Congratulations, Eph Goodweather, you’ve just beaten to death the creature that will prove to the CDC all your claims about outbreak and contagious, little wormy things. What will you do now?
“Well, you see, I’d like to perform a secret autopsy in the basement before destroying all the evidence that will prove what I staked my career on in the first three episodes. Furthermore, as these little wormy things have proven highly contagious, I’d like to use no real protective gear while – instead of cutting the body apart – I just kind of tear at it with my bare hands. My hope is that possibly contagious bodily fluids fly EVERYWHERE. I’m kind of into that. Then I’ll burn the evidence that supports my theory of outbreak afterward, and we can toss a little bleach around. Above all, don’t tell anyone we just coated the storage basement (of this hospital full of sick people) in outbreak fluids. Trust me, I’m a doctor.”
Look, I don’t want to keep on kicking a dead horse’s bridges while they’re down, but…who wrote this crap? As I continue to watch and review The Strain, FX’s expensive new vampire series created by horror maestro Guillermo Del Toro and Lost showrunner Carlton Cuse, I find myself repeatedly asking a single question:
What the hell went wrong?
The blame lies in a few different places:
Too Many B-Plots
The show’s not wanting for good characters, it’s just that the good characters don’t get much screen time when they have to share with so many bad ones. Even when they do get screen time, they find themselves in a sort of Sisyphean acting hell, in which they have to repeat the same scenes opposite the same foils over and over again.
Let’s take these one-by-one. The badass vampire hunter Abraham (David Bradley) has only had a handful of scenes thus far. Across four episodes, all but two of these scenes have involved our protagonists from the CDC telling him to shove off. Sometimes they even go out of their way to seek him out, ostensibly to hear his advice, but really because it’s just a more creative way of telling him to shove off.
How does this happen, by the way? Do CDC doctors really hop on the Red Line to Jamaica Station to catch the Orange Line that gets them the C-train on the Blue Line at Penn in order to have a 2-minute conversation, the only purpose of which is to inform the person they just traveled two hours to see how much they don’t want to talk to him? Did they lose a bet with another doctor?
We need one scene in which our protagonists inform Abraham they don’t believe him. We don’t need one per episode.
Or take Puerto Rican ex-con Felix (Pedro Miguel Arce), who transports the ubervampire across the city in the first episode. It pays so much, it’s the last job he’ll ever do, which is why he’s inexplicably so hard up for cash by episode 4 that he’s stealing SUVs. I get recidivism, but he’s two days off beating up his brother for stealing a clock. There’s no consistency or sense of motivation offered to us. Furthermore, the SUV theft takes up a big chunk of episode 4, along with such critical scenes as insisting the building’s super be nicer to his mom, and arguing over who’ll take out the recyclables. That’s a total of three scenes in one episode. They’re not relevant to anything else. You know how many the main plot gets? Two.
I have news for you: I don’t care who takes out the recyclables. Jesus, I’ll take out the recyclables, just cut to the next scene.
There’s even a city health inspector/exterminator named Vasiliy (Kevin Durand). He’s passed through the same restaurant as another character, and he’s noticed rats are being chased out of the sewers by something sinister. Aside from these fairly circumstantial connections, however, there’s no reason yet given why we’re watching anything he does. Don’t get me wrong – Durand’s portrayal is the definition of charming and I’d gladly (rather) watch a show about him catching rats for a living, but while Vasiliy is completely unconnected to the larger story, he gets more scenes in episodes 2 and 3 than anyone but the main character. Then he doesn’t appear at all in episode 4. Good job, whoever made that call.
The biggest problem with The Strain is that there are so many B-plots, and we’re so focused on them, that the main plot is often only addressed in the opening and closing scenes. Furthermore, the B-plots have to be put on hold for episodes at a time so other B-plots can be introduced or continued.
HOW TO FIX IT?
Lost made a lot of mistakes as a TV show, but it handled the biggest ensemble on TV with a deft hand. Sometimes that meant being forgiving – Matthew Fox’s Jack was meant to die at the end of the first episode, a victim to the mysterious smoke monster, but producers liked him too much to kill him off. He became the beating heart and moral compass of the show for 7 seasons.
