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‘The Strain’: TV Review

6:00 AM PDT 7/13/2014 by Tim Goodman

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The Strain – P 2014

FX’s Guillermo del Toro scarefest is light on gravitas and heavy on entertainment, which may be a trade-off that the channel takes this time

There’s been a lot of advance hype for the Sunday premiere of FX’s modern/scary/weird vampire thriller The Strain, but lost in there for some people will be an essential bit of information:

It’s pretty hokey.

That’s in no way a knock on The Strain, which very clearly puts entertainment value above gravitas, but it’s an important element if you rely blindly on FX to deliver things of heft, which most TV fans do. There’s blood and scares galore in The Strain, with some amazingly imaginative visuals from director-writer-creator Guillermo del Toro. But the writing isn’t a strength, the plot is cartoonish and outside of Corey Stoll trying to hold down the acting, well, yeah, there’s lots of scares here.

But hey, the horror genre only has a small number of series — The Walking Dead, and Penny Dreadful among them — that have the acumen to go deep, so perhaps that shouldn’t be held against it.

Besides, once you are fully immersed in what The Strain really is — a summer series that wants to scare the crap out of you and hook you from week to week by being fun and entertaining, rather than, say, triumphantly ambitious — then you can just settle in and wallow in the gore.

The Strain is about, according to FX, “a mysterious viral outbreak with hallmarks of an ancient and evil strain of vampirism.” Based on the series of books from del Toro and Chuck Hogan, The Strain has a central character who is basically the ancient king of vampires. His name is — mood music, please — the Master. It’s also about Nazis and the end of the world. It has Samwise Gamgee, too. Oh, and an old vampire hunter named Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), who is now in his 80s and works in a New York pawn shop but once was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp and had a chance to kill the Master but failed. He’s got this really awesome sword to do it with, too.

The series begins with a plane about to land in New York. But — cue the music again — something is clearly amiss in the storage area below. When the plane lands, it goes dark, hides in a remote part of a runway and all the passenger windows, save one, are down. Nobody has made a phone call out.

Enter Ephraim “Eph” Goodweather (Stoll), head of the Centers for Decease Control’s “Canary Project.” (That should tell you something.) What he and fellow CDC biochemist Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) find on the plane is, well, disturbing. Lots of The Strain is disturbing. It’s supposed to be scary (and it is, when it’s not being too hokey).

But you wouldn’t have a series if Bad Things weren’t on that plane and the need for Abraham and his sword — and others — to save the world did not exist. So you know what’s coming, except that you don’t in that The Strain has vampires unlike you’ve seen and del Toro has set the visual template to create scares.

Outside of Stoll, The Strain struggles to develop its characters in the first few episodes, but for the sake of acknowledgement and the wish that this might change, Sean Astin is there as CDC worker Jim Kent, whose wife has cancer and thus makes a pact to save her that he soon regrets. The wonderful Kevin Durand is here as — and this part is fun — Vasily Fet, a Russian exterminator for the NYC Bureau of Pest Control. Richard Sammel is magnetic as Thomas Eichhorst, who takes “human form” and is the Master’s enforcer/walking bad guy. He hasn’t aged. He was at the Nazi concentration camps and knows Abraham very well. He’s gloating now that Abraham has lost and the new world order will begin. (Cue music.)

Is there a mythology to The Strain? Sure, but it doesn’t seem that important or meaty (so far). Is there something like, say, an existential undercurrent to The Strain? Uh, not really. It’s a horror series that gets gooey with blood and biting and gore. It might make you curl up on the couch in fear. It might make you excited to see the next episode because the previous hour entertained you.

That’s probably all that FX wants. And that’s really all you should expect.

‘The Strain’: TV Review 6:00 AM PDT 7/13/2014 by Tim Goodman FACEBOOK TWITTER EMAIL ME The Strain – P 2014 FX’s Guillermo del Toro scarefest is light on gravitas and

The Strain: Season 4 Review

The entire world faces the Night Eternal.

Season 4 never quite captured the intensity promised in those final moments of “The Fall” last year. Probably it was too much to expect for the show to maintain that level of dread and unease for 10 episodes straight. Even so, this season was able to give the series and nits main characters the closure they deserved.

The downside to that change in scenery, however, is that it took some time for the season to rebuild the show’s momentum. The first half of the season was largely devoted to getting the whole gang back together and paving the way for that true final conflict. At some point you have to question the purpose of breaking them apart in the first place. Still, that slow buildup did make the eventual reunion feel more meaningful. There was a lot of emotional baggage leading into those final few episode, with Eph mourning the loss of his family and Fet still harboring resentment towards Eph and Dutch thanks to their short-lived love triangle. There was a certain satisfaction in seeing these character finally start to put aside their differences for the common good.

