Sunday, August 3, 2014

TV Makes You Stupid: The Strain S1E04: "It's Not For Everyone"

           May want to save that late-night macaroni for another time...

This week’s episode picks up right at the moment the previous one left off, with Eph, Jim and Nora standing shell-shocked over a dead vampire they’ve just killed. The cat’s out of the bag in regards to the plague victims, and all hell is just about to break loose as their revived corpses are rising up and spreading their infection.

Being that this is a Guillermo Del Toro joint, what’s the first thing our stalwart heroes do after offing the newly-turned vamp? Well, cut him open in a disgusting (yet oddly fascinating) autopsy scene, where we see firsthand just exactly how vampire biology works through some excellent makeup and creature effects. Del Toro and Hogan’s vampires are quite different than your typical Bela Lugosi/Christopher Lee be-fanged gentlemen: here they’re mindless drones, shedding or transforming everything in human anatomy that doesn’t contribute to their consumption of blood (like hair or genitals), and trading their fangs in for fleshy, tongue-like “stingers” that allow them to equally drain their victims of blood and pass along the bloodworms into another host body to spread the infection.

An infection that’s already taken hold of another plane survivor, Ansel Barbour, who this week feeds off the family dog while his wife Anne-Marie has a crisis of faith or something, and decides to start feeding her husband the neighbors. Although this storyline provides some more excellent horror scenes, the sooner we’re done with Ansel and company, the better. I’ll be honest: the domestic stuff between Ansel and Anne-Marie is getting to be unbearably stupid. These scenes remain some of the most poorly-written and -acted bits of the entire show - made all the worse considering it takes away screen-time from far-more interesting characters. And although there’s some interesting ideas going on with Anne-Marie luring her annoying neighbors into their shed to be fed to her turned husband, the way the scene plays out in the show is so lazy and uninspired, it’s almost insulting (Neighbor: “Your dog is loud and stuff! You should beat him instead of locking him in the shed!” Anne-Marie: “Okay… would you actually like to do that yourself?” Neighbor: “You know what, I think I would!” CUE: horrible vampire death).

Much more interesting is the stuff going on with Gus, who apparently spent the entirety of last week’s episode sleeping. But, good news: he wakes up, and continues to flesh out what was a pretty one-note thug in the pilot. Del Toro recently said in an interview that he wanted Gus to start off as a gangbanger stereotype, only to then reveal the layers to his character as the episodes go on. It’s a choice that is really starting to pay off, and it helps that Miguel Gomez sells his scenes with aplomb - playing a young thug who loves his mother and wants to set a good example for his brother, but - at the end of the day - has to get paid somehow. Gus’ storyline this episode has very little to do with the spread of the virus, which kind of kills the storyline’s momentum, but it does introduce another important character: Alfonso Creem, played by none other than The Wire’s Jamie Hector. It’s always nice to see a familiar face... especially when that face is Marlo Stanfield.

Other than that, we get some more bits and pieces with billionaire vampire lackey Eldritch Palmer, and these scenes also do nothing but halt the momentum of the overall story. All of Palmer’s scenes this episode serve nothing other than to have two or more people standing around, telling us how the world is slowly eroding around them and laying out the plans for how that end is going to go down. Which would be fine and dandy, if only it weren’t so lunk-headed in the execution. Case in point: Palmer wants to shut down the internet, so news of the virus won’t spread. Cue punky English hacker chick, who conveniently shows up for an interview with Palmer and Eichorst (who is sadly underutilized this ep). And then, the very next scene in this particular thread, we’re told punky English hacker chick has shut down the internet, so… huzzah? The writing is getting increasingly lazy, which I think I can only tolerate for so long if the show continues on in this fashion.  

One thing that will absolutely get me to tolerate all the lazy writing in the world is more John Bradley, whose badassness is finally unleashed this week as the episode closes with Setrakian beheading two vamps with his silver sword cane. He only gets this one scene at the end (along with a brief bit of business between him and Gus), but since this episode ends with Eph and Setrakian finally joining forces, he’ll hopefully get even more to do in the coming weeks. I’m really looking forward to getting “the band” get together, so to speak, as watching Stoll, Bradley and Kevin Durand (whose Vasily Fet is sadly absent this week) play off of each other should be a good bit of fun.

All in all, the horror elements continue to shine (and this is still easily the best-looking show out there currently), but everything else just seems to be circling further and further down the drain. The showrunners seem to be in such a rush to get to the good stuff, they’re mangling the connective tissue that holds the whole thing together - cycling through tired clich├ęs and rote, boneheaded explanations to advance the plot. It’s especially frustrating, as they already have all the answers at hand in the already-quite excellent novels. I understand that changes must be made when adapting into a different medium, but the changes made thus far have done nothing but make the storyline more contrived, and - for lack of a better word - stupid. But oh, well… they still have nine episodes to go. Hopefully the showrunners can get The Strain back on the right track before this season closes out its run.  

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