Most of this is owed to the monster story’s central conceit – that it ain’t easy being green … or hungry … or blood-thirsty – and most of the genre’s finest examples manage to deliver a powerful undercurrent of sympathy for the ogre, the Frankenstein, and even the vampire. After all, they’re the original victim, you see. In fact, most of them never ‘chose’ to be that way; and now they’re forced to live a life wherein they can’t escape that singular monstrosity – life itself – and we as an audience are taken along for a thrilling ride, one which all too often ends in their ignominious defeat.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
In many ways, THE STRAIN’s second season was an improvement over the first, a run of thirteen hours that (necessarily) spent a lot of time setting pieces of the ‘big game’ on the board more than it did put any of them in motion. Those first thirteen hours – like the first act of a three-act play – introduced audiences to Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (the omnipresent Corey Stoll), Abraham Setrakian (the venerable David Bradley), Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel), and the greater cast of characters, sparing little time for the kind of ‘character beats’ which inevitably help audiences care about their individual and collective fates. Season Two amped up those moments … but more often than not the results were middling to downright frustrating at times.
Too much time was wasted on unproductive relationships. For example, the aging Eldritch Palmer was given a romance (one methinks most viewers found downright implausible if not – well – icky) with show newcomer Lizzie Brocheré as the comely Coco Marchand; the fact that Coco was young enough to be a child Eldritch’s granddaughter once babysat was a calculated creative misfire. Setrakian spent far too much time and energy obsessed with locating an ancient tome – one that promised to a key to defeating the vampires – but little explanation was offered as to what good would immediately come from it; and the pursuit of it via purchase then auction then theft felt more of a screenwriter’s creation than it did anything organic. And Goodweather’s descent into alcoholism? Well, it wasn’t handled well over its proposed arc, leaving viewers to wonder why those around him didn’t see it coming as easily as the audience did.
There are a few others, but I’d rather not beat a dead horse here, as there’s nothing more to be gained. THE STRAIN is what it is at this point, and perhaps Season Three will help right the ship, bring the characters back together in a fashion that engages those still onboard with it, and ratchet up the evil surrounding Eichort’s villainy and The Master’s deviousness. As bad guys go, the show certainly has two worth following in those two creations; saddling those seeking to rid the Earth of their scum with situations more befitting nighttime soap operas is rarely a way to endear sympathy.
Put more simply, THE STRAIN works best when 'Good Vs. Evil' remains center stage, even when those moments are played out in the present or in flashbacks as the screenwriters have been prone to explore. Viewers will sit through exposition and character development so long as it serves the main thrust of the series, not when it gives actors and actresses acting 'meat' for meat's sake. Maybe I'm a 'stick to the issues' kinda guy, but that faithfulness always achieves results, even when they're paired with mild disappointment.
All that said, THE STRAIN is a show that I want so very much to like so very much more than I so very much do. It has a solid cast, and – even though a few characters aren’t as fleshed out as they could be – the talent makes good strides through even the most cumbersome plot developments and contrivances. There’s a part of me that honestly believes that there’s some genius potential yet untapped in the SciFi/Horror storytelling (especially on television), and THE STRAIN just might fit that bill … so long as it can leave the melodrama behind, centralize the narrative around its strongest characters, and spill blood only when necessary (not merely BECAUSE it’s expected).
RECOMMENDED. Far from perfect, THE STRAIN still offers enough escapism to warrant being part of any genre fan’s visual diet … but let’s not kid ourselves: the melodrama only works so far as the characters appeal to us. Bring back the scientist Goodweather. Bring back the hunt for a cure while balancing it with the stand against evil. Heroes are allowed to “fall off the wagon” from time to time, but when the world’s at stake let’s everybody pull ourselves together and get the job done, no?
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at 20th Century Fox provided me with a DVD set of THE STRAIN: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.