I have recently watched the first season of The Strain, with very limited enthusiasm.
The premise of vampirism transferring from the Old World to the New is not bad, and can be used to some effect, as it has been for example on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, albeit in a peripheral manner. This transfer trope goes back to Bram Stoker and Dracula’s move to London – a trope which comes with a rich imagery, as in Werner Herzog’s version of Nosferatu (1979), for example, where the unmanned ship full of rats glides into the port of Wismar. A horrifying image, which is translated into the 21st century in The Strain to great effect, even if you could argue that in a way it does little more than copy those earlier versions.
So, the opening sequences involving the “dark” plane are highly effective, and profits from tapping into the realistic danger of epidemic diseases being spread through global travel.
The use of an aeroplane as a means, and New York City as location, also enables the show runners to evoke memories of 9/11, which is hinted at or mentioned on the show on more than one occasion. Even the title of the first episode, “Night Zero”, echoes “Ground Zero” (as well, of course, as “patient zero”).
Main character Ephraim Goodweather’s initial enquiries are reminiscent of those medical/autopsy dramas which have been so fashionable these past few years. Thus bringing this new angle into the vampire genre and confirming the show’s angle of treating vampirism as a disease, which is already apparent from its title.
Despite the promising albeit pretty conventional premise, the show goes off the rails rather quickly. Mixing vampirism with Nazism and the Holocaust muddles the main story in an unnecessary manner and smacks of bad taste. Moreover, the interpretation of vampirism as a disease or parasitic life form raises questions about the identity/nature of the show’s version of Dracula. And while the interpretation of vampirism as a virus, etc., is nothing new, The Strain’s particular approach seems fraught with difficulties.
The main problem for me personally is the nature of the vast majority of the show’s vampires. I generally dislike all stories that represent vampires as “fast zombies” – and this is basically what this show does (even though there is also a tiny class of vampires that is different).
It also means that this show aims at shock and horror, as well as gross-out effects, rather than at centring on individuals and personalities which I very much prefer in vampire stories.
Another problem is the set of characters. While the cast seems very promising, the female characters remain colourless. Especially the wife of Corey Stoll’s character Ephraim Goodweather is a problem. She is one of those stereotypical film/TV females which are a major pet peeve of mine and kill off the energy of every show: the kind of annoying bitchy wife/girlfriend who decides to be personally offended every time their husband/boyfriend has to save the world (so to speak). A detective having to catch a serial killer? “Oh, how could you dare NOT be available for my aunt’s 57th birthday!” A brain surgeon saving the president from an unexpected stroke? “You mean you are NOT going to be home in time for dinner?”, etc. Every person in the real world assures me that such women do not exist; yet film and TV executives seem more than happy to annoy the hell out of the audience by having such females run amok. Ephraim Goodweather is trying to stop the outbreak of a disastrous disease, but his wife believes that this makes him the worst person on the planet, as does her bestie, apparently. The pinnacle of absurdity is the court ordered couple’s therapist, another of these annoying females. The writers do not hesitate to paint her as a harpy that hates Ephraim for no particular reason and is not so much offering the couple therapy but sees her basic responsibility to support his wife’s belief that he is a bad husband and father. Seeing how this so-called therapist treats Ephraim makes your blood boil.
I have no idea what the writers are aiming at by surrounding Ephraim with these horrible women. Are we supposed to feel sorry for him? I think it only makes you not want to watch the show anymore, because these characters get on your nerves so much.
And the problem does not stop there. Ephraim is not a likeable character – not in the least bit. His colleague/girl-friend is a sulking pain-in-the-ass and as much fun to watch as a dead possum. And most of the other main characters are just as bad. Except for David Bradley’s character, all the “heroes” on this show are more or less unlikeable. Seeing them reminds you of those words of wisdom from The Guardians of the Galaxy: “What a bunch of A-holes!”.
That the character played by Miguel Gomez – a criminal and a thug – is the second-most likeable character on the show tells you a lot about how bad this complete lack of likeable characters really is.
And the rules are simple: no likeable characters means that the audience is unlikely to connect or empathise with anyone on this show. With the possible exception of Ephraim’s son, but kids don’t count – everyone likes kids anyway.
Apparently I am not the only one showing a more than lukewarm reaction to The Strain. Seven weeks into the show, after half the episodes of season 1 had aired, the local TV station showing the series banished it from its late prime time slot (10 pm) into a well-past-midnight exile for the remaining 6 episodes, because of poor ratings. It takes a lot for a show to be banished into the 1:30 am void.
It cannot be denied that the show has high production values, and that del Toro has put a lot of thought into his original premise. The cast of characters assembled is interesting in its variety, unlikeable as most of them are. That does not change the fact that there are many flaws, and that I simply do not like the show. The final episode of season 1 has a nice show-down, and a set-up for further seasons, but it ends on a weak monologue that shows that The Strain is too much in love with itself. I believe it is a myriad of little things that ruin this show for me, rather than one or two major flaws. Still, having so-called vampires stagger around the place like brainless zombies is a major obstacle for me. I am very unlikely to watch season 2 and 3, and I am not sure any TV channel over here is going to air them any time soon, given the disastrous ratings of season 1.