Tag Archives: The Strain

Why “Gotham” is So Damn Good

Gotham lead

by Gabriel Valdez

We’re three episodes into Gotham on Fox. I didn’t expect it to be good. I thought I’d watch a few episodes of something trying way too hard to be stylish and then I’d give up. It would forever fade from memory and every once in a while someone would ask, “Remember when they tried to make Gotham?” and we’d both laugh before forgetting about it again.

How wrong I was, and how glad I am to be that wrong. Gotham is the best new show on TV. It’s the best thing Fox has running and, if it keeps this up, it’s going to be the best show on TV, period.

It poses the story of how Gotham grew from a corrupt city to the noir ideal it is in every version of Batman. The first episode handles the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, and the origins of a young Penguin and Catwoman are already well underway.

All the Gothams before this one have reflected in some way a fantastical city full of our darkest and deepest fears. Whether it’s the 60s modern art lampoon, Frank Miller’s echo of cyberpunk, the dark 90s cartoon that messed with my childhood, or Christopher Nolan’s path-to-a-third-world-country take, Gotham has always felt several steps away from reality, as much fantasy as noir.

Gotham id ego superego

This Gotham is no different in presentation, with lush backdrops, neon highlights, and early morning/late afternoon Blade Runner backlighting – my god, if I lived in Gotham, I’d make a fortune just manufacturing blinds. What the showrunners have recognized, however, is that there’s no need to exaggerate Gotham’s corruption anymore. Corporate monopolies in bed with organized crime, paying off the government through media buys while the cops beat confessions out of whomsoever’s unlucky enough to be standing by? That’s not noir fantasy anymore, that’s an evening watching the news.

The villains may be fantastic, but the internal struggles of characters like Jim Gordon and young Bruce Wayne? That’s the same frustration we see echoed across our news feeds as we read about the climate, cops shooting kids, water burning out of fracked cities’ pipes.

Though the first episode deals with the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, by the end it’s painted a picture of how organized crime relies upon law & order to function most effectively. One isn’t possible without the other.

The second episode, “Selina Kyle,” involves villains snatching children off the street, but by the end of the episode – I’ll avoid major spoilers – it’s not what the villains planned for the children, but what the city does with them, that’s most haunting. They use the threat as justification for taking all the homeless youth off the street and effectively imprisoning them “for their safety.” The public goes along – keeping kids safe sounds good, but in the back of our heads, we’ve been taught streets with less poor people is safer for us. Regardless of whether that’s true or not, regardless of imprisoning children without due process…we go along with it. There’s enough in us to justify it.

Gotham Selina Kyle

This reminds me of the seizure of flooded, low-income property in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, evacuated homeowners only returning to the city to find the administration had changed the law to seize all they owned and shove out the poor. “To protect citizen’s property.” It reminds me of justifications of war to “make the world safer” and “spread democracy” and our first order of business being to sell off another country’s oil fields. It reminds me of Pennsylvania days ago cutting benefits to teachers and forcing them to pay for their classrooms’ textbooks, while it maintains its far more expensive $1.7 billion tax giveaway to Shell in order “to create jobs.”

All good messages. All just enough to make too many nod their heads and go along. Maybe we don’t like it, but…we’ll suffer it.

By Gotham‘s third episode, “The Balloonman,” a vigilante has already arrived on the scene. The point isn’t that he murders a Wall Street tycoon who bilked his investors, a corrupt cop, and a Cardinal who fooled around with children. The point is that his existence is a direct result of actions taken in the second episode.

Yeah, Gotham gets its style right, Jada Pinkett Smith is killing it as Fish Mooney, and Donal Logue gives the best portrayal of corrupt-because-he’s-lazy cop Harvey Bullock we’re ever going to get, but Gotham understands it no longer needs to embellish corruption. The heroes and villains may be supersized, but the reasons for these crimes, a government’s reaction to them…the similarities to our own world are too stark to ignore. You could call this The Shock Doctrine: The Series and it wouldn’t be inaccurate.

