[This is a review of the The Strain premiere episode. There will be SPOILERS.]
There’s a small handful of clichéd characters spitting out tacky dialogue like “This is bad, real bad,” but for the most part, the show’s first episode, ‘Night Zero,’ is brimming with solid scares, remarkably detailed visuals and a highly intriguing scenario to back it all up.
The Strain centers on Corey Stoll’s Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, the chief medical officer for the CDC in New York. At about 8:35pm, Ephraim is summoned to check out a plane that just landed at JFK from Berlin. It’s on the tarmac safe and sound, but since touching down, it hasn’t made any contact whatsoever - not to the control tower, not even to friends and family via cell phones. As that oh-so eloquent air traffic controller puts it, “This is bad, real bad. We've got ourselves a dead airplane."
It’s a stellar start. The whole monster-in-the-cargo area moment is a little on the nose, but once we hit Ephraim’s investigation, that’s when the show takes on this exhilarating, disaster movie-like quality. Especially as a New Yorker, it’s impossible not to watch this unfold scene without wondering what might happen if this were the real deal. This is a plane with over 200 hundred passengers and just four survivors, all of whom may be contaminated with a potential plague-starting infectious disease. It’s extreme, but rather realistic, and that pulls you right into the show.
That’s some of the strongest material in the pilot right there, primarily because it functions as a mini narrative in and of itself. This is a TV show though; it has to expand and introduce more components and, at the moment, those other components are a little thin, but loaded with potential.
The standout amongst the supporting cast is David Bradley (Game of Thrones, Harry Potter) as Abraham Setrakian. We can wrap our heads around a virus outbreak on a plane, but throw in a creepy coffin and floating smoke-like monster, and there’s just no getting a handle on the situation.
That’s what makes Abraham such a draw. His introductory scene is particularly tight, engaging and suspenseful, and then, after that, he’s solidified as the man with the answers, and we want our answers. And that also speaks to the successful structuring of the first episode. Initially, the scenario is rather grounded, offering easy access to the characters and what they’re dealing with, but then, piece-by-piece, the situation gets weirder and weirder until it’s full-blown out-of-this-world. It’s a well-paced build and Abraham is thrown in at just the right moments to give you the feeling that you really need him.
Ephraim’s family, however, is a different story. Perhaps this is because Deliver Us From Evil is still fresh on the brain, but it seems like families are being used as a desperate attempt to give the main character a softer side yet wind up sucking the life out of the central narrative more and more often. Yes, this is only the first episode, so it’s almost a guarantee that Ephraim’s wife (Natalie Brown) and son (Ben Hyland) will grow, but in assessing ‘Night Zero’ alone, they’re the wet blankets of the episode.
Mia Maestro’s Dr. Nora Martinez is a little too one-dimensional as presented in episode 1, but Sean Astin’s Jim Kent has more going on. Admittedly, at first, Astin had me convinced and I was wondering why the show would pick up such a familiar face only to make him Ephraim and Nora’s nice, noble sidekick. After that one officer scoffed at Gus’ (Miguel Gomez) Stonehart card, it was truly shocking to see Jim walk up and be the one to give him the OK to drive on.
The Strain’s first episode is immersive and thrilling all the way through, but as a major sucker for a good kill and some serious gore, it was the novelty of the medical examiner massacre that got me completely on board. That sequence and the build-up leading to it are absolutely brilliant. Once Abraham warns that you need to cut off the victims’ heads, you know something bad is about to go down, but rather than cut right to the medical examiner and let it happen, del Toro essentially teases it and ups the tension by throwing a few other scenes in first.
And then, when the time does come, boy does del Toro let the poor guy have it. There’s just something about pairing a familiar, uplifting tune with extreme brutality that’s especially exhilarating yet unnerving. As those reanimated corpses chow down on him to the tune of “Sweet Caroline,” it’s cringe worthy, but also rocks the energy and zest to make it a fun, entertaining scare.
Overall, this is a great start for The Strain. ‘Night Zero’ manages to deliver an impressive amount of information on the situation and in a remarkably engaging and digestible manner, so even though some characters wrap episode 1 a little thinner than others, the extreme curiosity regarding the scenario is enough to leave you wanting more of everyone.
The Strain continues next Sunday with ‘The Box’ at @ 10pm on FX.
Follow Perri on Twitter @PNemiroff.