Tuesday, July 15, 2014

TV Makes You Stupid: The Strain S1E01: "Night Zero"

            Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s celebrated trilogy comes to the small screen!

            Vampires… a cultural idea that just refuses to die. Year after year the vampire keeps coming back, in some form or another: whether it’s a blood-thirsty creature scuttling through the darkness or a pretty-boy, lovelorn immortal, the vampire returns, feeding off popular culture like a plump, lily-white neck. What is it about vampires that make them so potent to our imagination? Is it the idea of living forever, never aging and always staying vital and in the prime of your life? Are we subconsciously attracted to the inherent sexuality of swapping fluids and thus creating a new “life”? Or is it the resilient, parasitic need to live at all costs - to bypass death by whatever means necessary, even feeding off the life-blood of others to survive, that keeps us coming back?

            Whatever the case, vampires are here to stay, so we should only be lucky that filmmakers such as Guillermo Del Toro have taken an interest in making their mark with the bloodsuckers. Del Toro has tackled vampires before, both in his debut feature Chronos and the comic book schlockfest Blade II, but it was The Strain trilogy of novels (co-written with Chuck Hogan) that really feels like ol’ Gordito’s masterwork on the creatures. What was great about the books was their blending of real-life biology with the mythical/supernatural aspects of vampirism - a very CSI-flavored take on Dracula, if you will, with the titular strain of vampirism’s effect on the human body explained in vivid and quite grotesque detail. The trilogy had originally started out as a pitch for a television series, so it’s only fitting that it’s now found its way on to the FX network. And anyone who has read the beginning chapters of the first novel can tell you that it comes ready-made as a gripping pilot episode, what with the mysterious appearance of a 747 carrying over 200 dead bodies on the tarmac. It’s fantastic, wonderfully creepy stuff.

            Which makes it all the more disappointing that Del Toro (who directed and co-wrote the pilot) kind of stumbles in bringing that scene to life. Television is a completely different medium than novelistic prose, so of course changes must be made in the translation. But by opening the episode onboard the flight just before the “attack” happens, Del Toro robs his own story of the mystery and power he so carefully developed with Hogan in those opening chapters of the book - it’s far more creepy to have the plane show up at the airport out of nowhere, with no set-up or explanation provided. It also doesn’t help that that first scene aboard the doomed plane is just awkward, filled with some pretty shaky acting and scares that really don’t land at all *.

            But, in spite of shooting themselves in the foot at the outset, Del Toro and crew still manage to make a pretty promising first episode. A lot of that is due to the cast, with the excellent Corey Stoll as the lead Ephraim Goodweather, an epidemiologist with the CDC who finds himself juggling his life-saving work with a deteriorating home life. His hairpiece was maybe not the best idea, but Stoll is fantastic in the role, bringing the sort of world-weariness we expect in a character like this but also tampering it by bringing a common decency to the role.

            The other standout, acting-wise, is Waldur Frey/Filch himself, John Bradley. The character of Abraham Setrakian in the books felt as if he were written expressly for Del Toro’s long-time collaborator John Hurt, and indeed Hurt was cast and played the role in the pilot originally, but for whatever reason later decided to drop out, and thus John Bradley was brought in to play the vampire-hunting Holocaust survivor. Although missing the warmth to the character as he was written in the novels, Setrakian is still an absolute bad-ass, something that Bradley shows off quite nicely in his introductory scene where he scares off a couple of would-be armed robbers to his pawn and antique store. It’s a type of role that Bradley doesn’t usually get to play, and the actor acquits himself nicely to getting to be one of the good guys, for a change. 

            The cast is in place (although I’m still not sure of Jack Kesy as the Marilyn Manson-esque Gabriel Bolivar, who doesn’t seem to quite find his footing as a character that will later become quite important as the series goes on), and the show definitely looks good - any doubts that Del Toro’s virtuoso style would be dampened for TV are immediately put to rest, as every frame is packed with the sort of gothic detail and sumptuous color theory that we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker. But still there’s a nagging incompleteness to the episode. The biggest problem is really the rushed nature of the whole enterprise. A good bit of the material had to be reshot, so I don’t know if that meant the final product didn’t quite tie as nicely together as maybe it was originally envisioned to, but the whole episode felt like it just needed some more breathing room. The pilot is jam-packed with information (and the show still isn’t done introducing main characters), and all of it moves along at such a breathless pace that some scenes are just way too broad to work on the level that they should. Take for instance Eph’s problems at home: it’s a well-known fact that many public servants have difficulty maintaining their relationships, but by having his ex-wife and her boyfriend complain about him not being present while he’s off dealing with a 9/11-level crisis just comes off as forced and manipulative. It’s well-sown ground for the story to cover, and it also makes Eph human and grounded, but the show delivers this content way too ham-handedly for it to have the desired effect. 

            But, despite all its faults, the first episode of The Strain certainly does enough right to hold my attention. Hopefully it will deliver on the promise of the novels and only continue to get better. 

            * The show isn’t quite as scary as I’d hoped it would be--the realization of the Master thus far doesn’t quite capture the horrific nature of the character in the books. Hopefully, they can right that as the show goes along.

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