FX's new horror series The Strain wears its heart on its sleeve. Sure, that heart may be a decades-old blood-slurping organ floating in a grimy jar, but it still beats. And it makes The Strain surprisingly sappy.
Don't fret, horror buffs, there are plenty of graphic, I-did-not-need-to-see-that moments, at least in the first four of 13 episodes from showrunner Carlton Cuse (Lost), author Chuck Hogan and filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labryinth, Pacific Rim, Hellboy), based on Hogan and del Toro's vampire horror book trilogy. Heads go kersplat, parasites wriggle under people's skin, blood is spilled and ingested — the show has all the makings of a classic creepy gore fest. (Seriously, watch it with the lights out at your own peril.)
Take the voiceover that begins the first episode, airing Sunday: "There is a … force … an unquenchable thirst that cannot be extinguished. Its very existence is what defines us, what makes us human. That force is love."
It's an odd set-up for the horror-movie scenario that follows: When hundreds of people are mysteriously found dead on an airplane that lands in New York City, Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll, who is reliably watchable but might be better with stronger material), the chief medical officer for the Centers for Disease Control, sets out to find the cause. He stumbles upon a wormy parasite, an ancient strain of vampirism that slowly infects four survivors onboard.
A scene in the first episode in which Goodweather and his colleague Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) investigate the plane is wrought with the kind of spine-tingling tension and eeriness you'd expect from a series whose promotional materials included a gross-out image of a parasite wriggling out of an eyeball.
But The Strain has a misplaced current of sentimentality running through it, and too often it threatens to infect the otherwise compelling mystery at the show's core.
The first time we see Goodweather (people call him "Eph," ugh), he's not tackling CDC business, but heading to a court-mandated custody hearing with his estranged wife. It's a snoozefest of a scene that brings the intriguing opening sequences to a grinding halt.
It's a prime example of the show's tendency to devolve into melodramatic antics that have no place next to scenes like the one in which a monster squishes a guy's head. We don't need to see Goodweather caring deeply about his family to realize why he'd want to help save humanity. (Later episodes are even worse in this regard, introducing an out-of-left-field alcohol addiction and a new pseudo father for Eph's son. Neither are as interesting as the parasites.)
There are other distractions, like an ex-con (Miguel Gomez) living with his mom in Spanish Harlem and an exterminator (Kevin Durand) who has an affinity for killing rats. They're mildly interesting characters, but it's all just a bit too much, and four episodes in, their connection to the main mystery isn't totally clear.
Things get more blood-curdling after the first two episodes, as we learn more about the history of the parasitic virus and who's behind it. Especially intriguing is a Holocaust survivor (David Bradley) who's been through this before (he's the one who keeps that jarred heart alive). He tries to warn the CDC crew, who of course won't listen, of the impending doom by muttering cryptic things like: "You think that being good is enough? Being good means nothing unless you are willing to do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done." (Dialogue is not this show's strength.)
The fourth episode, with an emphasis on the vampire epidemic, is the strongest yet.
Maybe that's because the vampires are the series' greatest achievement. They're creepy and unpredictable in all the right ways, giving the show a verve that it sorely lacks when it pauses to check in on the personal lives of its characters. With their elongated tongues and parasitic origins, these vamps are a totally new breed, nothing like the now-overused creatures the Twilight movies dreamed up.
Come on, The Strain, don't be afraid to get your fangs bloody.
Michelle Stark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @mstark17.