And sometimes that meant Lost had to be unforgiving – killing off characters whose actors broke the law outside the show, for instance; diminishing the screentime of actors whose characters proved unpopular; and even cutting ties with Dominic Monaghan, whose name helped launch the show but who wanted to be more of a central figure in it (and who runs his own awesome, globetrotting, nature show on BBC now).
With a cast this big, you’ve got to choose your champions early. Forgive them, be heartless with anyone and everything else. The choices of how to spend screen time in The Strain are the worst I have ever seen made in narrative TV. There have been worse shows, sure – The Strain‘s budget, cast, and production polish are enough to let it get away with a handful of mistakes – but there have been few shows so aimless and easily distracted.
Yes, you have unfortunately read that right. The third episode focuses half its time on the survivors of the airplane outbreak as they turn vampire. We get slow, languorous shots of one drinking blood from a steak. We spent several minutes with the rock star survivor washing his face, taking out his contacts and wig, even peeing (yes, peeing) just before his genitalia fall off.
These are scenes that have been covered in countless vampire, werewolf, and zombie movies. They’re staple, we know them by heart, and unless you’re really introducing something new into the mix, it makes no sense to spend half of each episode on these rote mutations, certainly not at the expense of your two dozen other main cast.
It’s not difficult to realize that watching a man flushing his blackened, detachable genitalia down the toilet doesn’t justify 10 minutes of watching him scrub his face beforehand. In fact, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t justify much of anything.
That rocker with the detachable…you know…we follow so closely in episode 3? Not to be seen in episode 4. In fact, three of the four survivors of the initial outbreak are heavily featured in the third episode. We have no clue what the fourth survivor, presented as the most consequential one starting out, has been up to since credits rolled in episode 2.
Unless the mutations are that special, or the make-up is that revolutionary, handle them in 30 seconds. This is a place where genre shorthand is immensely valuable. The craziest details of the mutation are already handled in the autopsy. This may shock the show’s producers, but watching a man’s hair fall out for 30 minutes? Not nearly as compelling as the giant, bloodsucking leech that grows in his chest cavity and shoots out his throat. Prioritize, people!
But don’t worry, a new character’s just been introduced – a hacker who can singlehandedly shut down New York’s internet without touching anyone else’s. Never mind that this isn’t even how the internet works, or that you’d need a coordinated effort from multiple sources attacking multiple providers to accomplish anything resembling this (this is 80th on the list of things this show didn’t bother to research), but the hacker serves no storytelling purpose. If that’s all she does, don’t waste the scene where we meet her and learn her life details and the vampire goes, “Oh, I’m such an a-hole, I didn’t even expect you to be a woman.”
I already know the vampires are a-holes. You know how? They’re vampires. Just have one vampire turn to the next and say, “Hey, shutting down New York’s internet? Totally nailed it, bro.” Then move on.
HOW TO FIX IT?
Ask yourself a few questions:
Is this necessary to the main plot?
Is this notably different from what other TV shows have done?
If the answer to both is “No,” then either cut it entirely, or edit it down so that it’s handled quickly. When you can’t get to the main plot because you’re drowning in B-plots, and you can’t even get to the B-plots because you’re distracted by moments that don’t even belong to a plot, you’re in grave trouble. It’s like watching characters twiddle their thumbs for an hour. It’s a disaster. Cut, cut, cut – be heartless. Which brings us to our next problem:
Adapting Your Own Work
I suspect the weaknesses of The Strain are in large part due to Guillermo Del Toro’s involvement in adapting his own series of novels. Yes, Del Toro is one of the most important filmmakers working today; he has reshaped the face of modern horror. Yet while he’s successfully written original and adapted material for the big screen before, he’s never before been asked to either adapt his own work or write for TV.
When you’re adapting your own work from one medium into another, you have to treat it with a certain dispassion – scenes you loved writing might not work on TV. They might need to be stripped down and rewritten, combined with other scenes, or even excised entirely. You need to recognize where 30 pages can be condensed into a single shot and where a lone paragraph can evolve into the basis for an entire episode.
