FX really wanted to make an impression in marketing its first true genre series, Guillermo del Toro’s “The Strain,” so executives went with a stunning visual image on billboards in New York and Los Angeles.
Two words: eye worm.
The ads, showing a thin, white worm coming out of a human eyeball, so wigged out some commuters that the cable network took the giant ads down and replaced them with slightly less disturbing artwork. (The original image, now a controversy-stoked calling card, can still be found on the Web and elsewhere).
Del Toro and show runner Carlton Cuse later explained to reporters during a conference call that the people who got twitchy and took to social media to vent likely weren’t the show’s target audience anyway.
It’s probably best to have scared those folks away early, at least in advance of Episode 3, because the invertebrate-carried virus takes center stage in the most visceral way. So, so many worms! The surviving pilot of Regis Flight 753 is literally crawling with them.
And there’s other physiological weirdness taking place. Gabe, another survivor, is transforming, not so slowly, from outrageous rock star to undead predator. His blood is boiling, his eyes are demon-like and his hair is falling out in huge clumps. And, oh yeah, by the end of the hour, he’s “gone smooth.”
Hate to spoil that scene for you, but do be prepared to see the first of Del Toro’s sexless creatures in all its naked “glory.”
It’s Del Toro’s way of conveying a “revolting version” of vampirism, instead of “the GQ version” that has become all the rage in pop culture, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker recently said at the Television Critics Assn.’s summer press tour.
“These are really brutal creatures -- they’re not going to take you to dinner,” he said on a panel with Cuse and some cast members. “They’re going to drink a person like you’d drink a little box of Capri Sun, then crush it and throw it away.”
That’s what the series’ heroes are up against, but they don’t even know it yet. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro), doctors working on the Centers for Disease Control’s “Canary Project,” have suspected all along that a contagion killed 206 people on board that transatlantic flight. But first they lost their survivors because involuntary quarantine is such a political hot potato. And now they’ve lost a morgue full of stiffs because of reanimation.
Viewers have seen already how far the infected’s stingers can go, shooting nearly six feet out of their mouths to latch onto a victim’s jugular. But in this episode, which is, in fact, called “Gone Smooth,” fans learn how far the tentacles of the evil Stoneheart Group reach in stoking the coming vampire plague.
CDC worker Jim Kent, played by Sean Astin of “Lord of the Rings,” helped pave the way for the king of all vampires, known as the Master, to get out of the security perimeter at New York's JFK airport. Samwise, how could you?
It turns out he had a good reason in the form of a cancer-stricken wife who will now be admitted to a potentially life-saving drug trial. If he hadn’t cooperated with the plan to spirit the Master’s coffin across the East River? The reptilian Stoneheart minion named Herr Eichhorst would have been less than pleased.
That same asset-heavy corporation leaked fake information to the media, claiming the passengers on Flight 753 died of carbon monoxide poisoning. It was a complete red herring, but enough to get Eph and Nora tossed off the case.
To tie up a loose end and further distract from the impending vampocalypse, Eichhorst paid a visit to the airline’s CEO, putting a bullet in his brain.
There’s exposition aplenty in this episode, which Del Toro and Cuse have defended as necessary, even though they’ve already heard fan grumblings about the scarcity of vampires in the series so far.
Eph and Nora found only empty body bags -- no vamps -- at the wrecked morgue. Eph found no devil daughter or freshly attacked dad when he tried to check on a “survivor” sighting. And handsome vermin exterminator Vasiliy began to realize the city was up to its high-rises in rats, but didn’t find the cause of their sudden mass movement.
We do get a peek at Eichhorst without his daytime makeup and learn that he needs prosthetics, a toupee and a ton of pancake to hide his true vampiric self.
And speaking of toupees … there’s been quite a bit of Internet chatter about Stoll’s wig. The actor, perhaps best known for “House of Cards,” is rather famously bald, and fans like him that way. They’ve said via social media that they’re distracted by his character’s bushy hairpiece.
Cuse and del Toro, during the TCA panel, said they made the hair-raising decision because they needed to be able to change Stoll’s look over the course of the series. If all goes as planned for its creative team, “The Strain” might run for three to five seasons, matching the material in the book trilogy that Del Toro wrote with Chuck Hogan. (Early ratings have been strong, so a second season order seems imminent).
Even Stoll said he was skeptical at first about the toupee because he didn’t want to have to fit the traditional mold of a TV hero. He got comfortable with it, though, and said it served as a mask and a tool for his character.
But back to the vamps. One does emerge in this episode, and he makes a bloody mess out of a hospital kitchen. It’s the surviving pilot from Regis Air, who’d dutifully and anonymously checked himself back in for more tests. He felt lousy anyway. Then he went missing.
Eph and Nora, who had been tracking all the “medically impossible” changes in his body, went in search, along with the duplicitous Jim Kent. They found him snacking on blood bags and looking fit to kill.
He tried but failed -- he just hadn’t mastered that stinger yet -- giving Eph enough time to grab a handy fire extinguisher. Those things are great for head bashing, apparently, but Eph will most certainly have to answer for this.