Sunday, July 27, 2014

TV Makes You Stupid: The Strain: S1E03 "Gone Smooth"

                Get your fleshy protuberances ready: it’s time for another episode of The Strain.

            The Strain continues its steady, creepy build towards the vampire apocalypse with its third episode, although the whole affair just might be derailed by clichéd scenarios and lackluster acting from its supporting players. Opening this episode is a rather nice, classic Guillermo Del Toro scene, where we see Richard Sammel’s Eichorst preparing for a night of blackmail and brutality by putting on his human face. It’s here we get our first really good look at what to expect the evolved vamps to look like, even if it’s just for the briefest of moments, what with Eichhorst’s pointed ears and inverted, bat-like nostrils. It’s a scene that promises good things to come, and Sammel is of course exquisitely creepy throughout.

            The horror elements continue to shine, as a tense moment at the little girl’s house from the previous two episodes and a fantastic showdown at the end with the infected pilot will attest, but the human elements come up just a bit short. Last week we got some rather good stuff out of the custody battle between Eph and his ex Kelly over their son, and here we get to see the final ruling, in a scene that might have worked, but - due to the episode’s rushed, rather broad nature - comes off as incredibly forced. Corey Stoll and Natalie Brown are still quite good in their respective roles, but their scenes together are all “big” moments lacking in the proper connective tissue to ground the scenes and make them feel more emotionally honest.

            Also working against the show are the rather tepid side-stories about the survivors of the infected plane, such as this week’s focus on the young husband returning home and displaying some rather bizarre and disturbing symptoms. Showing the effect of the vampire plague’s effect on such a widespread scale is a good idea, but the domestic scenes here are the types we’ve seen dozens of times in the past; cliché-ridden tripe where the wife is all worried and the husband is all distant and deflecting. It’s rather painful to sit through, and doesn’t come anywhere close to getting us involved with these characters and being heartbroken when the husband decides to stick his fleshy protuberance into his family’s necks.

            “Wait, ‘fleshy protuberance?’” you might be asking at home. “I thought vampires had fangs…” Well, The Strain may take its inspiration from Stoker’s Dracula, but Del Toro and Hogan weren’t content to rest on their laurels and stick the established tropes of vampire fiction to tell their tale of the vampire apocalypse (which makes it all the more disappointing how often the TV version falls into well-worn clichés). Much is yet to be revealed, but we’ve already seen that the vampire strain is passed along through the parasitic worms that pass through whenever a victim is bitten, and tonight we learn a bit more about the changing from human biology into vampire biology, as the victims begin to turn pale and red-eyed, and start losing their hair (and, as we see with rock star Gabriel Bolivar, their genitals - another scene that was nauseatingly effective in the books, but here oddly falls flat), and also that disturbing, tongue-like “stinger” that they use in lieu of fangs to suck out all that blood. The descriptions of the inner workings of vampire biology were a highlight of the books, and so far the show seems to be delivering on that front.

            The rest of the cast fares about as well as they did in previous episodes. We’re still waiting for Vasily Fet to get involved in the action, but the character is strictly on the sidelines for the time being. Its still rather nice to watch Kevin Durand swagger around, flirting with the attractive secretary at the Public Health office and bargaining for cigars from rich clients for getting rid of their rodents, but Durand’s put-on accent is still distracting.

            John Bradley’s Abraham Setrakian also returns, getting released from prison just in time to mix it up with his immortal and hated enemies. I’m not sure having him walk away from a rather serious crime so easily (and being given back his sword cane, no less) is the most believable of turns, but Setrakian can’t just be sitting in a prison cell while all hell breaks loose around him. I’m also unsure of his hacker lackey who accepts an X-Box as payment for giving him the infected flight's manifest, but whatever. This is a series where dead bodies rise from the grave and shoot bloodsucking stingers out of their mouths, after all.

            Rounding out the main cast is Sean Astin as Eph and Nora’s turncoat coworker Jim Kent, who gets a bit more character revealed this week. We find out the true nature of his deception, but it’s hard to blame him too much: he’s doing it all for his wife, who has cancer and has been on a waitlist to receive experimental treatment. I don’t remember Jim Kent having such an expanded role in the books, but regardless, Astin does a fine job as a good man caught in a bad situation. Hopefully the show will keep true to Setrakian’s promise tonight, that being “good” isn’t nearly as important as being read to do what’s “necessary,” and we can deal with that sliding morality even more as the world changes drastically and goes right straight to hell. 

            Overall, I’m still looking forward to each new episode, as the cast is rather good and the horror elements are top-notch. But, three episodes in, it’s hard not to feel like the show could still be so much more than it is.       

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