Guillermo del Toro walks a very fine line with everything he produces, and he usually does it well, giving us pulpy, self-aware, but giddy and fun genre entertainment that manages to stand out from the crowd. I am a major defender of his Hellboy films, enjoyed Pacific Rim even though it didn't linger after I left the theater, and still wish he'd gotten the chance to make those boring old Hobbit movies. But with FX horror-drama The Strain (based on his and Chuck Hogan's novel and developed with Lost writer Carlton Cuse), he doesn't come close to toeing that line. The line, to quote the august American humorist Joey Tribbiani, is a dot to him.
This thing should be a barrel full of fun. Cuse has done great work over the last two years with the gleefully camp Bates Motel, a Psycho prequel that has absolutely no business being anywhere near as enjoyable as it is. (Vera Farmiga certainly helps in that regard.) Perhaps he will exert more control over the season—I have only seen the pilot episode, which draws very heavily from del Toro and Hogan's novel, released in 2009 after efforts to develop the idea as a TV series failed.
FX is striking while the vampire genre is hot, sort of. But in case you didn't spot those gross worm-eye posters around the city, this is not going to be a sexy show. Our heroes work for the CDC and are initially investigating some kind of viral outbreak on a plane from Berlin that landed dark and radio-silent at JFK. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), marching around with a Dickensian name spouting expositional techno-babble dialogue, quickly realize they're dealing with some weird wormy parasite. But it's vampires, kinda? A big caped monster vampire? There's a nice mix of lore going into this creature, but everything around it is so dull, it's hard to get invested in the mystery.
Stoll held the camera's attention with such menace in charm in House of Cards and Midnight in Paris, but from his first scene (a jaw-dropping dump of thudding, explanatory monologues about his life and work situation in a counselor's office) something seems not quite right. His supporting cast includes Mia Maestro and Sean Astin to dispense more dumb science-y dialogue mixed with "what's going on here!" questions that bore an audience who have already seen the damn monster do his business.
I applaud del Toro's decision to leap right into the pulp insanity, and the best aspect of the pilot is David Bradley's gravelly old vampire-hunting Holocaust survivor Abraham Setrakian (this show with the names), but there's a lot of him just trying to convince the CDC team he's not crazy. Future episodes surely will have more fun with Bradley, a legendary British talent best known to American audiences as Filch in the Harry Potter movies and Lord Frey in Game of Thrones, but in the pilot he at least seems like the one actor who gets the tone to shoot for.
Everyone else is very lost, but I don't really hold them responsible. The writing just isn't there for them to do anything but push the plot along, and The Strain's best moments are wordless, gross, and involve cool CGI or nicely gross makeup effects. Del Toro and his team have always done inventive work in this regard and I really like the look of the central monster. I even like the gross white worms (just no more posters, please, FX). But the minute we check in with Ephraim's ex-wife, the momentum doesn't slow—it immediately vanishes.
It's the summer, and the TV landscape is sparse enough that I'm willing to give The Strain a shot to improve on its pilot and actually be a good time. I can't tolerate the drippy, serious nonsense of The Walking Dead and would love to see a horror show that actually has fun with the genre. But The Strain somehow manages to both abandon all seriousness at the gate and remain as plodding and dull as everything it's trying to separate from. More than anything else, it feels like a huge missed opportunity.