When I first heard FX had come up with a vampire virus outbreak type show, I was excited. Who wouldn’t be, right? Substitute vampires for zombies and a NY setting for rural Georgia, and you’ve got another Walking Dead on your hands – and since Fear the Walking Dead turned out to be such a dud, I was genuinely looking forward to it. Although I’m not a fan of Guillermo del Toro and his wonky monster creations, I figured it would be hard to screw up vampires too much. With all that mythology and material to draw from, the show should be amazing.
And then I watched the (supersized) pilot and I was, for the most part, disappointed.
I couldn’t put my finger on what, exactly, didn’t work for me, but something just felt off. Throughout the entire episode I was trying to accept Corey Stoll as any character other than Peter Russo, but even his hair was giving me a hard time. The Abraham Setrakian character seemed so cartoonish it was hard to believe it was the same old guy that portrayed Walder Frey so brilliantly in GoT. Whatever it was, it just didn’t work for me, so I never bothered watching the second episode.
(a little side note on this: it’s been my practice to date not to continue watching shows after a disappointing first impression. On one hand, this might cause me to miss out on an otherwise great show that just stumbled in its first steps; on the other, there’s so much quality TV out there I wouldn’t want to waste my time on something I’m on the fence about. My rationale is quite simple: for one thing, it’s the very same pilot that made the network decide to give shows the green light, so whatever obviously worked for the big guns just didn’t work for me. For another, why invest in something – emotionally as well as in terms of time – that’s not terribly exciting? If I watch the entire first season merely hoping the following ones would be better, I’ve already become “attached” to the characters of a show I don’t really like all that much: I’ll just end up watching the whole thing because I don’t like loose ends, and that would ultimately be a much bigger waste of time. The only exception to this rule for me was Breaking Bad: I wasn’t into the pilot, but oh boy was I glad I kept on watching.)
But then my best friend (with whom I share more-or-less the same preferences when it comes to TV and movie material, particularly those of the gory persuasion) suggested I give it another shot, and I decided what the hell, it’s the middle of summer, it’s not like I have a lot of shows to choose from. So I did. After having binge-watched the first two seasons, I now have a much more informed opinion about The Strain, but my original verdict remains the same, sort of. Instead of it being another show I’m not even remotely interested in, it’s one I’ve come to love to hate. Kinda like the pulp-y equivalent of Shonda Rhimes productions.
It’s not just one thing, it’s all of it. The writing is particularly weak, especially considering the show is based on a book series. The characters are predictable, have no real depth or development, and I would be hard-pressed to come up with a single quotable scene or piece of dialogue out of the 28 episodes to date. On the contrary, I can cite plenty of scenes that were so hilariously bad I kept asking myself why the hell am I watching this?.
That’s the main thing that bothers me, I guess. It’s not a show that takes itself too seriously, or rather, it’s not supposed to. But it feels like it kind of does. If every over-the-top thing that happens in The Strain came with a wink to the audience, I’d just take it with a grain of salt and enjoy the ridiculousness. Had it been an Ash vs Evil Dead sort of show, I’d probably love it. But it just doesn’t give me that vibe. The overacting doesn’t lend a comedic twist, but rather an obnoxiously pompous quality to the characters. The effects aren’t b-movie bad, but they’re not good enough not to be distracting, either. It’s like it’s trying too hard, and that comes across as desperate and phony.
If genre fans complain about the stupid decisions made by the characters on TWD, I wonder what the general consensus is on this one. Here you have these horrible monsters who, by the way, are not only way more agile than zombies but also somewhat sentient, and time and time again the protagonists decide to take them on with barely any weapons in their arsenal and zero backup or reinforcements. They all conveniently get away and we get very few hero deaths (and those we do get, we don’t really care about). Even when facing devastating odds, our main protagonists usually manage to get away scot-free, so the element of suspense is crippled by the lack of tension. Say what you will about TWD, but at least they have no qualms when it comes to unceremoniously killing off characters we love.
The streets are teeming with these creatures but people take a LONG time to get wise to what’s going on. I know it’s unfair to constantly compare The Strain to TWD, but with the latter, we follow people in a post-apocalyptic setting, without access to not only the internet but also electricity, and they catch on rather quickly – even those secluded from the outside world, like the Greene family in season 2, have a fairly firm grasp on what’s happening. Here you have characters watching zombified members of their family shoot 5-foot-long snakes of flesh out of their mouths (I’ll get to that in a bit) and basically doing nothing but looting every bodega and department store in their neighborhood.
