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MovieBob's Take: The Strain Premiere Was a Strain to Watch

Bob Chipman | 21 Jul 2014 12:00
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Will del Toro's The Strain improve in upcoming episodes? I hope so.

From the outset, The Strain (full disclosure: I have not read the book on which the series is based) seems to have a pretty good underlying hook: What if Irwin Allen -- whose big, broad, star-laden disaster movies had set the template for the genre in the 70s (big casts, a set of intersecting characters and stories frame around an unfolding central calamity) -- had made a Zombie Outbreak feature?

It further compounds that premise by swapping out vampirism as the Big Threat, and mashing together a modern Michael Crichton-style science-based treatment of the concept (viral parasites, CDC investigations) with a generous helping of old-school gothic horror kitsch; so a team of outbreak-specialists locking down an airport (complete with 24-style timestamps) can be suddenly interrupted by an elderly vampire-slayer who turns up looking like Geppetto and brandishing an ornate sword-cane, while a street criminal is hired to hijack and move "cargo"... in the form of a big eerie coffin that either contains or is sought by a hulking, stompy monster. Did I mention that Not Van Helsing keeps an (apparently) self-sentient human heart in a jar in his workshop, talks to it and feeds it like a goldfish?

Plus, its coming courtesy Guillermo del Toro; who's really, really good at exactly this genre. And the whole production carries his signature aesthetic of creepy opulence, where every space is big and filled with throbbing, breathing detail and everyone only buys lightbulbs in either blue or orange -- unless it's an exterior location, in which they have both. Just by virtue of affect, The Strain looks more "cinematic" than almost anything else on TV; including movie-derived shows like Fargo.

So why does it kind of suck? [Ed's note: Opinions on The Strain are mixed here at The Escapist. Dan enjoyed it.]

Don't get me wrong, The Strain (based on the first installment, at least) isn't exactly a dud. And if it's sole offering is a weekly dose of Guillermo-isms in the form of gothic monster-mayhem, well... I've certainly heard less compelling reasons to watch a fundamentally silly series. But it's surprising and disconcerting that a series with this pedigree feels (apart from aesthetic detail) more like most other high-concept Summer TV offerings (read: big broad ideas a network wouldn't take a chance on in the Fall cast and crewed by the lower-tier creatives who're the only folks working in the Summer) than the "event" it seemed poised to be?

Granted, it's early yet. The problem with appraising the growing amount of modern TV fare that feels more like a plus-sized movie chopped into segments -- designed more for Netflix binge-watching than nightly broadcast when it comes to audience-pleasing -- is that not every long story is designed to be coherent and "grabby" right off. It's very possible that The Strain is building to something that will prove greater than the underwhelming way it kicks off; it's just that at this point it's hard to see how.

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