bent on every line. The episode is worth watching for his line readings alone, “Eeeeeeveryone must leeeeave.”It’s quite amusing. Also, the series can still bring on the creeps when it wants to, though it does take a step back from the jumpy, full out scares of the premiere. The closing scene is effectively moody and eerie. One can never go wrong with creepy kids and the scene has a nice suspenseful energy. If only the show would spend more time doing scenes like this one (unsettling, atmospheric) and drop its pathetic attempts of providing intriguing character stories it would be a much more entertaining venture. Yes character development is important and gives a show freedom to go almost anywhere with its plot, but if those characters are as shallow and thinly sketched as the ones on The Strain, then trying to flesh them out is ultimately an empty gesture. The Strain is all about premise and genre, it is clear from the writing that it doesn’t really care for its characters; they exist to service the story. So, why not make it all about those freaky moments that work so well?