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Friday, October 24, 2014

The Strain -- Season One (Review)

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The Strain
2014 FX Networks
Season One
Score: 6/10

I like monster movies. Who doesn't? Okay, it's not for everyone, but guess what? There's an episode of The Strain called, "It's Not For Everyone!" Perfect, right?! This opening paragraph sounds desperate. I am pretty desperate for a good monster show, right now. At the end of 2012, I made the decision to end my relationship with the Walking Dead. Eternal grinding gears, lack of logic, and the fact that I couldn't tell the difference between the characters and the zombies fueled that decision. I've heard last year's season was a step up, and maybe one day I'll give The Walking Dead another chance, but I am going to let a little time pass until then so we can both heal. Until then, I have The Strain.
The Strain is a show about a vampiric outbreak. I'll let my usual review format take care of the rest.
The Bad: As I just said, The Strain is about an outbreak, and the disease is vampirism. The show begins as an odd combination of stately, gothic horror, and medical procedural. The thing is, that's not really the show. During this incubation period, the viewer has to sit through child custody depositions, and people just hanging out and doing boring things the viewer doesn't really care about. Finally, halfway through the season, the infection reaches a tipping point, and vampires start roaming the streets and eating people. At that point, The Strain turns into its best self, a campy romp about a ragtag crew that kills vampires...but it never completely turns itself over to that self. Because the show already established a tone, it has a hard time letting go of it. By episode eight, "Creatures of the Night," The Strain lets the campy action fly full-force, and it seems like the show has finally found its sweet spot. This sweet spot is a balance of horror, humor, and campy fun that, honestly, The Walking Dead could never pull off successfully. Going ahead, it seems like common sense for The Strain to continue down that path. It doesn't, though. The next two episodes slow down to a glacial pace, and focus on issues and characters the audience doesn't care about. After the slow build of its beginning, The Strain simply cannot afford to take it down a notch, let alone twenty. This can be remedied easily. Every factor that was making the characters the viewer doesn't care about unlikable is gone. The second season can be the fun, campy, scary romp this entire season should have been, and it can easily be because
The Good: Holy crap, this show can be fun. The Strain's two most likable characters, an aging, Holocaust-survivor vampire-slayer, and his hulk-like, rodent exterminator-turned vampire-slayer protege, are imminently watchable. As the grizzled old Abraham Setrakian, David Bradley (Harry Potter, Broadchurch, and An Adventure In Space and Time (as first Doctor Who, William Hartnell)) proves that his incredible acting prowess is strong enough to beat down any bad writing thrown his way. As the Eastern European vermin-hunter, Vasilily Fet, Kevin Durand (who played the sociopathic murderer, Keamy, on Lost) is finally allowed to quit the villain business. As one of The Strain's greatest heroes, Durand knows exactly what kind of show he is in, or at least what that show can and should be, and his winks and wisecracks are well-earned because his vampire-killing enthusiasm and intensity is fully committed. Durand and Bradley could carry the show on their own, and every scene they're in together is elevated. With that said, the other actors aren't bad. As, Ephraim Goodweather, the character The Strain posits as the lead, Corey Stall is saddled with being the resident wet-blanket, frequently second-guessing Setrakian's wisdom because the plot requires him to do so. As co-lead, Nora Martinez, Mia Maestro is faced with the same task of slowing everything to a halt, chiding the real heroes for their quick-to-kill vampires attitude. That sentence sounded silly because this element of the show is extremely silly. The Strain actually has the balls to call its villains vampires from the get go (not saddling them with a ridiculous moniker like the Walking Dead's "walkers"(just call them zombies! In the real world, people know what zombies are! Just go with that! Ugh!!!)), so it should also have the balls to just let the characters it wants us to cheer for realize the same. The ethics of killing creatures that used to be humans is only interesting for five or six minutes. The act of actually killing those creatures is arguably interesting forever. I didn't mean to go to the bad again. I want to make it clear, when the main batch of characters is unified and kicking vampire butt, The Strain is a blast. When they are not unified, and they are having pointless arguments about pointless issues, it is not a blast. It is aggravating. To get back to the good column, The Strain's unique, snake-mouth vampire design is excellent. The make-up and special effects team did a great job of making the vampires disgusting, terrifying, yet fun to see. The lead vampire, The Master, features a design that is a little more divisive, as the makers went for a more throwback, solid, practical effects look over CGI (the lesser vampires are a combination of both). The Master looks a bit like an 80's horror reject, but for someone my age, that is far preferable to an all too fluid CGI monster. The Master might look a little goofy at times, but at least he has an actual presence. Finally, I need to say that anytime The Strain actually attempts some sort of suspense, it succeeds wildly. A scene where the enormous Fet has to crawl through a cramped tunnel with a svelter vampire nipping at his heals is money. It's the kind of moment that makes the viewer squeeze the marrow out their knees (Durant's believably terrified expression helps). More of that, please.
So overall, The Strain is a show torn between two directions: A lame one that will lead to early cancellation, and a fun one that could increase its viewership and thrill the viewers it already has. Come on, The Strain. Do what's best for all of us!!!
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