Gotham conscience

Let’s take Bullock for a minute. He’s true to the character I knew on the 90s cartoon. Driven by his gut, constantly complaining through mouthfuls of something greasy, willing to beat a suspect, always taking the easiest clue even when it clearly misleads…but when he’s reminded and encouraged, his heart is able to find the right place. Partnering him with Gordon (Ben McKenzie), the show’s ethical code since there isn’t a Batman yet, means that he’s always being reminded and encouraged.

It’s easier to identify with Bullock than with Gordon, though. Gordon is a boy scout. He’s straight-laced, tortured, and intense. Bullock’s the one who knows everybody worth knowing, who can kick his feet up and relax (even when he’s on the job), and who can make you laugh.

This contrast only helps hammer home Gotham‘s point all the more. Here we are, presented with a man who’s giving, involved, trying to do what’s right, and risking his neck for it. We identify with his lazy partner. It’s a genius move on Gotham showrunner Bruno Heller’s part to not just make Bullock the comic relief, but the beating heart of the show. We’re going to worry more if something happens to him than to Gordon.

It’s a critique on its audience, and on the broader values of American culture right now. We’re more like Bullock, it challenges, and we watch the Gordons get swallowed under every day.

Gotham ethics

Look, that’s not going to be racing through your mind as you watch. The show is a design triumph. It features actors just on the right side of hamming it up (some overacted moments in the pilot are drawn back quickly). The music is phenomenal, and weird in all the right places. The plots are solid, but more crucially, the pacing is superb – we get a stylish procedural every week, movement on three origin stories and a larger gang war arc, and there’s still usually time for an Alfred or Gordon monologue. Gotham might have the best pure pacing on TV.

(Compare that to The Strain, where a character can start sneezing and doesn’t finish until we’re reminded he exists five episodes later.)

Gotham – like a Batman movie – even offers opportunities for stately actors to come in and put the pedal to the metal as guest villains for an episode. Lili Taylor’s over-friendly knitter is a joy to behold in the second episode.

You won’t sit down to watch and think, Gordon and Bullock are an analogue for my own internal struggle between intervening and passively accepting. But they are, and you may think about it later, and that struggle – both in the show and in every one of us – that’s Gotham‘s most compelling facet. I want to come back every week not to see if Gotham gets saved, but if I do.

Gotham airs on Fox every Monday night at 8/7 central. You can find it on all the usual culprits – Netflix, Hulu, etc.

“The Strain” — The Full Autopsy

Strain hi would you like to buy some encyclopedias

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.

Strain Vasiliy

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.


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.

Strain Abraham

10-Minute Castrations

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.


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:

Strain Have I Told You About My Divorce Today

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.


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.

Strain 2 goop

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?


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.

Strain 2 where is the coroner

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.

Strain Airplane

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.

“The Strain” Keeps on Straining

Strain 2 goop

#2: “The Box”

When last we left our intrepid CDC experts, they had the gears of New York City working in support of a quarantine. Now, a millionaire vampire who wants the plague free has just convinced the government the 200 dead bodies found in a passenger jet just yesterday are due to an airplane malfunction. This means the four highly contagious survivors are now roaming New York City. Time to get your game on, New York CDC chief Eph Goodweather (you don’t ever use your middle name, do you?)

Any other problems? An Air Transport Control officer’s head brutally bashed in? Cordon it off! Only Eph (Corey Stoll) is allowed! NTSB is taking over the investigation unless Eph can prove this is a plague? What about that box of little wormy things you shoved in everyone’s face last episode? That could freak a couple NTSB folks out. Where did they go? Of course, you could show the National Transportation Safety Board those 200 dead bodies, too, couldn’t you? They’re all the evidence you need to show there’s a pathogen, and the city ME’s office has had eight or so hours to work with them by now. Maybe let’s put the Medical Examiner on with the NTSB, clear this whole mess up.

