del Toro has tried hard to make FX's The Strain every type of horror at once. It wants to be supernatural horror, basic suspense, a medical outbreak tale, a zombie story, and also a straight-up '80s-style monster movie. The Strain is, humorously enough, trying way too damn hard.
That's not to say The Strain doesn't have its merits. It's most successful when del Toro focuses on combining the modern plague horror/suspense story with an modern quasi-Dracula adaptation. It doesn't always work perfectly in harmony, but turning the vampire into some sort of malevolent parasite that can be studied by science is definitely interesting. Where The Strain fails hardest is its characters; it wants to make them rich, flawed human beings, but instead they mostly come off as assholes.
But let's begin the recap! The Strain begins with some crazy-ass narration about love, which is your first inclination that this show will be tonally… problematic. Not as problematic at two flight attendants who discover there's a crazy animal loose in the plane's cargo hole, though; what basically looks like a Dementor's granddaddy pops up as the plane lands, at which point the plane stops moving on the tarmac, responding to no call from the tower. All the windows are closed and the plane is mysteriously cold. Bad juju is obviously going down.
Which is why it's annoying that The Strain cuts to Dr. Ephraim Goodweather at some kind of custody hearing for his kid for six full minutes. Here's what we learn in this scene that is actually longer than all the plane stuff we just watched: Eph, as he's known, is an asshole and his wife is clearly making a smart decision. Eph makes the meeting all about him, he is belligerent, he pretends like he's the wounded party and refuses to sign the divorce papers so he can be shitty when his wife admits he's seeing somebody else.
Of course, none of this gives the wife and the counselor the right to give Eph shit for taking an emergency call during the custody hearing, because he's head of a CDC task force and they live in New York City and Eph fights deadly viruses, but that's what they do. The wife is like, "Choosing to save dozens, perhaps thousands of lives is obviously more important to you than this custody hearing!" Ugh.
Want to know what's happening on the plane? Too bad! First we have to introduce Dr. Abraham Setrakian, who runs a curio store, is more than capable of being a badass when Weevil from Veronica Mars tries to rob him, has a cane with an awesome wolf's head and a silver sword inside, and, when he hears about a mysterious problem with a flight out of Berlin on the news, immediately knows what's going down. After a quick pep talk affectionately to the giant, beating heart he keeps in a glass jar — a heart that seems to be full of silver filaments which extend when Setrakian gives it a touch of his blood — he heads to the airport.
Now back to the plane. Eph's team consists of Nora — who he had an affair with, never told his wife about, but meanwhile still refuses to grant his wife's divorce — who suits up and enters the plane with Eph, while Jim — who I will be referring to as Samwise Gamgee from this point on since he's played by Sean Astin — monitors the ground. Basically, everyone's in the plane isdead, but rigor mortis isn't setting in (there's a great shot of a little girl's eyelid getting pulled down, and then it sloooowly springing back into place). There's also some kind of crazy ammonia-y stuff on the walls, which only shows up on the UV light.
Of course, the hand of one of the passengers twitches, unseen by our heroes, so they can be shocked when they discover four survivors: one of the pilots, a nondescript nerdy guy, a non-nonsense lady lawyer named Joan, and a goth rock star named Bolivar. I have used their names because I will need them again to talk about how terrible they are.
These four have woken up on board a plane full of over 200 bodies. They are inexplicably the only survivors of a hideous, unknown attack. Eph, as part of the CDC wants to quarantine them both for their safety and the safety of other. If you were in this position, wouldn't you find this decision reasonable? Wouldn't you, unless you were comically evil or stupid, want to be contained to keep from possibly spreading this disease to others? Wouldn't you at the very least want to know if you're all right before you leave?
Not if you're these guys. Joan demands to be let free, threatening to sue... the CDC I guess, for doing its job. Bolivar wants out — and I'm serious here — to get pussy (his words). The death of 200 fellow passengers and their miraculous escape from death is nothing but an aggravating inconvenience for them. It's so utterly unlike what any quasi-reasonable human being would do that it derails a lot of the horror and suspense The Strain has built up so far, mostly because you hope these jackasses die horribly.
Thankfully, we return from the tense "real life" character drama to actual horror when people discover a huge, 9-foot tall wooden coffin in the cargo hold. It's covered in carvings of skulls and bones and demon-y, HP Lovecrafty-stuff, and it's a touch suspicious even before they discover its not on the flight's manifest. Now, why the head of a CDC task force searching for a source of a deadly biological weapon would decide just opening this coffin without even rubber gloves on is a good idea, but Epg does, and there's earth in it — and a latch on the inside. Nice shades of classic Dracula.
Meanwhile, the entity that popped up from the cargo hold at the very beginning of the episode? He starts messing with some random air controller guy's head, luring him to the basement where he 1) sucks the guys blood dry, breaks his neck, and then smashes the dude's face into the ground. It's… weird. I mean, the blood sucking part is cool and scary, but then breaking the guys neck is kind of… banal after you used a crazy tentacle knife think to suck out his blood. And then smashing the dude's face to pieces is just… confusing. Why bother to do that? Why didn't he smash anybody else's face in? Did he just not like that guy? It's the perfect encapsulation of del Toro trying to do too much at once with The Strain, when a bit of restraint would have been a lot more effective.
