Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Pilot Talk 2014: The Strain

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Sundays at 10:00 PM on FX

I've noted before that I'm not really somebody who cares about plot very much.  And because I don't place alot of stock in it, I'm not particularly good at analyzing it.  I especially don't catch many plotholes or get hung up on characters making decisions that aren't exactly the smartest.  But sometimes a bit of plotting goes so far into the territory of stupidity that even I can't let it go.  Such is the case with parts of FX's new show, The Strain, which has gained buzz because it's based on a book series co-written by Guillermo del Toro (who directed and co-wrote this pilot as well).  It focuses on the CDC, as they try to uncover the mystery behind an outbreak that causes seemingly vampiric effects, and the pilot filled with moments of these trained professionals doing incredibly stupid things.  Literally every time somebody is told, "Don't go in there" or, "Don't touch that," they go in there or they touch that.  People don't call for back-up when trouble arises and they generally don't follow protocol -- it just feels like amateur hour throughout the episode.

What's worse is that the show wants to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to the main characters' competence.  When a plane lands at JFK airport with the lights turned off and the doors sealed shut, authorities from different agencies arrive on scene to investigate, and the script goes out of its way to have CDC head Ephraim Goodweather (a poorly wigged Corey Stoll) explain the precautions needed to go into the plane.  But then whenever the episode needs to get to a dramatic moment, they reduce everyone to complete idiots.  Those dramatic moments -- scenes of shocking, delightfully gross horror and gore -- are often the pilot's highlights, to be sure.  It'd just be nicer if there was an organic lead up to them.

While the clumsy plotting certainly doesn't help, the characters aren't very well-realized in their own right.  Corey Stoll has proven that he has impressive acting chops, playing the most compelling character in season one of House of Cards and stealing every scene that features him in Midnight in Paris, but as much as he tries, he can't elevate Ephraim past being a bland protagonist.  Instead, he's just given quirks (drinking from milk cartons at crime scenes) and a domestic storyline that's simply dire.  The rest of the CDC agents don't even register enough for me to remember their names.  One character who does manage to make a mark is Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), who gets a scene where he exhibits some unexpected guile.  It's a pretty stock type in vampire fiction, the tough old man who knows more than he lets on, but Bradley plays it with a characteristic intensity that rises above any cliches.

In cases like these, where the storytelling has some hiccups and the characters aren't very interesting yet, style goes a long way.  And this pilot has tons of style to burn.  Guillermo del Toro gives the episode a movie-like quality that's befitting of its length (with commercials, the pilot is an hour and 40 minutes long).  It has his distinct look and feel, exhibiting his love of detail and great creature designs.  The color palette has a standard orange and teal contrast, but del Toro and cinematographer Checco Varese choose to make other colors -- the red and blue of police lights, the neon yellow glow of a CDC helmet -- pop beautifully.  The idea of a vampire story that treats vampirism like a disease is intriguing, and the excellent direction keeps the suspense high, leaving you wondering what's going on throughout the episode.  It remains to be seen if the show can keep up that style after del Toro steps from behind the camera, but for now, The Strain is solid dumb fun.

Grade: B-

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