I haven’t read the novels, but The Strain shows a great many of the hallmarks of too forgiving an adaptation – too many scenes double and triple each other or play too long, communicating information we already have or can readily infer. Still other scenes occur too late, bending the logic of the real world in order to justify their placement. Characters make decisions based not on any logical, internal consistency, but rather on where they need to be for the next scene.
HOW TO FIX IT?
Again, be heartless. You need someone to be able to supersede Del Toro and tell him what will or won’t work. That should be Cuse’s job – he’s got far more experience in TV storytelling than Del Toro. You need a showrunner with enough creative control to reinterpret and rewrite the story, to eliminate entire characters and plot lines, and who can do so free from the worry that it will upset Del Toro.
When you lack that oversight…well, the extreme example is George Lucas, pod races, and Jar Jar Binks. I wouldn’t say The Strain is that far afield, but it’s certainly doing its best to get there.
Do Your Research
I’m not talking about horror. The Strain sits in that groove comfortably enough. Although I haven’t found a moment that’s really scared me, it has a morose tone that certainly makes those moments possible…one day.
Most commonly used in cop shows, which are all about following a series of steps through to expose the solution to a mystery, The Strain follows what’s called a procedural format.
The issue is that procedurals require at least a passing knowledge of the procedures being followed. Look to the naval codifying and informational hierarchy in The Last Ship or the elimination-based investigations and bureaucratic politics of The Closer and Major Crimes to see what I mean. As a writer, you need to do your research.
Even if what you’re researching doesn’t exist in reality, as in the newer Battlestar Galactica, then you need to make it up and then research the hell out of what you just made up to make sure it’s leak-proof. Even CSI, which completely invents how police actually investigate a crime, at least does its research when it comes to the forensics at the core of the show.
The Strain‘s CDC methodology is a joke. Doctors argue patients should be quarantined while standing unprotected, shoulder-to-shoulder with them. They put research on hold for most of a day while skipping in and out of a hot zone to take care of personal matters. Sean Astin’s Jim is a CDC videographer who has no medical or security expertise, yet he’s left in charge of deciding what passes in and out of an airport-wide quarantine. New York City’s ME’s office goes dark for a day before anybody notices. A patient infested with vampire worms is being treated as if for a disease and is “going in for surgery” that’s never specified, when all research would in reality center around what the worms themselves are sensitive to so they could be poisoned without harming the host. Surgery wouldn’t do crap.
If this is how the CDC operates in the real world, then please go have a nice conversation with your loved ones, because we’re all going to drop dead of Ebola tomorrow.
More damning than not researching the procedures on which it hangs its hat, The Strain doesn’t seem to have researched the elements it’s invented. Everything feels off the cuff, like a campfire story being made up on the spot. That’s fine for 15 minutes at a campfire, but not through four-plus hours of television. I brought up Battlestar Galactica earlier. Yes, everything’s invented in that show – none of it exists in the real world – but the religions, political structures, and technology that were invented were clearly vetted extensively by the creators. They had their own logic.
Even the villains’ logic in The Strain makes little sense: The four surviving passengers are at the core of the second and third episodes – will they be released into an unsuspecting populace or should they be quarantined? It’s posed as the core element to the vampire plan, and yet there seems to be no difference between these four survivors and the 206 dead people the vampires already have hold of. They all feed on blood, and kill, and pass on their little, wormy brethren to make more vamps. In fact, the dead ones seem far more efficient – they’ve already infested others while the survivors are still going all emo about their mutations.
Media snap in and out of existence to harrass CDC officials, veritably stalking one meaningless survivor while paying no attention to the surviving pilot on whom the entire disaster is blamed.
As a viewer, that lack of reliability makes you distrust the story. If the narrator can just change whatever he wants whenever he feels like it and break his own narrative rules when they’re too inconvenient, then where’s the tension? Moreover, if the narrator doesn’t even seem like he’s paying attention, why should you?
HOW TO FIX IT?
The Strain can’t function as a procedural if there are no procedures to follow. Period. It may’ve worked better in any number of other narrative formats. Lost‘s philosophy of focusing on one character’s emotional state per episode while folding them into the group’s overall narrative could’ve worked well, but you have to start combining the characters into larger groups to make this function. Doing so boils down the number of plots you have to follow at once.
