Include me as one of the three million viewers who watched the debut of Guillermo del Toro’s new vampire-virus drama “The Strain” on FX last Sunday. After being disappointed by other shows that looked promising, I can uncategorically state that “The Strain” delivered on all fronts. It ushered in a new brand of late night fare that I choose to call “Creepy-as-hell TV.”
The story opens with a Boeing 767 about to land at JFK, but, oh! Guess what? At the last minute, the damn thing disappears off the radar screen! Even if you’re not tracking planes all day for a living, you gotta know that it’s never a good thing when planes go dark, and so the event rousts an air traffic controller off his kiester and jolts him into a New York Code Red State of Emergency Kind of Mind. Take that Billy Joel! His supervisor agrees after he confirms that all communications have been shut down by some mysterious entity that escaped all because some loopy flight attendants just had to unlock a cargo door. So what if there were mysterious noises coming from below? In these kinds of stories, opening a locked door is tantamount to searching the basement of a house with only a faulty flashlight that keeps going off. A team is immediately dispatched to see what the problem is, but when the first responders find the plane in the center of the runway, they assess the Flight 753’s condition by saying, “It’s like a dead animal.”
It’s the first solid punch of the evening, and perfectly sets the tone of this very smartly written offering. Written and produced by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, there’s just so much to love. First, this project does not seem to be written by a committee. Networks please take note: The number of writers you bring in to help buoy a story with no plot does no good. No, really. It doesn’t. Trust the thousands of disappointed horror fans throwing their popcorn at their TV screens and yelling curse words while vowing never to watch your lousy channel again. Next, this show is going somewhere and we’re along to accompany it to its destination. Thirdly, the casting is so superbly awesome that you might end up putting your pants on backward. And last … *drum roll* … in addition to the chills … it’s fun! Yeah, I know! When was the last time you had fun watching a TV series? Hmmmmm … oh, yeah. One hyphenated word: X-files, but back to storyland.
After taking the plane’s pulse and finding it doesn’t have one, we’re shunted into our lead character’s apparent close encounter with the psychiatric kind. With his marriage crumbling, Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, the head of the Center for Disease Control Canary Team in New York City, has agreed to counseling. Never mind that the therapist heading the sessions is a pill and probably displays her used panty liners at Christmas because she’s proud of being a woman and it’s a symbol of her fertility. And that the wife Eph still loves (why?) shops for husband material at Sears. Young Men’s Department? Okay, so that was a low blow, but listen. I’m all for spouses regurgitating their angst and making their partners feel like turd patties any chance they get, but not when said partner is an epidemiologist! So I’m asking … no, begging … that all spouses of epidemiologists that work so closely with the CDC that they’re in the same framily phone plan, chill! I mean it! Cut them some slack when they get messages and don’t get all snarky and roll those eyes if you know what’s good for you. We have a lot at stake here, and whether your husband is late for a stupid session is not our problem, but parasitic worms that morph people into vampires are.
The next thing you know (after Ephraim, brilliantly portrayed by Corey Stoll unleashes his paranoia about these two women ganging up on him which is impossible because we women never get together on anything) is that Mr. Virus gets a parking ticket, meets the guy his wife
babysits boffs, and arrives on the runway in time to stop a bunch of ninjas from boarding the plane first. As if I’d fight to go aboard that thing first, but the battle ensues nonetheless, and Eph and his fellow bug hunter Nora Martinez win—if you can call that winning.
The boarding of the plane was the second big chill of the night. Talk about polar vortex! I was screaming at the TV screen for them to get the hell off that plane, but would they listen? No! But then in effective thrillers, they never do. Most especially Nora. While she’s warned numerous times not to go anywhere alone or enter the cockpit, she does both—at the same time! Good thinking, Nora! Two birds; one stone? I’m just sayin’. And so we see her saunter into the cockpit—alone! Then there’s the examination of this little girl Emma. Dear God, where did they find this actress? I should state here that I have a thing about child actors because they usually don’t rise to the level of thespian sophistication that the more seasoned actors do. Given that, I tend to ignore them and give them a pass. There have been a few notable exceptions over the years (Kirsten Dunst, Haley Joel Osment) and now there’s Isabelle Nélisse. Gosh, she’s wonderful! She was spot on in her delivery and when she walked home in the dead of night to tell her father she was cold … it was yet another blast of frigid air in our collective faces! That scene was uber effective and I was laughing, crying and applauding that somebody appeared to have finally gotten something right.
Of course, I’m leaving out the crazy, old man who feeds a heart he keeps in a jar with his blood (ala shades of Eleanor Rigby), a gigantic, dirt-filled coffin covered with skulls that Eph disregards as a cabinet (does this guy really know what he’s doing?), and Dr. Bennett (Jeffrey R. Smith) performing autopsies on the dead bodies found on the plane right up until he finds out that they’re not really dead.
If you’re one of those horror fans that’s been hungry for something to feast on, man, you’ve got yourselves a smorgasbord this summer. This thing has more legs than a centipede, and I can’t wait to see where it’s going to go. So tune in, stream in, worm in, or do whatever you have to do to watch some really interesting, Creepy-as-Hell TV!