The vampires in FX's new thriller, "The Strain," are not -- repeat, not -- romantic. They're not brooding or conflicted or passionate or sparkly. They do not pout, pose or toss off come-hither glances. And not a single one of them looks anything like Alexander Skarsgard.
As fans might expect from creature-creator extraordinaire Guillermo del Toro, the undead in this horror series are truly terrifying. They're also parasitic and viral, the product of a kind of contagion that single-mindedly seeks out hosts. They have slimy, retractable stingers in their mouths that latch onto their victims' necks, making surgical-grade incisions for blood sucking, and their copious poop smells like ammonia.
So, yeah, nothing sexy about these killers.
Executive producer and show runner Carlton Cuse ("Lost," "Bates Motel") said during a recent conference call with reporters that he signed on for "The Strain" in part to upend the current notion in pop culture that vampires are smoking-hot love interests. It was time, he said, to return "to the conception of vampires as really scary, dangerous creatures."
Done and done. And if that appeals to you as a TV viewer, this just may become your new summer obsession. If you're easily freaked out? Not so much.
Episode 1, dubbed "Night Zero," introduces the contagion when a plane lands on the tarmac at JFK airport in New York. The 767 wide-body from Berlin, with 210 people aboard, sits mute, with no activity on board or communication from the cockpit. Forgive, if you will, the dialogue from the first air traffic controllers on the scene: "This is bad. Real bad," one says. "We've got ourselves a dead airplane."
That this situation rings more bells with the Centers for Disease Control than it does with Homeland Security gives a telling peek into the show's psyche. Epidemiology first! It also brings the prime mover/heroes into the picture – handsome, milk-swilling CDC specialist Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), head of the "Canary Project," and his gorgeous right-hand-gal-biochemist Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro). Yes, they had a thing.
Never one to withhold the goods, del Toro, by this point, has already given viewers a look at the godfather of all vamps. That happens in the first few minutes of the series, as the oversized predator decimates a couple of curious flight attendants who just had to explore that commotion in the cargo hold.
Dr. Eph and Nora, spouting lots of science talk during their examination of the plane, find that 206 people are dead(ish). Only three passengers and a pilot make it out alive(ish) and they're promptly but temporarily put into quarantine for testing to find out what viral agent caused this mass catastrophe. Why the short-term care when there's a potential deadly outbreak? Politics, politics, rock star, attorney.
And what about that weird 9-foot-tall, dirt-filled "cabinet," as Eph calls it, that was on board but not on the manifest? Never mind, its owner will retrieve it later.
There are a number of characters introduced in the pilot of "The Strain," based on the New York Times bestselling novels from del Toro and Chuck Hogan. Gus is a gangbanger who gets recruited (blackmailed?) into driving the King of the Vamp's coffin into midtown. He has way too much swagger to be a minor player, plus he really loves his mommy, so expect to see plenty more of him. There's also Vasiliy, played by Kevin Durand, who chases vermin as one of the city's top exterminators and can sense the coming apocalypse from reading rat behavior.
Kelly Goodweather is Eph's so-over-it ex-wife, who's taken up with a stable but boring manager of a big-box retail store, and Zach is the son she's fighting to keep all to herself. The less said about that scenario the better. (In a nutshell: Eph is A-list at his job, but he failed as a husband and father.)
Eldritch Palmer is the evil, sickly billionaire and head of the aptly named Stoneheart Group who's in league with the Master, as the granddaddy of all vamps is called. Palmer (played by Jonathan Hyde) wants to live forever, and he's willing to trade all this money and clout, not to mention the living population, to get it. Hyde bears more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Burns of "The Simpsons," but he's the utterly unredeemable version here, and he sets all the mayhem in motion. He also has a reptilian henchman he calls Herr Eichhorst, so you know he's up to no good.
But by far the most interesting co-star is Abraham Setrakian, a professor, Holocaust survivor and vampire hunter who runs a Harlem pawn shop. He's old and grizzled, and he needs blood thinners, but make no mistake: This guy's a badass. He carries a sword, for crying out loud. Casting was key for this role. It's distinguished British actor David Bradley, who recently horrified "Game of Thrones" fans as Walder Frey, mastermind of the red wedding. He's much more benevolent here.
Setrakian, on hearing the breaking news about the mysterious plane and all its unfortunate souls, figures that the Master has come to Manhattan. (They've met before, and it didn't end well). He tries to share his decades of vampire knowledge with Eph and Nora, but it mainly comes off in demented sound bites like, "I've seen this disease," "Sever the heads" and "The bodies must be destroyed," so they just think he's a lunatic. He ends up in the slammer.
Don't fret. He'll be back.
Meanwhile, the medical examiner is working his way -- completely alone -- through a couple of hundred bodies to try to find out what "killed" these peaceful looking folks. He discovers all kinds of abnormalities, like an identical wound in every neck, still-functioning organs and, wait for it, no blood!
He also finds the white worms, one of the creepiest and most indelible images of the show. Not that any viewer will be able to scrub that picture, but keep those worms in mind for later. Eph and Nora found them during another study of the plane and called them "something new." Everyone else just calls them disgusting.
As anyone who's ever seen a vampire flick could predict, those dead(ish) travelers reanimate in that deserted morgue and, with no one there to give him a hand, the poor medical examiner gets swarmed. Is it comforting or insult to injury that Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" is playing on his iPod?
Note: No character in this episode says the word vampire, not even when a little girl who "died" on the plane shows up at her doorstep and walks into the arms of her grieving father.
Random odds and ends we learn from Episode 1, taking into account that del Toro has been a lifelong vampire and genre fan and yet he and his colleagues want to reenvision some of the well-known lore:
Vampires can fly. Well, at least the Master can become airborne.
Vampires really do "live" in coffins, and they need help crossing a body of water.
Vampires are driven not just by hunger but by love (as in, if they love you, they'll probably kill you first).
The Master has some connection to World War II-era Nazis.
Sunlight and silver are still kryptonite.