FX's 'The Strain' offers more gore than story

The Kansas City StarJuly 13, 2014 

At the same time "The Strain" was in development, a commercial in heavy rotation showed three catty middle-schoolers stalking a chubby guy on a diet. Whenever he contemplated a calorie-drenched monstrosity, they'd pipe in with a rapid-fire "Ew!" "Seriously?" "So gross ..."

FX should have hired those mean girls to keep things under control during the filming of "The Strain," its much-ballyhooed summer horror series that kicks off Sunday. Because, seriously. It's so gross, and for no good reason. It wants to be high-concept while making us hug the toilet.

"The Strain," adapted from a series of novels co-authored by "Hellboy" director Guillermo del Toro, might not be the grossest show to ever land on basic cable. But the show's recycled vampire mythology fails to justify this level of bloodletting, which even fans of "The Walking Dead" might find gratuitous.

"Strain" showrunner and lead writer Carlton Cuse, who also had those jobs on "Lost," is telling another story about the survivors of a bizarre plane tragedy. But this plane landed smoothly, with the passengers in their seats - strapped in and dead.

The show's plot coagulates around the Center for Disease Control's first-response "Canary Team" and the collection of rugged New York archetypes who pop up to lend a hand against whatever killed the passengers. Only four survived: a pushy lawyer, a suburban dad, a Marilyn Manson-esque rock star and the pilot, who's the only one willing to part with an insurance co-pay to get himself checked out at the hospital.

Corey Stoll, who pulled off a tough supporting role in "House of Cards" as an alcoholic congressman, takes the lead here as Ephraim Goodweather, the CDC team's leader. His sidekicks are a biochemist named Nora (Mia Maestro) and a pencil-pusher named Jim (Sean Astin). Bureaucrats literally stand in their way from the moment they arrive at the airport. But the team will soon have help from an exterminator, a computer hacker and a pawn shop owner who's been collecting ancient swords.

Ephraim's nickname is "Eph," so everyone runs around yelling "EFF!" It takes some getting used to, but it's less jarring than the translucent wormlike creatures Eph finds in the fuselage. They're just the harbinger of gags to come, getting us tenderized for the main attraction.

As its evil creatures take form in the first four episodes, "The Strain" starts to resemble a regrettable late-night trip to Taco Bell. The show has slightly rearranged most of pop culture's vampire, zombie and bio-disaster tropes, sprinkled the creation with pico de gallo and called it something new. Would you like a side order of swarming rats with your Quesarito?

Behold the infected victims eating raw meat and biting necks during sex! That complete solar eclipse is coming up very soon! Oh look, a medical examiner working alone at night surrounded by body bags. I'm sure he'll be fine.

Can you remember the last time any "master" vampire's chief emissary was not a dapper white-haired guy with a Eurotrash accent? In "The Strain," that guy is Eichhorst (Richard Sammel of "Inglourious Basterds"), who's hiding a lot more from society than his Nazi past.

"The Strain" drinks most deeply from Bram Stoker's Dracula mythology, shipping its master bloodsucker from Eastern Europe in his own coffin with his own special soil, the same way the count arrived in 19th-century England by ship.

And then there's the series' Van Helsing, a Holocaust survivor named Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley) who ran into the master vampire in the death camps and has been waiting for another chance to kill him. He immediately recognizes what's going on when a "dead plane" is discovered at the airport, but who listens to a raving old man at a crime scene?

Certainly not anyone from the CDC's low-key disaster team. I don't want my first responders panicking, but they could break into a trot once in a while, maybe raise an eyebrow. Eph and Nora are so unflappable, they barely seem interested in the maggoty invaders they find on the plane, even when they can see them crawling around inside some guy's face.

"Do you need to go? Do you need to take some time? I've got this," they say to each other whenever a cellphone chirps. It's like they're on "Mad Men," burning the midnight oil for the Mop & Glo account, instead of dissecting a 6-foot tapeworm that used to be an affable airline pilot.

Astin's character is mostly there to function as the crew's Scooby-Doo, but at least he finally speaks for us during an over-the-top secret autopsy. "That's enough! This is disgusting!" he snaps. "Just call it in!" But what fun would that be?

While he's under-reacting to the "blood worms" and their ability to sniff out human blood, Eph is concentrating instead on a family matter. He's not even divorced yet, and his wife is having her live-in boyfriend parent the Goodweathers' son, 11-year-old Noah. Yes, it's good to give your everyman hero an interior life, but the hundreds of missing corpses seem more pressing.

In perhaps the most unrealistic scene of this sci-fi horror series about vampires, a judge makes a final ruling on the Goodweathers' custody dispute after a few hours in a conference room. You won't care how it turns out, but at least the domestic disputes provide some respite from the neck-ripping and dog-eating and organs exploding.

The Master's first on-camera kill is a head-bashing that makes the famous skull-crushing scene on last season's "Game of Thrones" look like a salon scalp massage. You won't be eating popcorn again soon if you decide to tune in.

The lack of visual creativity is just one of many reasons why "The Strain," despite being nauseating, isn't scary. Scary is hardly in short supply these days. If you've somehow avoided reading about the real-life hemorrhagic fever outbreak, disappearing jetliner, fugitive Nazis, brain-eating parasites and deadly consequences of government protocol for a day or two, consider yourself lucky.

And we've seen these many-mouthed, tentacle-tongued monsters before, in "Species" and in the movie version of Stephen King's "Dreamcatcher," but especially in "Blade II," whose Reaper vampires were also created by del Toro.

There's no shock of newness, no "What is that?!" Just an "Ewww, one of those."

WHERE TO WATCH

"The Strain" premieres Sunday night at 9 on FX.

Sara Smith: ssmith@kcstar.com

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