Monday, July 14, 2014

The Strain – S01, E01 – 'Night Zero'

We're off and running with the premiere edition of weekly TV reviews.

I'd be lying if I said I haven't found the reactions so far on the web interesting. There's a fair amount of good buzz, but also a lot of people who are less than enthusiastic. It's interesting to see this much of a divide, really. Not uncommon, but still interesting. For my own thoughts, feel free to read on.

As of the first episode, we're introduced to the early phases of del Toro and Hogan's trilogy: a Boeing 777 from Germany makes an unexpected landing in New York. Unexpected because, save a few, everyone on board is dead under mysterious circumstances. As a team from the CDC, led by divorced father and misfortunately named scientist Ephraim Goodweather tries to discover what happened, old antiques dealer Abraham Setrakian sees in the incident a ghost from his past, and the shadowy Stoneheart Group prepares to make its move.

Also vampires.

Hey I'm trying not to give too much away here.

For starters, I want to go on record as saying I'm glad that it looks like Guillermo del Toro doesn't plan to just guide this one from the producer's seat. Not just because of the uneven quality of the works where he's acted as a producer, but it also means he's directing several episodes this season. Having him helm this first episode is actually one of its best strengths overall. The story itself can be occasionally cliched and silly- and we'll be getting back to that- but the man knows how to make it look good. The moment that really sells it – and this seems to be the scene that's netting a lot of the praise for the show's first episode – is a moment when a luckless coroner winds up finding out all too late the horrible truth about the passengers from the dead airplane that starts this series off. It's a well done bit of creepy escalation that adds to the long list of setting a scene to seemingly inappropriate music and having it stick. I'm not sure this will supplant the Red Sox fans' claim on Neil Diamond's 'Sweet Caroline', but it makes a damn good bid for it all the same.

Even in New York, the strains of Neil Diamond can reach out to Red Sox fans...
Just make sure they don't notice the Yankees t-shirt you have on under your work gear.

Direction aside, the episode is hit or miss based on what plotline or aspect you choose to focus on. I suppose it bears repeating from last time – for being the designated hero of this story, Ephraim Goodweather (played by Corey Stoll) is the weak link of the series, both as far as the books at large, and in this particular episode are concerned. Now, I'll grant that this isn't a cast that's exactly designed to be all that groundbreaking or original, but the other characters del Toro and Hogan introduce over the course of the series, for all their well worn tricks, are at least interesting enough to keep me intrigued. By comparison, Goodweather feels less like a character and more like a laundry list of characteristics of everyman heroes: he's passionate about his work, often at the expense of his family (which has lead to his divorce, though he is still seen as quite amicable to his wife and very loving to his son,) he's treated as the best at what he does, though he still butts heads with authority figures, and his coworkers all defer to him. It's a shame that, for being the weak core of this, his plotline in this episode is actually still the strongest, and Stoll makes a decent effort at playing the role. However, I have to admit, he does feel a bit too- and I hate to use this phrase but not really sure if there's a better fit - 'television pretty'.

His involvement aside, the CDC story is actually plot that's the most well-handled, and that's for good reason. Of the three prominent stories, it's the one that can afford to tip its hand the most. We see enough to introduce us to other characters in this series, such as aged vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian or the shady (and also somewhat misfortunately named) Stoneheart Group, but their plotlines are still shrouded in mystery by comparison. Their roles here are more to introduce the players while the script is more focused on the mystery of what happened on the fateful Boeing flight featured in the show's cold open.

As far as how those other plots go, it has its ups and downs. As of this first episode, David Bradley is shaping up to be the cast MVP as the aged Setrakian. For a man who most American audiences more likely recognize from background roles like the cantankerous Argus Filch or the now VERY despised Walder Frey, Setrakian is going to seem like a change of pace for him. He's a more active character, a sort of modern day Van Helsing. He makes a strong first impression, playing both sides as the feigned harmless old man before showing the iron hidden underneath it waiting for a moment to strike.

"Okay, maybe it's time I finally flush the sea monkeys."

The third plot, involving the secretive Stoneheart Group, is probably the weakest right now from a writing perspective. The show does make it clear they had a hand in bringing vampires into Manhattan, but it's keeping the full nature of their plans under wraps. On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense, so as to not reveal too much too soon. On the other hand, it also means the involvement here is vague at several points. Partially suffering as a result of is Miguel Gomez as local gang member Gus, whose attempts to make some money to support his mother get him involved in the greater mystery. Gomez, like Bradley, is an almost pitch perfect match for the character. Unfortunately, he really doesn't have much to do here, so he comes across as a pretty broad stereotype. We get hints of things to come, but that's about it.

Having read the trilogy, it's a bit of a challenge for me to try and review this from a completely detached perspective, especially in a case like this where knowing what's coming really does help inform how some of the elements of this episode get taken. Just taken on its own, I do see the case of a lot of frustrated reviewers with regards to how flat some parts of this seem right now. I happen to know where they're going with it, but just on its own, it's not really giving the audience much to work with yet. Even more frustrating (and even with the book knowledge, I can admit this much) is the fact that what knowledge this does give is often  overtly spelled out, rather than subtly delivered. The prize winner being the decision as to how to allude to Setrakian's past as a Holocaust survivor. Again, I'll grant that on its own is already kind of a cliché, but having it get revealed by having someone ask about his tattoo isn't helping.

Despite these faults, I'll admit that I feel I got my figurative money's worth out of this episode. The writing and characterization aren't particularly noteworthy just yet ( and to be fair, most shows take a bit to really get the ball rolling) but at the same time, when it worked, it worked well. The horror aspects in particular are already delivering some great moments. Besides the above-mentioned 'Sweet Caroline' scene, the episode's cold open and ending make for some great moments of build-up, as does our first look at the infamous Master, a hint of more del Toro creatures to come. This won't be sweeping up Emmys hand over fist, but at the same time, it doesn't really feel like that's what the show wants. For the story it has to work with and the elements they're emphasizing in the marketing, they've delivered nicely. If they can bolster up the acting and writing, that'll make for some very nice icing on this cake. Additionally, I'm really hoping del Toro continues to stick around as part of the show's circle of directors – because there's some moments in the later books I would really love to see from his perspective.

As our first introduction to the world of The Strain, 'Night Zero' is about what I was expecting from a pilot episode. It's got a number of rough patches to smooth out, but it also has signs of enough promise to build from. Between del Toro's direction and some good casting in the supporting roles so far – again, shout out to Bradley – this has the potential to make for a good adaptation, and possibly even surpass its source material.
Essentially, not bad for a first episode. Not jaw-dropping, but still a decent proof of concept. Join us again next Monday for the next episode, 'The Box.'

"Astin, for the last time, they've been talking about that Goonies sequel for years. It is NOT gonna happen, man! Let it die!"

Be sure to keep an eye out for other general entries here as well, including the second of this year's Summer Reading picks.

Till then!

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