The Strain episode 1 review: Night Zero

Billy finds fresh meat on the gothic horror table with The Strain, from the creative mind of Guillermo del Toro and friends...

This review contains spoilers.

1.1 Night Zero

In terms of having a pedigree, The Strain ticks all the critical boxes, and then some. I’m a huge fan of the work of Guillermo del Toro and this show is based on a series of novels that he and Chuck Hogan wrote. He also directs the opening episode, and Chuck Hogan also helped co-write it. What could possibly go wrong?

I was somewhat concerned that in the first couple of minutes this show managed to deliver at least two WTF moments. But before I get to them, it’s worth noting that the arrival of an aircraft travelling from Germany to the USA where everyone is dead isn’t the most original opening for a TV series. Because that’s exactly how Fox’s Fringe started, as I recall. I’m hoping that’s a good omen of sorts, because that series was inspired in places. Yet this one starts so poorly that I really began to wonder if ‘Billy’s curse’ had stuck once more. My knack of finding diabolical shows to review is legend here at Geek.

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First, we’ve got an air traffic control guy who thinks that when a LCD screen shows you something wrong, you can fix that by tapping on it. I thought that notion of variable instrument readability went out with the Flying Leathernecks, but it is making a comeback it seems. He’s also confused why a plane might be cold after being at 35,000 feet, which begs the question should they really let someone that stupid direct air traffic.

And, while I was still considering that, they introduced a character who seemed to be channelling ‘The Sarge’ from Airplane II, minus the lit cigar. He demands they call every government agency with the exception of Railroad Retirement Board, and declares ‘it’s bad, real bad’, after noticing that one window blind isn’t shut on a plane that appears from the outside to have electrical failure. Of course he’s right, and the only person they can call is that Goodspeed guy from The Rock. But even Nic Cage saw this one coming, so they plump instead for Dr Ephraim Goodweather played by Corey Stoll. Except he’s having marital difficulties, which saving the world from communicable diseases is a known side-effect.

He’s introduced as the first main character with seven minutes of the show already run, and my first reaction to him was to dislike his personality intensely. I didn’t care for his wife either, which wasn’t a good start. Perhaps I’m old fashioned in thinking that you should make some connection with the main characters of a show as early as possible.

When he gets to the aircraft with the co-worker he’s having a relationship with, Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) they manage to elevate the tension well, though seem determined not to pass a certain threshold of creepiness.

Along the way they insert Sean Astin playing Ephraim’s duplicitous sidekick and CDC administrator, Jim Kent, and a bunch of 2D people who talk seriously while looking at the floor or out of scene.

It’s not until we get the cut-away of Van Helsing-inspired Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), that the pieces start to fall into place, and the supernatural aspect to The Strain becomes more evident. Bradley can act there is no doubt, but his abilities are put under some strain trying to deliver some of the tough dialogue he’s given here. He has five times the personality of any other character, but that still doesn’t deliver enough to make his persona truly accessible.

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(It’s interesting to note that John Hurt was once attached to the Abraham Setrakian role in the pilot, and even Roy Dotrice, who both previously worked with del Toro on the two Hellboy movies respectively.)

Another good actor that makes an appearance is the Australian Jonathan Hyde, who you might remember as the father/hunter in Jumanji or Bruce Ismay in Titanic. All his scenes are very reminiscent of the Vampire elite ones in Blade II, directed by Guillermo del Toro, where there are global plans at made in palatial penthouses to put people on the menu soon.

That’s one influence, and the hand-carved coffin is a bit reminiscent of The Shadow, and the death of The Sarge is Hellboy-gory, unsurprisingly. I presume the creature destroyed his head so that he could become him later, maybe.

In the meanwhile, those aboard the aircraft who died seem determined to come back to some form of life, possibly driven to do this by the musical choices of the guy chosen to dissect them. Anyone who does that job to Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline deserves what happens to him, I say.

Yet creepier goings on lead out the first story, as mutated dead kids walk home and nobody even asks them why they walked from JFK in the snow.Overall it was one of those shows were I had to really consider at the end how I felt about it, rather than having a reflex reaction. Parts of it I tolerated, and even enjoyed, even if lacked obvious character connections.

The premise seems curious enough, and there is certainly enough creative talent behind and before the cameras to make this work. But they need to write some dialogue that doesn’t deliver quite so stilted, and having a main character called Ephraim whom everyone calls ‘F’ was a really F-ing dumb idea, unless he gets promoted to The Men In Black.

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Fox has already proven with Sleepy Hollow that you can make the supernatural work well on a mainstream TV show, but it’s critical that the audience rapidly develops some empathy with the characters or putting them in jeopardy or killing them has little impact. Many shows have very wonky pilot episodes, so I’m a long way from writing The Strain off just yet, as it’s sufficiently gothic to keep me watching for now.

Read more about The Strain on Den Of Geek, here.

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