REVIEW: The Strain, season 1, episode 1, ‘Night Zero’

'The Strain' written in red against a white background.

 

The Strain was always meant to be a television show. Although the story was originally published as a trilogy of novels, co-written by creator Guillermo del Toro with Chuck Hogan, del Toro had initially envisaged The Strain as a multi-season TV series, changing form only after multiple rejections. The pilot, commissioned by FX after Hogan and del Toro’s completion of the final novel, is co-written and directed by del Toro himself, also executive producer. Airing Wednesday September 17th on Watch, the pilot introduces a thirteen episode season which has already aired up to episode ten in the US – so it’s one to avoid Googling if spoilers are an issue.

From the first scene, which takes place inside an airplane descending toward JFK, this episode evokes the familiar ground of the disaster blockbuster. While the most notable example must be main character Ephraim Goodweather’s spiel about contagion to a pair of FBI agents, the episode is littered with the non-naturalistic monologuing characteristic of the genre. Not only this, but the underwhelming acting in minor parts (see the unconvincing flight attendants in the opening scene) and well-worn character models (including and especially protagonist fast-talking, lavishly unlikeable maverick CDC doctor Goodweather) give the feel of something seen many times before.

This contrasts with the horror elements, for which del Toro is deservingly notorious. If the setpieces feel well-used, the artifacts of the horror story invoke the gothic and the weird to jar the familiarity. Parasitic worms guarantee a shudder, while further revelations from the plane recall Bram Stoker’s Dracula. David Bradley’s elderly pawn shop owner, with his elaborate swordcane and long dark coat, is a strikingly fantastical character in an otherwise mundane setting.

Is del Toro vindicated by his project’s first outing onscreen? At ninety minutes, the episode could stretch the patience of viewers who haven’t yet become invested in the characters and story. The characters, as yet unlikeable and almost invariably uninteresting, do nothing to hook the viewer into the series. However, del Toro’s particular skill at horror redeems what would otherwise be uninspiring fare.

Image courtesy of screencapped.net.

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