Doc Jensen on 'The Strain' -- and when real life interrupts TV
Horror has come in a variety of flavors this summer: Gory. Existential. Sharknado. FX’s The Strain is geek Neapolitan—a combo of all three. It’s a high-concept monster mash—a vampire takeover thing restated as a zombie plague thing—that revels in body ick and clever ironies. This is a show that gets its shocks and jollies from having a goth rocker—a prick raconteur who’s only in it for the “p—y”—accidentally flush his balls down the toilet after his infected body abruptly decides to shed them, leaving him looking like Marilyn Manson on the cover of Mechanical Animals. The lout responds with an “Aw, nuts!” groan, as if getting the Karma-is-a-kick-to-the-groin joke of it all.
The premise makes The Strain a show for our Ebola jittery moment. A New York-bound plane carrying a coffin packed with dirt, mutant worms, and an ancient beastly bloodsucker (with billowy robes and an epically long anaconda for a tongue) successfully lands at the airport, but with all passengers dead save four—who quickly become red-eyed, pasty-skinned ghouls with whippy, pincer-tipped lickers like their dirty-batty progenitor. (The Strain digs its new-model vampires and loves to nerd on their smartly considered construction. An autopsy sequence in episode 3 was an early season gross-out highlight.)
Our hero is an agent of reason, a brilliant but domestically troubled egghead from the CDC named Ephraim Goodweather (House of Cards‘ Corey Stoll, here sporting a distracting head of hair). As he has no imagination for or belief in vampires, he suspects an outbreak of some new-form, next-level parasite. But others know different, like Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), a wizened and wily Holocaust survivor with a sword hidden in his cane, and Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel), a charismatically creepy and quite undead Nazi fiend, who ritualistically dresses as a human each morning with gleeful care like an ugly fairy putting on its glamour. Something wicked this way comes (assisted by a conspiracy of the death-spooked rich and powerful)—and it wants to grotesquely transform the citizens of New York into high-performance eaters and pestilence purveyors in service to a sentient parasite with a thick accent.
So basically, The Strain is The Plague by Albert Camus—if Camus decided that the plague was a contagion of ravenous revenants who prefer to suck, not nosh. It comes to us from Guillermo del Toro, a pop polymath whose taste and output runs the gamut from art-house sophisticated (Pan’s Labyrinth) to joyous schlock (Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark) and every point in between (Hellboy, Pacific Rim). He is unpretentious and indiscriminate, and we love him for it, even though he could probably benefit from being more auteur than imprimatur.
The show—which he has adapted from novels he co-wrote with Chuck Hogan—is, like the books, a thin formulation of Brand del Toro. The first four episodes have been entertaining enough, but its bona fides as Big Saga TV à la The Walking Dead remains TBD at best. Despite a sprawling cast and talk of a global vision, the drama has been mostly… well, talk: whispered schemes and panicked screamversations in darkened chambers or tinted window penthouses, parking garages and pawnshops. The deliberately paced malevolent machinations were intriguing at first. It seemed as if del Toro and Hogan actually gave considerable thought to how para-vamp terrorists might take over Manhattan. This became less impressive once the story began punting to The Jerk Guy In Charge Who Will Always and Conveniently Make The Worst Possible Choice, as well as Events Not Shown. (“Sir! We have successfully shut down the Internet and crashed the stock market off screen!” “Excellent! Everything’s going exactly to plan!” Well, if you say so…)
But the cast is good, if short on strong, dynamic women who don’t freak out a lot. Stoll makes for a compelling center, a kindly asshole built for crises such as these. Coming on strong for me is Kevin Durand as Vasiliy Fet (the names on this show!), a quirky Ukrainian exterminator taking his own offbeat path toward the story’s center. Yet the show belongs to Bradley’s Setrakian, who channels high-low del Toro better than anyone: His performance sells the reality and slyly delights in the camp. His confrontation with Sammel’s Eichorst—a terrific foil, all radiant menace—in episode 2 was my all-in moment. (If the show was only ever about them, I would be just fine with that.) They understand they’re in a live action Tomb of Dracula comic that has a shot at being marvelous. Bradley gave me one of the better laughs I’ve had this summer with his perfectly droll reading of the line that provided episode 4 with its title: “This is not for everyone,” he said after decapitating a father-daughter vamp pair. By the end of that outing, The Strain had finally brought Ephraim and Abraham together to slay bubonic bloodsuckers as a team. Good. Once Vasiliy the Ratcatcher joins the fellowship, we could be getting somewhere.
