I found myself yelling a lot at the flat screen while watching the first four episodes of Guillermo del Toro’s new horror series, “The Strain,” which debuts on FX Sunday night.
At first, I thought it a residual reaction from the hours spent watching the World Cup. But no, it was the show and all the classic dunderhead moves made by its characters almost from the word go.
I yelled at the moronic crew members on a routine flight from Berlin to New York who, upon hearing a very ominous banging from the cargo hold just as the plane is supposed to land, decide to (what, are you crazy?) open the hatch and take a look. I yelled at Nora (Mia Maestro), a member of the CDC’s response team who, upon viewing the pale, cold, motionless passengers of the now “dead” but mysteriously landed plane, makes her way into the cockpit despite everyone, including team head Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), telling her repeatedly to Not Go in the Cockpit.
Then I yelled at Ephraim as he examined an enormous wooden box taken from the plane, a box filled with dirt and covered with death’s-head carvings, and blithely called it “the cabinet.” As if he were taking a stroll through Ikea instead of standing in a warehouse filled with bodies From Whom All the Blood Had Been Drained.
Come on, Eph, even science majors read “Dracula.”
While I was watching and yelling, my heart did a very funny thing. First, it sank — was I going to have to pan Del Toro? — and then it lifted. As with the World Cup, the yelling was fun, participatory, cathartic even.
Shouting advice and invective at the characters of “The Strain” — who would put themselves in the power of the pasty-faced German Thomas (Richard Sammel)? And why does no one notice that the eyes of the flight’s four survivors have turned blood red? —conjured memories of shows gone by. “Dark Shadows,” “Night Stalker,” the miniseries “Salem’s Lot” were tales born in a more innocent time, before the knowing smirk and twisted romance of modern horror tried to convince us that vampires are hot, witches just feminists with control issues, and that werewolves and zombies are not monsters but metaphors for the human condition.
“The Strain” is having none of that. There is nothing precious at work here, no High Literary overtones à la “Penny Dreadful,” none of “The Walking Dead’s” sweaty post-apocalyptic soul-searching. Based on the novel written by Del Toro and Chuck Hogan after their idea for a show found no buyer, “The Strain is an old-fashioned, marks-hitting horror quest in which a band of unlikely warriors attempts to defeat a thing of unspeakable evil Before It’s Too Late.
What it’s doing on FX, besides working against brand, I’ll never know. But by the time Eph absurdly dismisses the advice of David Bradley’s insightful old stranger (for God’s sake, Eph, the man just described carnage he has not seen and he’s carrying a cane topped by a silver wolf’s head; listen to him!), I was having a great old time.
Bradley’s old man is Abraham, death camp survivor and vampire slayer in desperate need of reinforcements; what lives in that crazy “cabinet” is one big, strong, relentless critter — skulls are crushed, worms are injected and the sexual overtones of vampirism are taken to a whole new phallic level.
In the first four episodes, the plague spreads and the troops assemble. Eph may be embroiled in a custody wrangle (apparently, he spends too much time at his job), but he knows where his duty lies. Gus (Miguel Gomez) may be a recently released con in the pay of evil Thomas, but he seems set to become the Daryl Dixon of the piece. And in the show’s most darkly whimsical turn, a creepy but lovable city exterminator by the name of Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand) is noticing signs of the coming storm among the vermin populace.
“The Strain” is not so much frightening as it is startling at times, in a manner that can only be described as pretty gross. But amid the blood and gore rise figures of a less graphic time — the scary little girl, speaking French; the Nazi swine; the publicity-obsessed administrator (of course we can let the survivors go home/open the beaches!), and the creatures that lurk in the dark places. In our basements, our attics, our garages and, most important, in our thrill-loving, hatch-opening, mysterious-sound investigating crazy-stupid-brave hearts.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)