“Love is our grace. Love is our downfall.”
The Strain’s pilot was pretty all over the place. And hey – I think that’s a good thing.
The first twenty minutes of the episode looked ridiculously cheap. Performances seemed hammy. Most of the dialogue rattled emptily around. Creepy images and scares took the backseat to corny domestic drama. I mostly drummed my fingers for this portion of the pilot and felt my expectations starting to take a nosedive.
But after those twenty minutes? Calling an episode “inconsistent” would ordinarily have a negative connotation for most shows, but with The Strain, I ended up being pretty hooked for the remainder of the episode. Sure, things remained fairly goofy and melodramatic throughout. But watching Guillermo del Toro ping pong between his many sensibilities – whether it be his weirdly random and profane sense of humor, his absolute delight in disgusting body horror, or his unwavering worship of genre mythology – was utterly thrilling for the rest of this extremely long pilot.
Make no mistake; the dialogue problem wasn’t necessarily fixed at any given point either. But already, this pretty solid cast did a great job of bringing a decent amount of charisma to keep us invested. I’m obviously late to the game on this show, so I already missed the window of opportunity for piling on the ridiculous wig that Corey Stoll wears, but I ultimately forgot about the hairdo pretty quickly. It really is fantastic to see such a great character actor finally being given the chance to shine in a leading role, and as much as you can laugh at the wig and the name “Ephraim Goodweather,” it’s pretty hard to deny how likable Stoll made this character in spite of the tinny dialogue. David Bradley has often been typecast in this old “I KNOW THE TRUTH” curmudgeon role in the past, so it was extremely welcome to see him dial it back a fair bit for this role – never seeming too annoyingly frantic or crazed, and bringing some true seriousness and weight to his mysterious past. Stoll and Bradley were given the most room to shine, and we’ll have to wait to see what else the remaining players – including Mia Maestro (surprised to not see go-to sci-fi Hispanic actress Alice Braga in this role), the ever-goofy Sean Astin, and the German dude who got his head bashed with a baseball bat in Inglourious Basterds – bring to the table, but I’m already pretty impressed.
Aside from the cheap look at the start and some sloppy sound mixing throughout the episode, this episode mostly fired on all other cylinders with regard to the technical side of things. Luckily, working on a television budget didn’t inhibit del Toro’s typically awesome production design work, and I would kill to be able to buy some of those props already (including the Jar o’ Heart and Monolithic Coffin o’ Dirt). And as someone who generally has a strong stomach for gruesome images, I’ll readily admit to being completely curled in my seat out of sheer discomfort at most of the episode’s outstanding gross-out moments. Even if early marketing for the show spoiled the hooded figure rising up before attacking the traffic controller with the snake-like appendage below the hood, I can safely say that I didn’t expect for the scene to culminate in the dude being SUCKED DRY, getting his GODDAMN NECK SNAPPED viciously, and then having the figure SMASH HIS HEAD INTO A PULP. Putting images like that on basic cable is a hell of a risk, and if Guillermo and Co. wanted to have audiences nationwide screaming obscenities for the next ten minutes, I would salute them and say “Mission Accomplished.” The utterly twisted “Sweet Caroline” set piece in the morgue should’ve been less shocking, but absolutely wasn’t – the female corpse dragging herself around with flaps of chest skin dangling off was a brilliantly sick touch.
By the episode’s end, my main caveat would lie in the Stoneheart Group material – plenty of other shows have dragged out the mysterious/sinister organizations trope for far too long, and I’m currently hoping that we get a good sense of Stoneheart’s motivation pretty soon. Again though, the set design work in that building was outstanding. Good lord, this show is gorgeous.
Reactions I’ve read over the past few weeks have sounded pretty lukewarm to the show, so maybe that could be responsible for some lowered expectations on my end. But I was pretty captivated after the shaky start, and I’m looking forward to what comes next.
- Did we really need the peering tilt up Mia Maestro’s underwear-clad body as she and Stoll prepared to scout the plane? There have been far worse examples of this in TV and film before (looking at you, Star Trek Into Darkness), but come on.
- Some great comedic lines throughout, starting with Sean Astin’s “I’ve got your milk!” And I could almost hear Guillermo del Toro cackling off-camera as the Hispanic thug holds his three fingers up and lists “Screw you, suck my dick, and get it done.” So bizarre, but great.
- Sequence in the CDC tent with the survivors was surprisingly funny, with Martinez zipping the lawyer lady away mid-sentence and the goth-rocker revealing the extent of his getup.
- Appreciated the brevity of the opening sequence, but REALLY loved how they devoted more time to the back end, letting the end credits roll over some cool animations. Fargo did a similarly impressive job of lending some patience and gravity to their end credits, and I thought it worked really well here.