FX’s The Strain is based on the book trilogy written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, a trilogy that only originated because Del Toro couldn’t get his vampire story realized in the form of a television show at first. He simply couldn’t find a buyer for the tale he had dreamed up, but when the first novel proved to be a hit upon its release in 2009, interested parties started lining up, ultimately making Del Toro’s TV series wish a reality. ‘Night Zero’, the pilot episode directed by Del Toro and co-written with Hogan, makes it abundantly clear that The Strain is a great idea for a horror series: it puts its own spin on the Dracula mythology by adding a somewhat scientific origin to the tale. Instead of going full-blown supernatural, The Strain‘s story starts when a plane from Berlin lands at John F. Kennedy International Airport and goes dark on the airstrip, making those confronted with the situation fear for a biological attack or an outbreak. It goes without saying that what they’re dealing with is something much worse.
Even those viewers unfamiliar with Guillermo del Toro’s work would have to say that, judging from ‘Night Zero’, it’s apparent that The Strain is a show that’s lovingly crafted by genre fans for genre fans. The episode’s opening aboard the plane, before tragedy strikes, expertly raised tension and immediately pulled viewers in: sounds from the cargo hold made viewers’ hearts beat faster and then, without any delay, we were treated to our first glimpse at this show’s monster, a cloaked being that jumped out of the cargo hold and, as we later learned, went on to kill everyone on board, minus four. As you’d expect from a Del Toro creation, everything regarding the monsters worked brilliantly: the monster’s Grim Reaper-like design was chilling and effectively archetypical, the worms that infected the hosts were very nasty little things and the mystery surrounding this quite possibly supernatural epidemic was beautifully set up. If this pilot is anything to go by, The Strain will work wonderfully as a modern Dracula retelling, even sporting its own version of vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing, called Abraham Setrakian here. His introduction, in which he scared off two petty criminals before going down to his hidden lair to feed the worm-infested heart of a loved one in a jar, was outlandish in all the right ways and, coupled with his Holocaust past, learning more about his personal history is something to look forward to. The show’s creators have also picked a great actor to play him: David Bradley, who usually portrays vile villains, played Setrakian as a strong and determined man, but also as someone who’s weary and surprisingly human despite the surroundings he finds himself in.
While the other casting decisions are fine as well, with the reliable Corey Stoll as the series’ lead Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, the human element didn’t fare quite as well. We were first introduced to Stoll’s character when he was in therapy with his wife and this was basically just a clunky way to set up the fact Ephraim is a man who lives for his work and to tell audiences that he neglects most other things in his life, despite his son (which, to be honest, doesn’t bode well for the kid). Of course he was called out of this session to have a look at the plane at JFK with his colleague/mistress Dr. Nora Martinez, portrayed by Mía Maestro, and then things picked up. The Strain is definitely a plot-driven show and it’s likely that the characters and their development will be nothing to get too excited about, but so far everything’s functional, mostly thanks to many likeable performances. Let’s just hope that there’s more originality to come: The Strain‘s pilot was a perfectly entertaining hotchpotch of vampire fiction tropes and outbreak story mainstays, but some of it felt too paint-by-numbers. The shadowy businessman craving immortality and the likely involvement of Nazis in the occult felt like trite and pulpy elements that didn’t really add anything too interesting to the overall narrative, even though the latter plot thread will obviously provide personal stakes for Setrakian.
‘Night Zero’ was a solid first The Strain outing: it was exciting and intriguing. Despite some clichéd characters and uninspired narrative threads, it definitely whetted the appetite. 8/10