I’m not sure exactly what The Strain is trying to achieve, but I’m getting a lot of enjoyment out of watching it try. It was a strange beast from the first few episodes – starting life as a tense psychological thriller paying subtle homage to Dracula, but transforming quite quickly into a modern-day Dracula which nods vaguely at tense psychological thrillers.
It has been marketed as the brainchild of director Guillermo del Toro, who co-wrote the novels on which it is based – but his practical involvement seems to have begun and ended with the series pilot. It’s a shame he couldn’t stick around, because it’s the kind of collision between grimy reality and fairy-tale fancy which he’s made a career out of bringing to life. Without a guiding vision, the show often feels like it’s coming off the rails.
Not that it’s premise is particularly revolutionary. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a brilliant but socially dysfunctional scientific investigator, who possesses not only a drinking problem but, I shit you not, a failed marriage, must fight for custody of his “adorable” son while unravelling a sinister mystery. Against the orders of his institutional superiors, who regard him as something of a maverick (and with that hair, who can blame them), our hero must uncover the truth behind a catastrophic new threat. Also there is a pretty lady who wants him to sex her, and doesn’t say very much.
With the sheer amount of methodical box-ticking hardwired, it’s a credit to those involved that the end-product feels as unstable and off-kilter as it does. Corey Stoll’s performance as ‘Dr Hero MD’ is a good example, giving a bizarre mixture of “pathos” and just plain “pathetic” to what could have been a cardboard cut-out. It’s impressed on us during early scenes with his exhausted wife, as he rationalises and aggrandises his bitterness with a feverish zeal, that this man doesn’t just Play By His Own Rules™ – he gives the sense of being in some way genuinely deranged (or, again, could just be the hair).
The first few episodes follow the story at a fair old lick, but as the show spins on time itself starts to distort; presumably a side-effect of trying to shoehorn the structure of a novel into the season format. The last three or four hour-long episodes all seem to have taken place during the same endless night, which wouldn’t be a problem if the pace kept up – but it feels more like all the elements of the story are being stretched and stretched to fit a completely unnatural shape.
One consequence is that the show is constantly having to press the reset button, so that we can have one or two vampire outbreak scenes per episode, without any of them ever seeming to follow through. The first episode ends with 200 mutilated zombies devouring a mortician, and then wandering out into the city to search for blood – but, come the next episode, we’re back to our CDC heroes slowly trying to piece together the puzzle, instead of watching a massacre on the news. In fact, several episodes later we do climax with a full-scale vampire massacre breaking out in a central urban hospital. But again, the following episode simply ignores this, and we’re back to piling on the suggestive foreboding – building up towards something which, as far as the audience is concerned, has already happened a couple of times.
The story does give itself an ‘out’ for this leisurely pace, as part of the vampires’ convoluted master plan involves disabling all communication by internet and phone. However, considering that step one of their plan was to unleash an army of demonic monsters who drain the blood of the living with poisonous six-foot tongues, trying to whitewash it by shutting down Twitter seems a touch conservative to say the least.
It’s as if the show is hesitant to commit to the game-changing, apocalyptic events which are obviously its inevitable destination. I suspect one cause for this is that it wants to let its viewers spend as long as possible in the familiar comfort-zone of a “Buffy-esque” halfway-house, in which our band of heroic vigilantes secretly protect their fellow citizens from an unseen threat. The fact that they’ve slowed the story-progression down to a snail’s pace, filling half their episodes with the events of a couple of nights, suggests that in the source material this honeymoon period doesn’t last very long before we slide into post-apocalyptic territory.
The show is at its best when it allows itself to savour its own ridiculous, glorious sleaziness. At its core, it has the potential to give fresh life to horror tropes which are now so familiar we can barely even see them, and occasionally it does just that. The relationship between Eichorst – the vampire Nazi officer – and Setrakian – the Holocaust-escapee vampire hunter – is a particular high point. Their ongoing battle is established in an early scene, as Eichorst corners and intimidates his foe from behind the glass of a police station visitor’s booth. With their scenes, the show successfully combines tasteless exploitation, classic good vs. evil ‘genre’ dynamics, and two excellent performances to create a delicious (if not exactly healthy) dish.
Again, the problem comes later, when the show feels obliged to streeeeeetch things out by actually showing us the history that scene brilliantly implies, with a long series of drab and unnecessary Holocaust flashbacks. It boils all the richness and intrigue of that first confrontation down, revealing that their feud actually consisted of a few tense, quite polite conversations, after which they parted ways while still barely seeming to know each other.
It’s unfortunate that the most interesting strand of the story has faded from view entirely –the infected human survivors, who we watched gradually transforming into inhuman monsters throughout the first few episodes. They brought the show’s central concept of vampirism as a medical condition to life, in a way that bridged the gap between our central characters and the evil they face.
With them gone, we are left to watch a band of intrepid but very generic heroes chop up mindless zombies in a way which offers nothing new or unusual. In that narrower, more familiar context, which presumably follows Del Toro’s books, the core question of what mechanism causes vampires to exist becomes utterly meaningless. Hopefully the tracks we’re on have a few more bends and tunnels ahead, or the best part of this ride may already be over.