Guillermo del Toro is the kind of filmmaker who leaves me wanting more – just not always in the best way. Whether he's adapting someone else's work with the “Hellboy” films, or inventing his own stories with something like “Pan's Labyrinth,” del Toro leaves no hallucinatory stone unturned, no burst of inspiration unexplored. I've often walked out of his movies impressed by the depth and breadth of the creativity on display, yet frustrated at how little time there was to thoroughly explore it all. I wouldn't want to take away the big budgets and fancy effects work that he can apply to something like “Pacific Rim,” but I've been itching for a while to see what del Toro might do with an ongoing television series, where he could drill down deep and expand each concept to its fullest, rather than rushing to fit them all into two hours.
“The Strain,” the new FX drama adapted from the trilogy of vampire novels written by del Toro and Chuck Hogan, does not disappoint on that front. Television needs another vampire drama like the Germans needed a few extra goals in the match with Brazil, but “The Strain” (it debuts Sunday night at 10) is packed with so much macabre imagery and so many clever ideas that it doesn't feel like the resuscitation of a tired genre, but the launch of something new and fun.
The angle that del Toro, Hogan and company (including veteran “Lost” showrunner Carlton Cuse) have taken on the familiar genre is to cast it as an epidemiology study. Our hero is Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll from “House of Cards”), a doctor in the New York field office of the CDC, and when a plane lands at JFK with the passengers and crew seemingly dead from causes unknown, Goodweather and his team (played by Mia Maestro and Sean Astin) start running through their usual protocols – not imagining that this could be part of an elaborate plot to turn New York, and then parts beyond it, into an enormous incubator for the undead.
To that end, del Toro and Hogan's vampires don't simply develop sharper incisors and a paler skin tone upon being bitten, but have their entire biology rewritten, with some new organs coming and some familiar ones going, so that at times they resemble H.R. Giger's “Alien” design as much as they do Count Dracula or Bill Compton.
Now, because the vampire market is so oversaturated, there can be a risk of overthinking tweaks on the formula, which is how you wind up with something like NBC's “Dracula,” which decided to recast the most famous vampire of them all as an alternate energy mogul who occasionally remembered he could bite people. “The Strain” is not that, but rather a deft blend of the old and the new. We get Goodweather and his team trying to diagnose the cause and effect of this terrible outbreak, but we also have David Bradley (Walder Frey from “Game of Thrones”) as Abraham Setrakian, a Holocaust survivor who has a long history with vampires in general and vampire frontman Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel) in particular. It should feel like characters from two wildly incompatible genres have wandered into each other's story, but it works.
A major reason why it works is that del Toro, Cuse, Hogan and company are aware on some level how ridiculous this all is, and don't shy away from that. “The Strain” doesn't play as camp (mostly), but nor does it take itself too seriously(*). It's terrifying or disgusting when it wants to be, but also light and nimble whenever it can be. It's cheesey, but respectably so.
(*) Its most consistent weak spot – a subplot about Goodweather trying to get joint custody of his son – is the show at its most earnest and dull. I appreciate the desire to give the hero a backstory and some characterization beyond the scope of his job, but those scenes fall flat – and, not coincidentally, are the times when the phoniness of Stoll's wig is most apparent. (Somewhere, Megan Boone's wig stylist on “The Blacklist” is sending Stoll's toupee wrangler a heartfelt thank you note for deflecting the attention on this key issue of our time.)
The series maintains a brisk pace (the four episodes I've seen span only a few days from the initial outbreak), but also takes advantage of the TV format to take its time introducing certain characters and storylines. Kevin Durand turns up in the second episode as city exterminator Vasiliy Fet, and while it's obvious how his profession will eventually get him involved in this particular fight, in the short term “The Strain” is content to enjoy watching this very large, strange gentleman enthusiastically lecture people about rat infestations.
With three books to adapt over multiple seasons, there should be plenty of time to examine every weird, scary or funny burst of imagination from del Toro and Hogan. I wasn't especially looking forward to another vampire drama, but I'm eager to see all the strange twists, turns and appendages of this one.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org