Sometimes, making good TV is all about knowing the difference between bad ridiculous and good ridiculous. Tyrant, the Middle East drama that premiered last month on FX, was immediately ridiculous in all the wrong ways: its caricatures of Arab strongmen and their victims, its strained seriousness, its Homeland-meets-Dynasty family dynamics. Sunday, as if in recompense, the same network premieres The Strain, an oozy, disgusting vampire drama that is just as ridiculous as it should be.
How ridiculous is that? You may have seen the ads that show a worm crawling out of a human eyeball. They’re repulsive and intrusive, but they’re also truth in advertising. The Strain, adapted from novels by director Guillermo Del Toro, is silly and inventively grotesque, a rich fondue of blood and cheese. It has Nazi vampires. It has an ancient Armenian undead-hunter who carries a sword-cane and talks to a beating heart that he keeps in a jar. It has Corey Stoll in an absurd hairpiece that may well be a sentient being. It has enough gross-out depictions of vampiric biology that if you plan your Sunday meals around airings, you will lose ten pounds by the fall.
It may well not be your thing, but if it is, the first four episodes of The Strain have enough stylish gore, enough well-paced mystery and little enough self-seriousness to keep you watching, giggling, through your fingers. We begin at a New York City airport, where an overseas flight from Berlin has landed, radio-silent, with its passengers apparently overcome by a deadly illness. This attracts the attention of epidemiologist Ephraim Goodweather (Stoll), along with his team from the CDC (Mia Maestro and Sean Astin) who suspect a viral epidemic. If only! The plane, we soon learn, was carrying contraband, something–or someone–whose arrival is very important to a cabal of evil plutocrats in Manhattan, the type of wicked old bastards for whom the word “cabal” was invented.
The Strain comes to us from Carlton Cuse, co-producer of Lost with Damon Lindelof, who just premiered the mysterious, melancholy The Leftovers for HBO. And while it would be too simplistic to impose a Lennon-McCartney, Seinfeld-David dualism on the men who gave us Lost‘s philosophical entertainment, for the purpose of these two projects at least it seems like Lindelof got the philosophy and Cuse the entertainment. The Strain will lovingly autopsy corpses for you, but it doesn’t spend much time dissecting what it all means. (A voiceover about how “Love is our downfall” opens and closes the pilot, but it has about as much import as the Vincent Price rap from Thriller.) The dialogue is B-movie–”You tell those sons-of-bitches I am done!”–and the supporting characters dissolve with the merest shaft of sunlight; they are simply carriers for The Strain’s plot virus.
TV is not exactly short on undead drama in the Twilight years of pop culture. What distinguishes The Strain is that it emphasizes biology over mythology. Without giving too much away, Del Toro’s vampires–as the title suggests–are not so much damned as infected, and the series details their transformation and effluvia with giddy grossness. Del Toro directs the pilot, which sets the visual tone for the later episodes: blood-smeared, dirty, in need of a spray of disinfectant. It’s the Old World fear of the devil married to a New World fear of contagion.
Not that this is really a show about ideas, nor should it be. Stoll works hard to bring gravitas to The Strain, something this series needs about as much as Dracula needs a sunroof. The scripts attempt to ground his character with a personal struggle–his marriage is falling apart, he’s a control freak, he works too damn hard and is never “present” at home, yada yada yada–but it all feels mechanical, rote and, well, strained. Just make with the blood-sucking and the dancing hearts already!
And mainly The Strain does. Ephraim may be the show’s center, but its spirit is Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), the aforementioned vampire hunter, who crashes the CDC’s investigation, expostulating warnings–”Time is of the essence!”–with the crusty brio of Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future. The Strain does not have much subtlety, taste, or high-art credentials. It just has a sword-cane, and it knows how to use it.