Not content to be nut-baggy fun, The Strain flicks at—but does not strain toward—some sort of profundity. The opening episode began with some gravely intoned gobbledygook about hunger—not for blood, but for love—and how far we’ll go to sate it. The illustrations have been witty, cynical, or cliche. A CDC wonk (Sean Astin) sells out to the creature conspiracy and imperils New York with B-movie contagion for money to save a dying dear one. A father destroyed by the apparent death of the daughter he adores to idolatrous degrees welcomes her back into the house even though she’s been monstrified; she ravages him, natch. A wife of Catholic faith loses her husband to the strain—then feeds her snappy, dog-hating neighbor to him. (Love thy neighbor? Not!)
The Strain is another vampire story about people willing to trade their better selves for love and more life. But unlike many vampire stories, it takes place in a post-Christian world, ruled and rocked by reasonable atheism, dog-eat-dog selfishness, and too many dispiriting catastrophes. In this miserably materialistic expression, love is not something people make, only consume. At one point, our heart-challenged, all-brain hero of science ogles the design of parasite-morphed bodies, marveling over their improved efficiencies. Only someone who thinks of human beings as mechanical animals that eat and sh– unto death could find such hyper-human creatures beautiful. The Strain presents a world where humanity has been infected not only by a virus, but also by a degradingly low opinion of itself. Here’s hoping our plague-fighters find the balls to be and believe in something bigger, or it’s flush city.
In a different world, I would have shared my thoughts about The Strain in advance of the series premiere on July 13. In fact, I had been assigned to do a review, and was preparing to write one, when my wife—who had been battling brain cancer for years—took a grave turn. She died on June 19. Amy was just 41.
A few days before she passed, my father arrived in town to join my mom in helping me care for Amy, my kids, and… well, me. Dad was surprised that I was still trying to make time for work, and so he offered to alleviate my load by reviewing The Strain for me. He was only half-joking. Before I knew it, Dad was typing away, despite having not seen one second of The Strain. He had only seen commercials and the press kit sent to me. My father—skilled at many things, including hunting serial killers—did not quite grasp the basics of television criticism, like actually watching television. He was halfway through his goofy project when Amy died. Suddenly, reviewing The Strain wasn’t all that fun or urgent anymore. For either of us.
A few days ago, my dad told me he had decided to finish the review, and he sent it to me, with some small hope that we would actually print it. I shared it with my editors, and we’ve decided to share it with you in this space. Why not? We’re all about community here these days. Surely my father’s voice must count!
I do recognize this is self-serving. Please forgive me. Thank you for allowing me three things: 1. Granting Dad’s wish of being a published TV critic; 2. Giving him an outlet to express some difficult feelings about a difficult period of life, albeit in indirect, fanciful fashion; and 3. Giving me the chance to say, publicly: I love you, too, Dad.
Reviewed by Thomas R. Jensen
This is Jeff’s dad. He’s busy right now. I think the world knows my daughter-in-law Amy, the love of Jeff’s life, is terminally ill. He tends to her most of his waking hours. At the same time he tries to squeeze out a few articles for second love of this life, EW. Well, OK, perhaps Ben, Lauren, and Nathan—Jeff’s kids—come before EW. So let’s say that EW comes in a distant fifth (or so).
I could probably think of more reasons to drop EW down the list, but that would hardly be fair to a great group of people, not to mention a corporation, that has supported Jeff as he helped his family through some tough times over the last several years. (Mr. Editor: Sorry about the length of that last sentence. I know you think sentences of more than 15 words are a challenge to most readers, but these people were expecting Jeff, and if they’re still reading, they’re used to this kind of stuff.)
So, back to me. I just popped in for a week. Here a day or two before Jeff needs to do a review of a new show called The Strain that starts July 13 on FX. He gave me the packet. I don’t know if “the packet” has some kind of technical term in the “biz.” It’s a couple of DVDs with the first few episodes and a Life Magazine-sized portfolio about who’s who on The Strain. (He gets this stuff in the mail all the time.) But since Jeff is quite busy with Amy and the kids, and since I have a few moments between items of the “Papa-Do” list of chores they had for me, I thought I would take a shot at doing this review and take some of the Strain off Jeff.