Or none of those things. None of those things is good too, Eph. We could go track down the surviving pilot, who’s alone at a bar instead of…say, if this were really an NTSB issue…surrounded by 80 lawyers for the airline parsing his every word.

We could also run fun behavioral tests on the wormy things that don’t prove anything, and – despite how absolutely sure you are that the city’s in imminent danger – you could take a break to drive out to your ex-wife’s in Queens to have a heart-to-heart with your son about tomorrow’s custody hearing. I mean, it’s not like your son’s in mortal danger if a disease breaks out, or like the judge would move the hearing if you worked for the CDC and were in an active hot zone. By the way, the distance you’re standing from your son right now…would you say that’s about the same distance you were standing from the four infected passengers this morning when nobody was wearing any protection whatsoever?

But right after that, it’s back to preventing a pandemic with a seeming 98.1% mortality rate from breaking out in one of the world’s most populous cities, right? Well, no. You see, Eph has an AA meeting, and as he explains, keeping your commitments is a big part of AA. Doing his job preventing virulent plagues in New York for the CDC is, apparently, not on that same A-list of commitments. It’s all about prioritizing, I guess. At least I can see why this man’s nickname is Eph now, because he’s an Ephing Moron. I hope his wife gets the kid.

Strain 2 where is the coroner

As for the coroner, who should’ve been the first visit anybody made to settle this whole NTSB/CDC/”is it a plague or isn’t it” thing, he died at the end of last episode. By the end of THIS episode, he’s been dead for 17 hours, about the same time the 200 dead bodies – some of them naked and cut open – got up and walked out of the city coroner’s office, which happens to be on a busy New York Street. Nobody’s noticed. Bystanders probably just assumed it was a flashmob: “Look, honey! That guy’s trailing his intestines. Improv Everywhere’s getting so edgy these days.”

When Eph and Martinez (Mia Maestro) finally remember, “Oh yeah, we have 200 dead bodies that can prove anything we say,” and go to the coroner’s office that evening, they seem to be the very first people who’ve touched the place or noticed everyone’s missing or dead. It just must be one of those special New York City days when no one at all had to call the coroner’s office for anything whatsoever.

“But wait!” you say. Yeah, you’re a thing in this now. Don’t you feel lucky?

“Yes?” I turn my head quizzically, with the hint of a smile on the corners of my lips. My eyes twinkle playfully in the low light as I swirl my snifter of brandy and inhale its oaky aroma.

You look away shyly, taken off guard, but still you must ask: “Surely, the coroner’s office is neck-deep in all that media from the last episode, demanding to know what happened and why the 200 bodies aren’t being released, right? RIGHT?!?”

You would think. That nobody has noticed the coroner or 200 bodies missing for 17 hours is odd, even for our fickle news media. I’m willing to let it slide, though – perhaps this all takes place that day Justin Bieber got arrested.

“What about that old vampire hunter?” you ask. “He seemed interesting.”

He did, didn’t he? He has a single, early scene – he talks to a vampire from behind glass at the city lockup. You see, he’s been arrested for having a cane with a sword in it. Which I guess is a crime worthy of getting you locked up for three days without any kind of phone call or bail hearing. (Come on. It’s the NYPD. He’s white and wasn’t arrested at a protest. They can’t stay mad at each other for a whole 3 days.) Anyway, it’s by far the best scene in the thing – a clever give-and-take between two mortal (or immortal) enemies. If this show were just that scene and nothing else, I’d be endorsing it whole-heartedly.

Instead, you’ll be glad to know that the most interesting character in the whole show – you know, the one who’s ACTUALLY a VAMPIRE HUNTER and keeps his lover’s beating heart alive in a jar in his basement and who monologues about cutting up bloodsuckers and dumping them in the North Sea – is only in one scene. A city health inspector we’ve never met before gets three scenes. He must be really important, right? Yep, he shuts down a restaurant that has nothing to do with anything except that one of the airplane survivors eats at it. Compelling TV, that. However will they get their Michelin star back? Not to mention the Yelp reviews.

