Whilst by no means perfect, the opening episode of Guillermo Del Toro’s new FX series, The Strain, does at least suggest that there is some promise for the future of this vampire/horror show. The Pilot, Night Zero, concerns itself largely with the establishment of the show’s mythology and characters. Consequently it doesn’t open so much with a bang but with a more restrained focus and tone of dread and eeriness. And the thing is, when The Strain is working within the confines of its horror genre it actually does a pretty good job. However as is so often the case with this type of thing, whenever it tries to explore the human element of its story, the cracks begin to show.
The family drama dynamics we are introduced to may already feel a little old hat and familiar but they don’t threaten to be quite as irritating and groan inducing as in certain other horror/fantasy shows (Cough The Walking Dead Cough). Dr. Ephraim “Eph” Goodweather (Corey Stoll) the series protagonist, goes through all the usual problems; balancing home life with work, trying to maintain a relationship with his son, marital problems and so on, but he’s easy enough to root for. Elsewhere, the majority of the characters are at this stage fairly underdeveloped and do take a back seat in favour of plot, but there’s still time.
It does seem clear however, that character is not at the forefront of Del Toro’s thinking and it wont be for the relationship drama that this show attracts any long term fans. It is thus left up to the horror element to pick up the slack and keep people coming back for more. Thankfully it does so marvellously, elevating the show a few notches above mediocrity. Del Toro’s creative stamp can be felt in a few truly great scenes such as the initial vampire attack, although pretty much spoiled in the trailers, which overflows with imagination and promise of more invention and gore to come. Meanwhile a scene in the morgue suggests things could even take a blackly comedic route should that door be left open.
Special effects are also utilised well to bring all of this to the screen, with a wise focus on practical over CGI. However in today’s post- Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Mad Men climate, high production values alone might not prove to be enough. With so many recent shows giving Hollywood a run for its money, in terms of storytelling, character depth and visuals, the bar has been raised significantly high. And unfortunately, The Strain still feels distinctly televisual despite seemingly aiming higher.
But perhaps we’ve all been spoiled lately. After all, on its own merit, The Strain has potential. The fantasy elements are, considering the talent involved, predictably handled with style and the cliffhanger ending is quite enticing. Yet for The Strain to truly become a must-see it needs to provide more nuanced storytelling and rely less on well worn tropes. The result is perhaps hard to recommend to TV snobs, but for those who like their gore, monsters and scares, there’s plenty to enjoy.
7/10 – The Strain is an enjoyable watch for lovers of horror but not for character driven drama and can be caught on Watch every Wednesday at 10pm.