The Strain has a couple of big names behind it, Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse. For some reason I thought I had heard of Mr. del Toro, but after reading the packet I’m not really sure why. It’s certainly not from watching movies for which he is claiming credits. Kung Fu Panda 3 and Puss and Boots 2 never made it to my Netflix wish list. Okay, to be fair, I’m going to re-read the bio they provided and Google his name. Hang on…
No, nothing there that I can recall being fired up about, or have ever seen. Maybe I’m of the wrong generation.
But there is Carlton Cuse. One of the primary brain-trust(s) behind Lost. Lost made my son a “Doc.” It was weird, controversial, and absolutely great material to comment or speculate on. I enjoyed Lost. Every frustrating minute of it. Mr. Cuse has a good deal of credibility (with me) before I jump into this. So, let’s jump into this.
First off, let’s establish that I have not even seen the show yet. Not any of the first four episodes that they sent to Jeff on DVD. I tend to be a judgmental old fart, and since I acknowledge that I’m a judgmental old fart, I’m allowed judgmental old fart opinions on things. So I thought it might be interesting to do a review of the press material that he got in the mail, then see how I feel after watching the actual show. I know it has probably been done before, but not by me.
So what did I get out of the packet?
My first reaction: “Oh sh–, not again.” That happened when I came across the mention of vampires. I hope it is not a spoiler to say that this show is about some contagion that affects the vast majority of the population, sparing only handful of very attractive folks, who, coincidentally, are also well-equipped to deal with the afflicted masses.
Then there is “The Master.” The head of some mysterious organization that wants, I assume, to take over the world, or at least the Big Apple. But why would he settle for an apple when he can go for the whole enchilada? I know that was bad, but I already warned you—I’m not Jeff.
My favorite character is Abraham, the old fart that has all the answers but is constantly, and continuously, ignored—even though he may hold the key to preventing the destruction of society as we know it. I can identify with the old farts, so I always give them more credit than they may deserve.
Finally, there is the hero. Another flawed character with a brilliant mind who can’t get his family life straight. Ho hum.
I never got any further than that “Finally” when I first started writing this review. I got into town and started writing on Tuesday, June 17. We were busy on Wednesday, and didn’t get around to watching the show. On Thursday, Amy started having serious problems with her breathing, and we lost her later that night.
We never watched the preview DVDs, and, quite frankly, The Strain didn’t seem to matter much anymore anyway. I never even got to most of the items on the “Papa-Do” list that I expected to accomplish in one week, even though I stayed for two. I met Carlton Cuse at Amy’s funeral and told him I was writing a review of his new show. I hope he wasn’t disappointed that I never finished.
That brings us to today. It has been a month and a day since I wrote the sentence that began “Finally.” Finally (again), last night, I watched the first episode of The Strain. [Editor’s note: He has since watched three episodes.] I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff. At least, for a while. But I do have some issues.
As I was putting this review together, way back in June, without even having watched any of it, I came up with a term I had intended to use: Redundant Cliché. Or perhaps SSDS, a.k.a. “same sh–, different series.” You’ve got your troubled hero, vampires, and a “Master.” But they also have a subversive organization, flesh-eating zombies, and a traitor in the ranks.
What else? Oh yes, the obligatory subplot that mandates that, given two choices, the “brilliant mind” will always make the wrong decision. Also, The Strain does that thing that The X-Files did all the time: You go that way, I’ll go this way; I’ll see weird stuff, you won’t. Sorry about that, perhaps next time…
Will this series last, based on all of its redundant clichés? How would I know?! To be fair, I’ll be watching The Strain. I like Carlton Cuse’s work and want to give him every opportunity to find the magic that he helped create with Lost. If The Strain finds that magic, I hope enough folks will still be watching it to keep it on the air. Don’t you hate it when they cancel a show you really like, just because there aren’t enough people out there with good taste?
One final thing that the EW world needs to know: “Doc J” was a rock when it came to caring for Amy and their three children. He may have missed a deadline, or two, for his fifth love. But he never missed a single one for his first four.