Saturday, October 11, 2014

'The Strain': Season 1 Review

'You wanted to find me, woodcarver..... here I am.......'

My feeling about the first full season of "The Strain" is, well… not to put too fine a point on it, but I felt strained myself most of the way. 

Let's hit some of the major problems: 

1) This is a vampire apocalypse show that never showed a vampire apocalypse. Our intrepid group of hunters went into the sewer and saw a room full of five-hundred to a thousand of them. Once the sun went down, wouldn't they all be roaming the streets? And then the next night, wouldn't there be at least TWICE that many? The show didn't show that. If it really is coming back for 2015, they need to bump the budget and show how New York City could really be overtaken by strigoi. I mean, once the first police officer survives an encounter with one, it's Army Ranger time in real life, right? 

2) There are things that work in a graphic novel, hardboiled dialogue in particular, that just don't work when you try to have real actors do it. But it's not restricted to dialogue. Certain devices that are acceptable in the comic and graphic novel worlds come off as lazy in real life. Setrakian's early-season entrance as a potential action-hero is a perfect example — what, was he just hiding in the basement, somehow unbeknownst to the little girl vampire, waiting for a chance to properly introduce himself to Eph and Nora?  

3) The Big Badass doesn't even scare my two-year-old son. Seriously. He sat there and watched The Master choke out Eph and barely batted an eye. That's not a good endorsement — of my parenting OR the special effects (in fairness, he wandered into the room unannounced). Here's hoping his suntan makes him good and burnt-up — and a little more fierce-looking — next season. 

4) Guillermo del Toro either wrote the World's Most Stereotypical Urban Latino Male, or he didn't challenge Chuck Hogan when Hogan wrote it. Either way, it's a bad look. I want to like Gus, but I find myself hating the things the script makes him say. I do like the path he's taking the show down, however. A little less conversation, a LOT more action. People decried his "I'm listening" response as more stereotypical gangsterism, but I'd argue it's true to his character: he was going to rob Creem for money and weapons, presumably to kill his way out of town. It's clear that Quinlan and the SWAT team aren't going to just let him go, so why not keep doing the killing he was already gonna be doing and get paid in the meantime? And anyway, as soon as the sun comes up, he can still skip town if he wants. 

5) FIND A 45-YEAR-OLD ARMENIAN TO PLAY MIDDLE-AGED SETRAKIAN. Enough with this community-theater old-man makeup bullshit. I imagine the flashbacks are mostly over, except for probably a few detailing the start of Eph's alcoholism. Boo. 

6) The entire first season turned out to be merely the setting of the table, all told. I'm familiar enough with the basic trilogy storyline to know they weren't going to get The Master, or stop the vampocalypse, but I'm struggling to think of one single storyline that's truly resolved, outside of the woeful tales of Jim the Coward and the Chain-Smoking Madre. 

7) Every character, at some point, makes a decision that is irredeemably dumb, with maybe the exception of Fet.  

8) Eph: "So, if sunlight doesn't kill him, then what does?" — well, you could have PUT A SILVER BULLET IN HIS HEAD AS SOON AS YOU SAW HIM. I'll grant you that breaking out the windows was a good idea, because [at least we thought at the time] there was no place for him to escape but [certain death] outside. Then again… 

9) The entire "big confrontation" choreography was horrible, and poorly plotted. For all of his hunting advice, Setrakian got in one good slice on the arm and then pretty much froze up. Lots of wide-eyed staring and not a lot of lifelong-grudge-indulging or wife-revenging (same with Eph: why, when their immortal enemy tumbled into the sunlight, did they not both rush up and hack him to pieces? At least cut his feet off, I mean damn!) 

10) The Worm Problem: Kelly ground a Cuisinart blade into her boyfriend's face and a worm squirted onto her eye… Fet blows up a sewer tunnel full of strigoi and then they walk right through a room where every surface should be covered by worms desperately seeking a new host… Dutch headshots a vampire two feet away from Eph and Zack and no one gets any worms on them… Eph does the same thing 30 seconds later, and then that vampire jerks her worm-juicing head wound forward within six inches of Zack… and no one gets infected. But that's not a scripting problem, that's just basic ignorance of physics. WIth all of the scientific gobbledygook the first half of the season threw at us, there was never any discussion of how long these worms can survive outside of a host. Eph had some in an blood-free glass cube and they looked to be surviving just fine. Setrakian kept a jar of them alive for more than half a century on, presumably, a couple drops of blood every once in a while. If being infected turns you into an immortal strigoi, it stands to reason that, absent death by UV exposure, these worms can survive indefinitely and crawl around looking for a new host. I would've loved to see a scene in the sewer-storming episode where a worm crawls out of a decapitated strigoi, up through a sewer grate and into someone's shoe. 

11) Too much is telegraphed. Did we really need a thirty-second "scene" of Eph handing the pawn-shop keys to Zack? OOOOH, I WONDER IF HE'S GOING TO LEAVE THE SHOP? The dialogue telegraphs a lot as well. These are all pretty good actors. They can convey the conflicts and emotions of their characters without speechifying all the time. Nora's scream when she had to chop her mother's head off was horrifying; Eph's whispered, teary-eyed "No," when Strigoi Kelly came to the back porch was heartbreaking. I didn't need all of their handwringing asides and private conversations to build up to those moments. 

12) The Wig. No need to beat a dead horse. Let's just pause to recognize that at times, it looked like Fizzgig from "The Dark Crystal," and it's a gots-to-go situation. And that Strigoi Fizzgig would be awesome. He's already got the full-tilt jaw! 

And yet despite all this, I'm still totally on board for season two. The enticing promise of a true fully-budgeted NYC vampocalypse, with Quinlan and Gus wreaking havoc, Fet blowing shit up and Nora taking over as the new Chain-Smoking Latina is too tempting. Now that the vast majority of main characters has been introduced, the new chapter should be able to delve right into the shiznit. I'm interested to see how Alonzo Creem fits into the story, because they didn't just cast Marlo Stanfield for a one-and-done season. If he joins up with Gus's daywalker Strike Team, that's great, but I also wouldn't say no to him firing a stinger out from between those chromed-out grills. Given that he still tried to shoot Gus even with a shipping crate full of strigoi coming at him, he seems the type, as Quinlan might say, to maybe want a little revenge.

Overall, I think this show would have benefited from more of the quiet moments that FX's "The Bridge" has worked into its run so far: showing rather than telling and building out the world of the show rather than having characters lay their motivations bare in boring ways. I both liked and disliked the "Kelly Transformation" episode. I liked its focus on Kelly's gradual, pretty frightening change without a lot of expository dialogue. What I really would have liked, though, was to see it happen in real time along with the show's other ongoing events, rather then a flashback. The show wanted to tease out the mystery of did-she-escape-or-is-she-turned, but we all knew she was gonna be turned. 

In the season-ending voiceover — boo — Setrakian revealed that the entire first season happened over the course of one week. Earlier in the season, he also revealed that once turned, strigoi would be "fully formed" in one month. That would be the perfect time to drop in for the start of the second season. Check in with everyone, show how they're handling the new-and-improved bloodsuckers... show me an extra-crispy Master that'll force me to stop the DVR the next time my son wanders downstairs... show me more Eichorst, who so far, BY far, is the best villain on this show... show me Corey Stoll's bald dome... for that matter, show me Zack's, too, let's get rid of that stupid 1979 haircut.

I just can't quit you, "The Strain." You have too much potential.

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