If you’re a horror or fantasy devotee of any shade, hopefully you’re a student of master filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. With the help of Chuck Hogan, he recently expanded his storytelling into the written word, delivering the terrifying Strain trilogy. Now, FX has brought the story to life as del Toro originally intended: a television show. The story vividly captures an apocalyptic nightmare initially disguised as a post-9/11 paranoid disaster. An unknown “virus” imported overseas by a passenger aircraft from Berlin to New York’s JFK Airport reveals itself to be an ancient predator that has lied dormant and grown quite hungry. Little do any of the unsuspecting millions know, but its arrival signifies the beginning of the end … not only for the passengers aboard the plane, but for the entire human race.
I hate to lead with a gripe, especially as high as I set my bar for the series, but it began with a critical misstep (and as the old saying goes, you never get a second chance at a first impression). The book’s power looms large from the first chapter, dropping readers mid-crisis onto the tarmac. We’re given only case facts and no context, and thus we’re left to deal with the most gripping of all human fears – that of the unknown. FX rejects this route, leading the audience by the hand, encouraging us to bond with some of the future survivors.
The acting and dialogue are choppy and times cheesy, all too often spelling out the plot developments. Aside: this is one of the many things that makes cable series suck. In the golden age of cerebral, bingeworthy series, why do some of the suits still insist we audiences are unable to suspend our disbelief, exercise our imaginations, and critically examine the spaces between the plot to extract meaning? Okay, < / rant >.
Our protagonist CDC all-star Ephraim Goodweather, is played by “House of Cards” dark horse Corey Stoll. It’s initially difficult to separate him from his cocaine-crippled Peter Russo – but his world-worn intensity might translate well into Ephraim’s work addiction and insatiable quest for the truth. "Game of Thrones" or "Harry Potter" fans will recognize David Bradley, best known for despicable characters Walder Frey and Argus Filtch, here plays the soon-to-be pivotal role of Abraham Setrakian. I think he’ll do the ol’ gentleman well. The only immediate eye-roll the casting gets is the portrayal of rock star Gabriel Bolivar (played by relative unknown Jack Kesy). Whomever selected his makeup and wardrobe must’ve run up against a deadline, opting to lazily Google “goth rock stars” at the last minute and settling somewhere between 2005-era Davey Havok and vintage Criss Angel. It’s like the producers said “Don’t go Marilyn Manson; it’s too obvious. Think edgy but digestible – like Satan-goes-to-Vegas.” It’s not out of line with the book, but it’s still a groaner to see in its execution.
It’s a tired, useless approach dissecting what the show “got right” or “got wrong” by the book – what’s important is how the piece of art stands on its own. In this case, several scenes have already stamped my ticket for sticking with the rest of the season. Ephraim and Nora exploring the darkened plane creeped me out beyond my own imagination. The scene with Bishop (whose name might be an “Alien” nod of sorts) being attacked in the hallway by the Master is awesomely gory and intense.
There’s a lot for a devotee of the books to pick apart in the episode, but I have to give FX due credit for giving Del Toro the latitude to bring an enveloping story to life and the resources to deliver the things he does best – very, very visceral special effects. I’m looking forward to watching the rest of the story unfold. Here’s to the Fall.
Overall rating: 3.7555 (here's to hoping it's on the rise)
What did you think of the first episode? Did it live up to your expectations?