Does the rat he finds at the eatery have the little wormy things? Have the customers eaten the worms? Because that would be interesting and relevant and scary. So no, none of those things happen. If it’s interesting and relevant and scary you’re looking for, you came to the wrong show. Let me reiterate – these scenes have zero to do with anything else. (And come on. It’s New York City. The rats are your drinking buddies at the bar, and that’s not even a metaphor. If they shut down every restaurant with a rat in it, forget the vampire pandemic – the city would starve to death in a week.)

You’ll also be glad to know that some rich dude who looks like an elderly-Henry Winkler stand-in makes a deal with the vampire overlord. Has something to do with his liver going and having days to live. The vampire gets some dialogue. It’s in English. What’s he say? Damned if I know, cause it makes Bane and Batman’s wheeze-vs.-grunt conversations from the last Dark Knight seem crystal clear.

In the end, we know nothing more about The Strain than we did starting out. Unless you wanted to know about Eph’s divorce. Then we know a lot more, and that’s what The Strain advertised on, after all: learn more about Eph Goodweather’s painfully uninteresting divorce. Who will he tell about it next week, and how will they get out of it?

The Strain‘s mystery does have some hooks into me, though, because I can’t help but give voice to the one crucial question this episode’s begging me to ask: When is someone going to get back to that dead Air Transport Control officer in the basement? He’s starting to smell by now, Eph.

Miss Part One of my Strain recaps? Read it here.

Should You Watch? ‘The Strain’

Strain Airplane

The Strain
“Night Zero”

“Screw the inevitable vampire outbreak, let me explain my divorce proceeding to you one more time.” This isn’t a direct quote, but it covers close to half the run time of The Strain‘s two hour premier. There’s a certain thinking in TV drama that vampire outbreaks and murder and planes full of people dying and zombie thralls and worms that eat their way through your eyeballs just aren’t interesting enough unless the main character explains his broken family life to everyone he encounters.

Yes, it’s important to establish your protagonist has a life before his first episode, but just maybe we could hear a bit about the supervampire’s family life, or the ancient vampire hunter’s family life, or – I don’t know, crazy thought here – the plane full of 200 dead people you’re supposed to be investigating instead of telling random passersby about your divorce proceeding.

The Strain is based on a series of novels horror maestro Guillermo del Toro co-wrote with Chuck Hogan. Now, FX’s original programming has been consistently inventive and off-kilter. Nip/Tuck, The Shield, and Sons of Anarchy were long the network’s flagships, now replaced by American Horror Story, Justified, and the Peabody-winning The Bridge. FX has also made a habit of dissecting and lampooning the male gaze in comedies like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Louie, and Archer. This year’s Fargo has made the network’s biggest mark on the Emmys in years and, while I haven’t seen it, The Americans has been critically lauded and keeps Keri Russell employed, so I’m all in favor.

Yet FX wants a bigger piece of the cable pie, to go toe-to-toe with AMC (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead), and this summer season’s shows have left us wanting. You can’t help but feel Tyrant is filmed on a series of L.A. backlots, which is all the more strange since it’s filmed in Israel, but strange filmmaking choices and subpar editing make it feel too precious to be taken realistically.

Strain Abraham

Which brings us back to The Strain, which FX has pushed hard. The show begins much like the pilot for Fringe, with a plane that stops responding mid-taxi on the runway: it’s gone dark, the pilots don’t respond, and all 200 passengers on board suddenly appear dead. Yet there’s none of Fringe‘s colorful, pop-art sensibility or whip-smart casting (let alone its quantum theosophy), and there’s none of the investigative, tone-poem build-up we once loved about The X-Files.

The Strain wants to be a procedural, or at least its pilot episode does, yet no procedures are followed. Characters do as they want, and not in a tongue-and-cheek, I’m-the-hero kind of way, but in a where’s-my-mark, what’s-my-line style that makes it seem like so many monkeys with typewriters submitted drafts and nobody bothered to check that it all fit together. The Strain‘s one-note mood of incredible self-seriousness means that it’d better have some logic or a damn good lead actor to fall back on. Instead: “let me explain my divorce proceeding to you one more time.”