Cut to: An old rich guy on a dialysis machine. This is the not-at-all-sinisterly named Eldritch Palmer, who runs a mysterious and also not-at-all-sinisterly named Stoneheart Foundation, meeting with an undead Nazi named Eichorst, who serves as a liaison between Palmer and "The Master." If meeting with undead Nazis wasn't quite a sign enough, Palmer makes it absolutely clear that he's brought the Master and his coffin to New York City specifically so he can receive receive vampiric immortality, at the cost of the rest of humanity. To do this, they need to get the coffin into Manhattan. Which is when the undead Nazi hires a Latino gangbanger named Gus
This is an interesting hiring choice on Gus' part, because Gus doesn't seem at all reliable, capable, or even just pleasant — he even tells Eichorst to suck his dick when asked to repeat his instructions. Why are the Bad Guys trusting this random dude to handle what is supposedly the most sensitive and important part of their plan to effectively destroy the world? I'm guessing because Gus is a major character and they needed a way to introduce him, no matter how inappropriate the circumstances. At any rate, Eichorst gives him a mysterious business card and tell him to show it if he gets into any trouble.
At this point Setrakian finally arrives at the airport. After somehow being completely ignored by all the security — not in a supernatural way, I don't think, just shitty security — Setrakian manages to track down Eph, and tries to explain the situation in a way that sounds completely insane despite him knowing facts he shouldn't , like that the bodies are not decomposing. Of course, Eph ignores him completely and Setrakian is arrested, screaming that they can't let the coffin cross the river (the fact that this old man somehow knows a giant coffin is involved also doesn't sway Eph).
Back at the plane, Eph and Nora find some parasitic worms and some dirt. They've found the source of the infection, and guess what? It turns out it's inside the giant mysterious coffin covered in skulls! But when they return to the coffin, it's missing, and security tape only shows a black blur picking it up (it's the Master loading it onto a cargo van for Gus, which is really funny when you think about it). Gus finds the van, enters it, looks at the giant nine-foot skull-covered coffin and mutters "Crazy-ass white boy" before driving off. Eph has ordered that no vehicles large enough to hold a giant coffin can leave the airport, and security stops Gus. He flashes the mysterious card Eichorst game him, and the guard is completely confused… until Samwise takes notice, sees the card, and lets Gus through with a final "Yell them this is it! I'm done!" No, Samwise! Frodo would not approve!
Meanwhile, the dude doing the autopsies on the 200 bodies from the plane removes one of the hearts and makes a discovery — the heart is still beating, and is full of tiny silver worms! The worms try to burrow into his flesh! Which is how he doesn't notice that all the corpses have gotten up until they surround him and start drinking his blood with their mouth tentacles. And then we cut to Stoneheart, where Palmer and Eichorst stare out across the city and are just hilariously evil, with Palmer telling his personal assistant "A sentimental man would venture out into the city tonight, to walk these streets one last time… before the fall." And then Gus drives the coffin into Manhattan, thus dooming the city and likely the world. And then one of the dead passengers, a little girl, after waking up somehow walked from JFK to Queens to return home while we get more weird narration about love.
That's like four perfectly acceptable endings, and yet instead of choosing one of them, The Strain decides to use all four. Individually, they're each kind of strong; put together like that, they lessen each other, if only because we keep expecting the credits to roll.
The Strain has a ton of potential, and once it's done the heavy lifting of introducing the characters and the premise, I think a lot of the series' initial flaws will disappear (I've seen the second episode, and I can tell you it's a marked improvement in this regard). I don't know if del Toro can effectively tell a scientific vampire plague that still involves a crazy-ass flying monster in a tattered, black cape, but I'm eager to see him try. I just wish he wouldn't try quite so hard.
• Eph really likes milk. I believe this is supposed to be a fascinating quirk of some kind, but after his earlier assholerly, it just makes him look like a diva.
• Another moment of a character acting in a way no human being ever would: During Eph's press conference, a distraught father arrives with a photo of his little girl, demands Eph give his plague-ridden daughter to him, punches Eph, and then yells about how all Eph does is talk and talk and talk and never do anything. This is maybe two hours after the plane landed. It's definitely the first time the CDC has addressed the families of the victims or the press. Also, why is this dude getting mad at some CDC flack for not giving him his daughter's body within like a half-hour of his arrival at the airport even though it's probably full of some deadly virus, instead of getting mad at THE LUNATIC TERRORIST ASSHOLE WHO PRESUMABLY RELEASED THE BIOLOGICAL WEAPON WHICH KILLED HIS DAUGHTER IN THE FIRST PLACE.
• I loved the scene where Gus hands the security guy his super-secret Stoneheart card, and they guy is like "What the hell is this supposed to mean?" It's completely by chance that Samwise stops by at that exact moment and sees the card and lets him through. You know, for a group that's trying to effectively destroy the world, they're really half-assing it.