First episode impressions: ‘The Strain’ (TV review)

On the heels of “Fargo,” FX continues its miniseries winning streak with “The Strain” (9 p.m. Central Sundays on FX), based on a novel and Dark Horse comic book series. Like “Fargo” and the more open-ended “The Bridge” (now in its second season), “The Strain” is deliciously and darkly stylish, as one would expect from co-producer Guillermo del Toro, who is also credited as a writer and director on some upcoming episodes.

In Sunday’s nicely paced but predictable pilot episode, “The Strain” got by almost entirely on mood. I recommend watching the series in a dark room. The initial hook is almost identical to the pilot episode of “Fringe”: A plane lands safely, but everyone aboard is dead. The next twist – which will surprise no one who is slightly familiar with vampire or zombie fiction — is that a few passengers are alive, but they aren’t themselves. One of the creepiest scenes is saved for last, when one of the airplane victims, a young girl, suddenly returns home while her distraught father weeps. Adding to the intrigue (and gross-out factor): An old man (David Bradley) with a cane-sword keeps an embryonic form of one of the strain-creatures as a pet and feeds it drops of his own blood.

“The Strain” overplays its horror hand a bit. While the scientific details of how the strain works haven’t been ironed out yet (along with whether the villains are monsters or aliens), there’s not much of a mystery to unravel. The virus victims are obviously possessed, as their pastiness and sideways-blinking eyes demonstrate. It’s not like they are just a little bit off — they are basically zombies, except that their goal is not to eat people but presumably to spread the illness to new victims. The main villain creature — who emerges from a dirt-filled, gargoyle-etched coffin in a trope reminiscent of “Dracula” and “The Relic” and many other horror classics – is a fleet-afoot CGI man/bat/witch like we might have seen in the later seasons of “The X-Files.” I’m not complaining all that much, as I like goofy horror almost as much as the scary kind.

So far, the characters are typically bland horror-story types. The lead investigator (Corey Stoll, the “Law & Order: LA” detective who wasn’t Skeet Ulrich) finds his marriage is falling apart because he spends so much time on his job, and he has a “quirky TV investigator” affectation: He drinks pint-sized cartons of milk. Others on the investigative team, including Sean Astin’s character, are pawns in whatever the strain-zombies’ game is.

I’m not sure if “The Strain” intends to stick with a main cadre of protagonists, or if it’s going to kill everyone off at a rate so brisk that “The Walking Dead’s” writing team cringes. There are a lot of actors credited on IMDB’s “The Strain” page with only one or two episodes. Maybe that’s OK, because after one episode, it’s the villains, the virus and especially the wonderfully moody style of the show that have my attention more so than the stock humans who are investigating the case.


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