Tag Archives: The Walking Dead

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.

Wednesday Collective — All About Games

by Vanessa Tottle

Guess who’s running Wednesday Collective this week! Gabe just had his birthday. He’s 31, which is ancient. Please everybody, wish him well while you still can. He wanted time off to climb into his final repose and breathe one last breath in a futile attempt to blow out an incredibly high number of candles, so I demanded to take over the rest of the week. I can’t destroy the whole thing in a few days, can I? Maybe, maybe not, but I can try.

ARTICLE OF THE WEEK
“Striptease”
Cara Ellison

Striptease

Gabe asked me to write a second opinion for Under the Skin. It’s all about how I want to see Scarlett Johansson play Hannibal Lecter one day. “Can you still hear them, Jesse Eisenberg? Can you hear the silence of the lambs?” He ended his first opinion by saying Under the Skin does something no other movie has – it tricks you into trying to inhabit the perspective of a sexual predator. I think he’s right.

But to video games, someone else’s perspective is the starting point. In video games, you have agency over character actions; in movies, you don’t. To progress in video games, you have to follow instructions. A few developers have been brave enough to give us some pretty nasty instructions, seeing how far we’re willing to go past our own moral boundaries. Sometimes you get a choice in the narrative – good path or bad – but sometimes the only moral path is to turn off your rig.

When I fly overseas, there’s nothing I love better than to spend the entire flight playing The Walking Dead or Papers, Please, or something else mega-depressing. If the plane crashes on my way there, I’ll be playing selfishly, divesting myself of the last of my American-dream pursuing greed and self-interest. If the plane crashes on the way back, I’ll be selflessly sacrificing my own needs for those around me, girding myself with as much selflessness as I can for my L.A. transfer.

I used to have panic attacks and need a sick bag. I grew up having agency taken away from me, and there’s nothing worse for that than flying 30,000 feet over the Pacific in a tin can for 12 hours. Just ask William Shatner. But when I’m deciding the fate of Clem or the immigrants of Arstotzka or, if it’s really bad, zoning on Civilization 5 or Endless Space for the entire trip, I’m the most powerful person on the plane. While you’re watching the in-flight, I’m saving nations, building wonders, and expanding colonies into space.

So Gabe’s big “look what this movie just did” is where many video games start by forcing you into another person’s perspective. Suck it, movies! (I’m kidding. I really don’t want to take away from the power and grace of Under the Skin. It’s an incredible work of art.) But today we’re here for video games, and no other form of art gives us the kind of agency they do.

And when it comes to writing about games, Cara Ellison is the future. Observe her recurring S.EXE column at Rock Paper Shotgun: Her latest article is on the game “Striptease,” which tricks you into the perspective of a sexual predator. (Before anyone starts yelling about how it’s going to turn young’uns into perverts, please observe that after Silence of the Lambs, teenagers didn’t start eating their mailman’s liver. Besides, the game is intended for adults.) “Striptease” is an indie game that forces players to confront some uncomfortable realities about gender dynamics through dissociating puzzle-based gameplay, a forcefully goal-oriented rewards system, and art design that suggests at the behind-the-scenes results of your actions.

“Cancer, the Video Game”
Jenn Frank

That Dragon 2

This was my favorite article from last year. The game That Dragon, Cancer seems to ask: if video games are about agency, what happens when that agency is taken away from you in the ways that matter most? It’s a question I’ll have to begin facing as my aunt and uncle get older and their health begins to fail, as the people who once showed me the world can be a place of kindness and who taught me I could have agency in my own life begin to lose the agency in theirs. It’s already started; they seem like worn versions of their younger selves, bright and energetic yet with the edges frayed.

If poetry, movies, and books can investigate how we face death emotionally, what will the one art form that gives us true agency have to teach? I fear I’ll be graceless and incompetent when facing the deaths of my loved ones; but maybe there’s something out there where I can practice, learn, and gird myself for it the same way I save the world in order to gird myself to land in L.A.

Gamers with Disabilities
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

Quantum of Solace

The most overlooked benefit of video games is how they give agency to people who lack it. If running all over Hyrule or Ferelden or Tamriel feels empowering to you, imagine how it feels to someone who can’t use their arms or legs. It’s why I play games on planes. I might not have control over whether the plane crashes or not, but I can still lead the Iroquois to be the first empire to reach the information age, or maybe just save a family from aliens if it’s a shorter flight.

Edwin’s brother Euan has down syndrome. He struggles with fine motor control and will never be able to do some of the things that able-bodied Edwin will. But anytime they like, the two can throw down in an evenly matched fight, Euan can rescue Edwin from a horde of zombies, or they can heroically jump through time to save the world. How awesome is it that a young man with down syndrome can heroically save the world? I don’t see Hollywood making that movie, but every day, in homes across our humble, little planet, men and women who are depressed, or face severe disabilities, or cope with trauma, or maybe just had a really, really shitty day get to strap in, save the world, and make a difference.

I know it puts a little pep in my step when I land. You want to knock my name off a study I put months into? I wouldn’t have taken this crap ten minutes ago when I was upgrading my armor to prepare for battle. You have a ten thousand dollar suit, a corner table, and you only order top shelf? Big deal. I just saved the universe. If Commander Shepard wouldn’t fall for that laundry list, why should I? What else you got?

Euan may have down syndrome, but it doesn’t mean he’s any different from the rest of us. Everyone lacks agency in some way. Play hero enough and you may learn to act the part.

The Evolution of Final Fantasy
Kevin Kryah

Final Fantasy 7

It might not be the most respected franchise anymore, but Final Fantasy is one of the longest running in video games. There was an era that lasted several games in which it told emotionally complex stories and could do no wrong. Many games (and movies and books) struggle to do that just the one time. The Artifice recounts the history of Final Fantasy and analyzes the evolution of the series’ storytelling practices.

The Evolution of BioShock
Simon Parkin

BioShock

Gabe told me about this article: the games industry is still very young. This talks about the crazy path Irrational Games took in developing BioShock. The company itself ran as if they learned management straight out of The Office, firing employees on their first day for practical jokes and overhauling the entire development because of a single focus group. It’s fascinating because it took the newer employees who thought video games could be something more, the company could work in a different way, and the game could make a tougher social statement to pull the career developers out of a design that would have been redundant to everything else coming out at the time. Instead, they came up with something that changed the industry.

“Johnny Express”

And finally a short movie, because there need to be more rad movies about astronauts accidentally destroying entire cultures now that Futurama is off the air.