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THE STRAIN Pilot Review: Night Zero

Last night, Guillermo del Toro kicked off The Strain, his series-length creature feature, and his third stab at the vampire myth by way of an outbreak story. And it’s maybe the most fun you could have with a trashy airport novel brought to the small screen.

Del Toro and The Strain co-writer Chuck Hogan collaborated on the trilogy of novels which kicks off a vampiric apocalypse after a plan traveling from Berlin touches down at JFK with most of the passengers and crew dead by some unknown means. But don’t worry: intrepid CDC epidemiologist Dr. Ephraim “Eph” Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and Tom Hanks’ hair from The Da Vinci Code are on the case, ready to expose precisely what seemingly killed a couple of hundred souls in their seats, while still allowing the plane to land safely.

This isn’t the sensitive del Toro whose carefully-observed Pan’s Labyrinth created a dark fantasy out of the Spanish Civil War (or whose Devil’s Backbone created an unnerving ghost story about the same). I’m not really familiar with this del Toro, who directed this largely expository episode with the help of novelist Hogan.

Stoll, who was allowed such a multi-faceted and wounded character in the first season of House of Cards, is the kind of goofball who refuses to turn his phone off while trying to save his marriage in an introductory scene in a therapist’s office or who casually reminds a CDC colleague (Mía Maestro) about their affair for some reason while they’re investigating perhaps the greatest medical mystery in history (recalling nothing so much as the ghost ship the evil count uses as his moveable feast in Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

Chalk it up to a script that tries to tell a lot to in order to get the audience on board: del Toro and Hogan seem worried that we’re not ready for some kind of wordless, ancient wraith of a vampire bringing hell to New York. Between David Bradley’s Holocaust survivor who knows what’s going on and the aged vampire men in their tower, del Toro and Hogan de-fang the drama a bit with characters flitting at the edges, warning us that something very, very bad is coming. Of course it is, that’s why we’re here.

None of that matters, though, because the real stars of The Strain are its virulent, well, strain of vampires. Pestilential and mysterious, Del Toro and Hogan’s version of the undead aberrations serve as an excellent counterpoint to the sexy vampire, and they’re where The Strain‘s bloody heart really lies. “Night Zero” introduces us to three types: the Eastern European heavies in their ivory tower, bloodless men waiting out the oncoming plague; the shrouded, CG specter who threatens to spread pestilence throughout the city; and the zombie-like, resurrected types from the end of the episode. These are messy, gorehound friendly bloodsuckers and Del Toro, god bless him, revels in their carnage. Seriously, there’s some next-level-for-basic-cable violence here with graphic exanguinations, head crushing, and yeah, those skin-penetrating worms that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the ubiquitous billboards for the series.

Each seems a natural evolution of Nomak, the vampire-killing super vampire from Del Toro’s Blade II: Bloodhunt, whose pulpy sensibilities permeate The Strain (minus the techno and post-Matrix leather fetishism). The Aura cinematographer Checco Varese seems to have paid attention during Blade II, borrowing that film’s warm ambers for The Strain‘s nighttime exteriors as a counterpoint to the the iciness, and the almost alien spaces involving vampires, both recently resurrected and old and grey. From a production standpoint, The Strain is top-notch, even if the script is, well, what it is.

Frankly, I’m just ready for the chaos reigns craziness of those vampires getting out into the wild (of New York City) more than anything else, and some clunky writing and awkward character work won’t get in the way of that.

The Strain airs Sundays at 10 on FX. What did you think of the series premiere? Let us know in the comments below.

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