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“This is bad, real bad.”
The Strain ventures into B-movie territory with an emphasis on cheap thrills, gore, genre tropes and not much else. When an airplane lands on JFK and goes completely unresponsive, an FAA tech approaches the plane to inspect it; the strange circumstances lead him to utter the words at the top of the page. Yeesh. I don’t want to turn the show’s own words against it, but it leaves me no other choice. The Strain may have fun special effects, over the top scenarios (a vampire virus runs amok) and some competent actors, all of which combined should make for a decent series, but these elements do not come together for the desired effect. Instead what we get is an incredibly hokey, cliché-ridden endeavor full of laughable dialogue and some cringe-inducing performances.
Given the creative powers behind the project it is particularly shocking how disappointing this premiere episode is. I mean, it is co-written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, a filmmaker of extraordinary talent (who excels with material in Spanish – Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos – but has also done well with more mainstream, American films like the Hellboy franchise in his directorial efforts) who has a deft hand with genre stories and fantastic worlds as well as producing engaging performances. While he accomplishes to do well with the stylistic aspects of The Strain, which are well executed and visually compelling, the rest falls apart. Beginning with the clunky dialogue, which could not sound more unnatural and trite if they tried, it is at times painful to watch these actors try to make their way through scenes.
Not only is the dialogue lacking, but also the narrative construction is reliant on contrivance upon contrivance. How incompetent can these CDC officials be? Boy do these guys have poor contingency plans, if the real CDC operates in any way like this, then we are all doomed. And, sure, there have to be mishaps and carelessness on the part of some characters in order to build conflict, but the show goes too far. It really hurts the series if all I do is question the competence of the people I’m supposed to root for.
It takes skilled actors to sell questionable material, and not everyone in the cast is up for the task. Corey Stoll (House of Cards standout sporting an unfortunate toupee) does his best with the words and occasionally comes out with a serviceable portrayal, injecting some humor here and there and grounding some of the more absurd passages. David Bradley (Abraham Setrakian) makes a meal out of the over the top language sometimes seeming to embrace the campiness of the roles, at others playing it so straight that it elicits unwanted chuckles. Mia Maestro (Nora) takes the role so seriously that it ends up being more amusing than anything else; lighten up, lady. However, this being just the first episode, actors are just beginning to figure out the characters and the world they inhabit. There is certainly room to grow and potential for improvement.
While we would love for a series to debut with flawless performances, that isn’t entirely realistic, especially for a genre series where finding the right tone is a gradual thing. The show would benefit by leaning into the camp, b-movie qualities of the story. A world ravaged by a dangerous vampire virus does not a conventional series make. It would be all kinds of fun to see Bradley and the rest of the cast unabashedly go all out and take on the over the scenarios with some self awareness and humor and acknowledge the ridiculousness of it all.
Because despite the narrative clunky-ness and obvious performance issues, the series does manage to sustain an eerie atmosphere in a number of scenes. The most successful of which, when Eph and Nora first enter the plane to investigate, is an effectively tense sequence that builds up to fun and well executed (if expected) scares. That is, if you tune out whatever the characters are saying. There is a real sense of mood in those moments, the dread builds up and intensifies as we reach the moment in which the “survivors” wake up. And the imagery that comes with this vampire virus is certainly fun to look at: blood-sucking beating hearts in jars, creepy crawly wormy thingies that carry the virus, bloodless dissected bodies coming to life, and more. What’s not to like?
“Night Zero” suggests that The Strain values style before substance, its use of special effects for thrills and evocative imagery trump its concerns of performance or story, even. Though some might find the fun visuals and scares enough to sustain the series, it really isn’t entertaining enough to continue without addressing the issues that plague it. (See what I did there?)
What did you think? Did The Strain make you jump for another episode?