Channel FX’s The Strain is one of those love-to-hate TV shows that you can pick on and tease, like a younger sibling. Not an episode goes by that I don’t comment snarkily as a caption appears on screen telling us exactly which street and district in New York we’re in. Imagine that TV-philosophy applied to the whole show, and you’ll get a picture of how we, as viewers, are treated. Sure, it’s a bit dumbed down, but there’s enough here to keep you engaged, if you don’t think too much.
New York, New York
The Strain, based on Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s series of books, is a creepy, creature feature set primarily in New York. We’re currently 3 seasons in, but if you’re looking to get your teeth stuck into a new horror TV show this Halloween, you could do worse. Corey Stoll, (House of Cards, Ant-Man) plays a CDC officer investigating the outbreak of a seemingly deadly disease. Only this is no ordinary disease. The infected turn into creatures that sit somewhere between vampires and overgrown tapeworms.
The ‘plague’ begins at the JFK airport, but soon spreads throughout New York, introducing us to the varied cast of players, the most entertaining being David Bradley’s Setrakian, a pawnbroker with a secret, and Kevin Durand’s Vasiliy Fet, a ratcatcher with a hysterically inconsistent accent, which only serves to endear him. Jonathan Hyde plays Eldritch Palmer with gusto, enjoying his rich, powerful, evil, role. Other actors will look familiar to you, and besides the difficulty of successfully portraying a kid who isn’t obnoxious or annoying, the acting is generally really good. Or, at least, as good as it needs to be!
If good practical FX is your thing, then you’ll be happy with the copious amount of writhing and wriggling, slimy, tentacled monstrosities that fling themselves across the screen with satisfying screams one moment, to lie dissected on the anatomy table the next. The early episodes are great, as we get to know more about the ‘infected’. As the seasons progress, there are elements that are held back and revealed in due course, so that some elements of mystery are retained regarding the creatures, who leads them, what they are, and so on.
One of the highlights of the series is a flashback arc recounting the story of the pawnbroker, and how the past and present interweave. This rich tapestry is actually one of the better things about the show, as more and more is revealed through flashback arcs involving Nazis and ancient civilisations, from both sides of good and evil, showing how sometimes the waters are muddied.
Before getting too philosophical, the show likes to remind us, often, that it is essentially a monster-grab; a high-end B-movie budgeted TV show, with rampaging, slobbering hordes and characters that do things on screen that make you shout, “What the hell are you doing!?” Subtlety is not the key. Some underground locations are obvious sets that have the actors walking through them, all dark and slow, only to be altered slightly and filmed again so it looks like they have progressed. How scared you are depends how desensitised you are to jump-scares, and whether you see them coming. If you’re fully immersed, the sound and situations are enough to make you jump, once or twice.
Certain message boards for The Strain have topics titled “Why do I keep watching?” and “Palmer is such an idiot.” But in contrast, the show also has a growing fandom, myself included. Other topics include “The Strain is better than The Walking Dead” and threads dedicated to how certain characters and locations get under the skin. Like many shows, if you watch enough, you grow to love and hate certain characters, and I believe “The Strain” is certainly a show that has enough going for it to climb aboard the, probably small, hype train.
It may not employ original tactics, and has clichéd good vs evil moments (last minute escapes/not taking your chances when you get them) but the characters are lovable; or hateable, if that’s your thing, so that when there are deaths (and there are many) they can sometimes be very satisfying. The gore and horror is well done, particular when they utilise practical FX, and the sound design is screeching enough that it has me turning the volume down so as not to upset the kids upstairs. Definitely one for adults. But one that satisfies the kid in you.