The show literally became darker this season.

That ties into another thing the writers handled very well this season. From the beginning, it was clear just how much the writers were using the strigoi conflict as a metaphor for the current political unrest in America. It’s impressive how easily the show was able to pivot and tackle a post-election US head-on. The rise of the Master clearly paralleled the unexpected victory of a certain real-world political figure. Not that the series was blatantly political in its messaging this year. It was more focused on posing the same question to its characters in different ways – “Will you keep your head down, or raise your voice and take action against the injustice you see in the world?” One way or another, the heroes of the Strain chose the latter, and that made for a more emotionally resonant finish.

Nowhere was this struggle better personified than with Eph himself. He’s a character prone to wallowing in his own alcohol-soaked misery, and he began the season at quite possibly his lowest ebb. That’s what made his arc this year so compelling. Eph had to find his courage and his will to resist all over again. And when the final battle loomed, Eph had to weigh the needs of the many against his all-encompassing desire to save his misguided son. Stoll was given a lot to work with this year, and he really made the most of the material.

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Zach proved a more troublesome case. Already the show’s most unlikable character by a mile, Season 4 really doubled down on all of Zach’s worst qualities. As if setting off a bomb and killing thousands just to spite his father wasn’t bad enough, Season 4’s Zach descended ever further into creepy psycho stalker territory. As has been the case since Season 2, the combination of lousy writing and Charles’ one-note performance really works against a character who should be the focal point of the entire series. The good news is that Zach did find some measure of redemption by the end. Not enough to justify the character’s questionable portrayal all these years, but enough to at least give his arc the conclusion it needed.

In general, most of the recurring characters were given fitting conclusions to their stories. Yes, there were some that deserved more screen time than they received. I was especially disappointed not to see more emphasis on the rivalry between the former Eldritch Palmer and his minion, Herr Eichorst (Richard Sammel). And for the most part, the new characters introduced this season – Alex Green (Angel Parker), Raul (Michael Reventar), Roman (K.C. Collins) and Abby (Jocelyn Hudon) – were fairly underutilized. But all the major players enjoyed some big moments and, pretty much without fail, received the endings they deserved. That was certainly true for Fet, who alone among the cast proved to be the unwavering hero over the course of these four seasons. Quinlan (Rupert Penry-Jones) also had a great final year, with the show digging even deeper into the character’s tragic back-story.

To draw another comparison between Lost and The Strain, whatever the finale might have lacked on a plot level, it made up for by delivering an emotionally satisfying conclusion to this ongoing story. No, “The Last Stand” wasn’t as epic in scope as it could have been. In that sense, it fell short of the standard set by “The Fall” a year previous. But the finale did ensure that pretty much every character was given the closure they deserved. It wrapped up the show’s loose ends neatly while still leaving a bit of room for a sequel, should the need ever arise.

Fet and Quinlan found some unlikely new allies this year.

Spoilers for The Strain: Season 4 follow!

The series finale was anything but precious with its surviving cast of characters. The biggest surprise was that both Eph and Zach perished in their final confrontation with the Master. But is there any way Zach’s story could have ended? He had a great deal to atone for given his actions since the end of Season 3. Nothing short of sacrificing his own life and setting off a second bomb that saved New York was going to get the job done.

In many ways, the season really peaked several episodes earlier during the final showdown between Setrakian and Eichorst. It’s become a running gag on the show that these two characters constantly clash, only for Eichorst to always escape and live to fight another day. More than anything, I was looking forward to seeing the cycle finally end this season. And their clash in the appropriately named “Ouroboros” didn’t disappoint. Setrakian proved that, even weakened and nearing death’s door, he’s not an opponent to be underestimated. That confrontation offered a fitting end for this decades-old rivalry and a great sendoff for the tenacious Setrakian.

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Verdict

While fairly slow starting out, The Strain’s fourth season eventually built to a satisfying conclusion as it rearranged the playing field and explored the far-reaching effects of the Master’s rise to power. Whatever this season might have lacked in sheer scope, it made up for in solid character drama. Pretty much every character was given the conclusion they deserved, even the perpetually troublesome Zach. Season 4 gave this show the closure it needed.

We look back at The Strain's fourth and final season and how it gave the series the strong finish it needed.