The Strain is far more concerned with characters’ intersecting broken romances than with the 200 dead people on a plane, and its moments of gore – while splattery enough for a midnight feature – are so out-of-place that you wonder if the cat sat on the remote and accidentally switched you to Starz.

The main character, a CDC epidemiologist played by Corey Stoll, is named Ephram, or Eph for short. Every time someone addresses Eph, it sounds like they started to swear but suddenly remembered they’re on cable TV, where you can graphically smash a man’s head into cement pudding for a minute straight, but you’d better not cuss.

Few shows in history have so desperately needed a script supervisor. Before knowing how the disease spreads, Eph and his CDC crew inspect the plane’s unloaded cargo in plain clothes, using no precautions. Two scenes later, CDC personnel are sealing up that same cargo Eph and friends just ran their hands up and down, except now they’re using protective gear and contained breathers.

Strain Have I Told You About My Divorce Today

Even after the CDC establishes that the virus is passed on by disgusting, little, wormy things that crawl through your skin, they fail to warn the coroner, who’s autopsying all 200 infested dead bodies alone (because that seems like an efficient use of resources) and whose protective gear amounts to a pair of latex gloves. Instead of calling and saying, “Hey, there are these crazy wormy things that burrow through skin,” Eph wanders the airport, bringing his little box of highly contagious wormy things that just killed 200 people on a field trip to the security office, to the main concourse, to the parking lot, and waving them around as he talks to everyone in sight.

For its first few seasons, The X-Files could barely afford cameras or sets, but it made the world around us terrifying by giving its horrors consistent logic of their own, logic which gave every shadow down every hallway the possibility of hiding something vicious just waiting to be misunderstood. Consistency. Logic. It’s what good horror is built on. It’s why we don’t mind every X-Files takes place in an office building or a dark cave, and every Supernatural takes place in the same hotel room. Yet it’s what’s wholly missing from The Strain. Guillermo del Toro’s other work (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone) prides itself on these qualities, but he both co-wrote the teleplay and directed the pilot for The Strain, so the blame for this mess has to lie with him.

Furthermore, I don’t expect every TV show to get the procedure of federal agencies right, but if you’re going to house yourself in the structure of a bone dry procedural, then you shouldn’t be embarrassingly ill-researched. At the very least, if you’re just going to make it up, at least be consistent about those details you yourself create. Making it worse, The Strain‘s complete disregard for credibility is combined with a relentless humorlessness and misplaced character struggles – at one point, the 200 unexplained deaths, a missing vampire coffin, and wormy things run amuck are all sidelined so we can spend time on what’s really important: Eph’s very mild discomfort with public speaking. Lord knows why. He opens up to everyone else with, “Let me explain my divorce proceeding to you one more time.”

This gives way to the pilot episode’s worst scene, when Eph addresses the media and victims’ families. A grieving father charges him, slaps him across the face, and – despite security and police essentially hanging out of Eph’s pockets – the father turns around and monologues at length to the world media about how cheesily he misses his daughter. This dad explains he couldn’t care less if his daughter’s dead or not, but it’s unfair the CDC hasn’t released her body for a whole two hours. Talk about confused priorities. If he were evil, we could see a motive, but he’s not, so it doesn’t make any sense, let alone an emotional connection. It only makes one wonder how the hell such a scene got past…well, anyone involved.

Future episodes look like The Strain‘s dull faux-CDC shell might be cracked for some shiny vampire-bashing. This would require the show shifting more time to elderly vampire hunter Abraham (David Bradley), who gives the show a little cogent mystery, but is otherwise thoroughly wasted. I’ll give The Strain a second episode out of loyalty to del Toro, but this is by far the worst thing he’s directed. Any goodwill I had stocked to forgive the show any potential flaws has been completely tapped out. The Strain has some good set design at points, but that’s it. Everything else insults the viewer at the most fundamental levels of storytelling.