This premise is especially weak considering it’s all orchestrated by one rich and powerful (and deranged) individual. It’s as if Donald Trump suddenly cut a deal with the devil and somehow managed to bring the entire city to its knees, with every law enforcement or military agency either coerced, blackmailed or otherwise manipulated to do his bidding. Not only does the story – incredibly – treat New York as a location cut off from the rest of the country (and the world), but is also a very harsh critique on the collective conscience and intelligence of every single one of its citizens. I get it, NYers are supposed to be jaded, but this is taking it a step too far. As much as everyone relies on the internet as the main source of information, to propose that without the ability to upload footage of the vampire apocalypse, everyone would be pretty much clueless for such a prolonged period of time is preposterous, and rather offensive.
Not only that, but also (again with the comparison – sorry!): the WD universe is one where knowledge of what we call zombies does not exist. This is why it takes them a minute to figure out what these Walkers (creepers, roamers, whatever various groups call them) are, and how to eliminate them. The CDC is unable to stop the virus or even explain it aside from mapping its progress and confirming that everyone is a carrier, and will therefore turn once dead. On The Strain, however, the vampire mythology is not only existent, but the old guy has made it his life work to study it, in his monomaniacal quest to defeat the Master. People should know what these creatures are at first glance, assess the danger and either run like hell or do as the old guy does and employ every trick up their sleeve to fight back. The vampire lore differs among the copious amounts of fiction on offer, but most books and movies agree on the main ways to rid yourself of the bloodsuckers: sunlight, silver, a stake to the heart, decapitation. So, again, why does it take everyone so long to figure out what to do about this ‘plague’?
Moving on: I’m not sure if it’s the acting, the direction, or both, but it all leaves much to be desired. The one thing The Strain and TWD have in common in this respect is the fact that their child actors are so freaking annoying (except Carl has really grown on me in recent years). Both kids playing Ephraim’s son are horrible – the one in Season 1 slightly less than the brat in Season 2 – but that’s actually the least of it. With the exception of Stoll and maybe Kevin Durant (Vasiliy, who also happens to be the only one blessed with a few good lines of dialogue – he kind of reminds me of our TWD redhead smart-mouth Abraham), everyone else either overacts or comes across as cartoonish. Had the show been based on a comic book series, that might have been easier to overlook. But a lot of authors have managed to produce well thought-out, believable characters in vampire fiction, that mormon Twilight woman being an obvious exception, and none of their adaptations came off as one-dimensional on screen. It all comes back to the writing, but the actual portrayal of the characters leaves much to be desired as well.
Take Setrakian, for instance. If we can forgive Eldritch Palmer for the hollowness of the character, it’s because he’s one of the main villains. They’re SUPPOSED to consist of pure malice and a sinister one-track mind. That still doesn’t excuse the awful romance with Coco, but at least he’s believably vile as a character. But Setrakian is one of our main heroes. He’s the driving force behind the effort to destroy the source of evil. There’s no doubt that David Bradley can act his ass off, so why is he always delivering his admittedly lackluster lines in the same loud monotone? Yes, the writing leaves much to be desired, but even when working with less, a good actor can shine if given the chance, so I’m inclined to blame his less than stellar performance on the direction.
Even his actual back story is full of plot holes and not entirely effective as motivation. I’ll give them props for managing to shed a different light on nazis and the genocide of jews in terms of originality, but that’s about as far as I can go with the positive comments. A concentration camp survivor normally doesn’t need additional motive to exact revenge on the nazi responsible for the death of everyone he cares about. To bring a confusing vampire storyline into the mix is wholly unnecessary, and would have been far more believable in virtually any other kind of setting or part of history.
All that aside, the biggest dealbreaker for me is the actual villains themselves. Not only are the vampires less terrifying and more ridiculous, but the ‘master’ is decidedly the most ridiculous-looking evil vamp in the history of modern television. I’ve seen demons on Charmed that were more effective than the ugly bastard we got in Season 1, and that’s saying a lot. The makeup effects are more of a hack job than anything else, most evident on the awfully visible prosthetics on his claw-like fingers.
But even if I could look past the first season’s incarnation of the Master and only focus on the actual vampires, I just can’t seem to muster any feeling resembling fear – much less horror – when looking at the creatures. The actual makeup on those isn’t bad per se, but as they closely resemble zombies in terms of emaciation and decay, a TWD comparison is inevitable and the verdict is, once again, in favor of Team Nicotero.