If you’re going to maintain such a large ensemble without grouping any of them together early, the smartest way around that is to hold off on introducing the new characters of the second, third, and fourth episodes until later, when they can link with the core ensemble and tell their story at a pace of more than one appearance every other episode.
Above all, don’t make episode 2 about the ratcatcher and episode 3 about the videographer and episode 4 about the ex-con to the exclusion of scenes that actually have something to do with your main plot – you know, the one about that whole vampire outbreak you’re supposed to be having.
We were swamped with protagonist Eph Goodweather’s divorce and custody battle in the first two episodes. Not that I’d like to see anything else having to do with that subplot, but its complete disappearance is scarier than any vampire that lurks in the shadows. Like so many other pointless B-plots in The Strain, it’s just waiting out there somewhere, and when you least suspect it, that’s when it’ll pounce on episode 6, or episode 10, sinking its nasty teeth into the fleshy bits of the main plot. All that will be left of that episode will be the skeletal remains, a fleeting reference to the vampire outbreak in the opening and closing scenes, while the monstrous, bloated B-plot itself takes over the 40 minutes in between and hypnotizes you with its twin powers of utter meaninglessness and pure boredom.
That, my friends…that is evil in its purest form.
Look, if you’re making a series about the experiences of the average person who brushes past this complex, secret plot but knows nothing of it, then make that show, lend us their perspectives, and make that secret plot an actual mystery to us. Give us the viewpoint of the hapless citizens on the ground, coping as best they can with the hellish unknown. If characters must argue about the recyclables, make the argument about trying to keep their grasp on a semblance of normalcy, not about – you know – the actual, damn recyclables.
If you’re making a series about a disease, the procedural investigation of it, and the strategies vampires use to foster an outbreak, then do some medical research and make that show. Give us doctors, and those CDC suits we haven’t seen since the first 10 minutes of the first episode, and people panicking, and arguments about who screwed up which procedure, and long gazes as doctors grimly utter, “You just cost this patient his only chance,” and bureaucratic blame games, and vampires going all President Bartlett on some familiar when he insists he didn’t think the CDC could possibly identify the isomorphic biopolymer streptomashugana so quickly.
And if you’re making a series about the vampire hunter who can’t hunt vampires because all of his scenes are being wasted contemplating restraining orders against CDC employees who track him halfway across the city so they can tell him why he’s stupid and they don’t believe him, then make that show, but please go watch some Night Court and Boston Legal first.
The Strain may have worked best in an epistolary format – in literature, this means stories told entirely through letters, diaries, and newspaper articles (as in Stephen King’s novel Carrie). On TV, I think this could be extended into the visual equivalent – personal narratives, survivor recountings, recollections, found footage, and in-person reports by CDC personnel.
But the procedural? As much as it gets knocked, perhaps no other TV format requires a greater degree of initial research to get a story off the ground. Combine it with sci-fi horror, which requires its own invented consistent logic, and if you’re not willing to do the work in research, in adapting, and in managing your narrative delivery properly, you’ve annihilated your story from the word go.
It may be too late to fix, but figure out quickly what the hell this show is about. It can still include elements and characters from the other strands of plot, but they’ve got to be supporting aspects to something core.
Make it about the vampire hunter assembling some of this crew to hunt down vamps while the CDC races to solve the issue medically, or make it about the political contest to control how the outbreak occurs. Make it about the people on the ground stuck in the middle, or make it about those who are tooth-and-nail against the vamps. Make it about how families are coping with those who are mutating into vampires, or make it about the regret of those who’ve made the outbreak possible in the first place.
But don’t make it about all those things at once. That’s what later seasons are for. Don’t tackle 10 things when you can only realistically address one or two per episode. Make it about one central concept. There’s nothing stopping the other concepts from dropping by and sharing a beer now and then, but the house they’re visiting – the show itself – needs to belong to a single, driving force. You can’t have 10 things living under one roof – that’s how you end up with drama about who takes out the recyclables.