But their most eminent feature is downright ridiculous. Yes, the white substance oozing out of every wound is disgusting, but the mind does leap to a connection with another milky white substance produced by the human body and that makes it more gross than terrifying. The worms are definitely disgusting but not enough to distract from the CRAZY LONG “STINGER” SHOOTING OUT OF THEIR MOUTHS (perhaps purposely in keeping with the gross aspect of their design). It looks like a cross between a gigantic penis and an elephant trunk and I just don’t see the reason why these vampires would have that feature, other than making them extra dangerous, as they can attack from several feet away from their prey, and yet they somehow manage to be ineffective when trying to attack our protagonists. It looks like the writer/design team took a page from Blade 2 and then supersized the effect for maximum impact, but instead of scary it’s just plain awful. It might have worked had the actual humans reacted differently to it, but barring the autopsy in the pilot episode, the overall reaction is somewhat muted, and istead of scary the stinger is more gimmicky than anything else.
I’ve never really been a fan of Del Toro’s work so maybe I’m biased, but given that terrible monsters are supposed to be his forte, these ones are just underwhelming and look sloppily made. They are not the stuff of nightmares any more than True Blood‘s vampires were.
I was hoping Season 2 would be better, since the story had progressed enough to bring the main characters together instead of hopping around various NY locations to follow each of their arcs. New players had been introduced, the storylines had become more complex (if you want to be generous; I call it convoluted), and it had certain potential. Alas, it was, once again, disappointing.
The entire plot doesn’t appear well thought out, or if it is, it doesn’t translate on screen. The writers are playing fast and loose with the vampire “rules”, allowing for certain things when it suits the story and overlooking others, as they pick and choose how to justify whatever artistic license they take. Ditto the characters they introduce and then quickly dispatch. It’s as though they’re desperately trying to find a good fit and abandoning each idea in favor of the new one with no substantial explanation as to why. It’s the equivalent of screenplay ADD.
The action is, as in the first season, interspersed with slow-paced scenes, which do nothing to advance the plot. The non-action scenes are mostly tedious, often unbearably so. The solemn looks exchanged between the characters are obviously supposed to be meaningful, but end up being laughable. Whether it’s Dutch’s love triangle with what’s-her-face and Fet (and Dutch’s awful overacting) or Eldritch’s nauseating romance with Coco, they are too long and time-wasting with very little, if any, payoff. At least Eph’s shaved head is less distracting this season though. And Bolivar makes a much better Master, so there’s that – although the ancients are as laughable as the O.G. Master.
And then you have the flashbacks, which are equally boring and useless: as interesting as it might have been to see Setrakian’s backstory in season 1 (although the result did feel a little botched), there’s nothing intriguing about Eichorst’s flashback: we already know he’s a prick, and his flashback does nothing to give his character more depth. There are no grey undertones to Eichorst’s evil; his loser persona turned nazi captain, along with the silly love story, spells that plain and clear in black and white. Equally unnecessary, Nora and Eph’s flashback does nothing more than foreshadow Nora’s demise in the finale. I would much prefer to see Quinlan’s origin story – he’s a much more interesting character that actually is ambiguous. That back story would have made sense. Did we get it? Of course not.
It’s so frustrating.
I’ve been quite harsh on The Strain, but that’s only because I want it to be good. I would love a vampire-themed equivalent to TWD, with great production values and decent writing, acting and directing. Although approaching the genre from slightly different angles, there are obvious parallels drawn between the two, and that just makes The Strain disappointing, because it simply lacks balance. It’s obviously taken its cues from several classics and/or more recent ones, Blade being one very notable example, but as it tries to walk the line between not taking itself too seriously and attempting a dip into high drama, it often loses its footing. Its one shining moment this season in terms of embracing its pulp roots was the completely hilarious pineapple scene between Dutch and Eichorst in Season 2, which was probably the most enjoyable moment of the show for me thus far, except I have a feeling it was supposed to be “disturbing”. I even read articles drawing parallels between this scene and various GoT scenes that were truly uncomfortable to watch in past seasons. What?
And yes, I realize I have a tendency to ramble about the shortcomings of disappointing shows as opposed to my relatively shorter posts praising phenomenal TV, but I guess that’s just the nature of the beast (no pun intended). With so much quality television out there, I can’t help but nitpick and criticize… but only because I wish the show was better.
Who knows, maybe season 3 will pleasantly surprise me. Two episodes in, I can’t really see huge improvement, so I guess I’ll just enjoy it for what it is.