The Strain and audience expectations

This post contains spoilers from the first twelve episodes of The Strain. If you haven’t seen the show but would like to, come back later!

I’ve been watching The Strain over the last few days, an FX series based on a series of novels written by Chuck Logan and Guillermo del Toro. It’s a fun show in many ways, and how could it not be? Like so many others, I’m a sucker for a vampire apocalypse. More cynical minds might be put off by the melding of two such successful recent mainstays across cable television and other media, but not I. I fear not such things. Give me vampires, damn it. I can handle it.

I can handle rich, creamy genre, you know. I’m all about it. I used to watch films with my dad on laserdisc and our criteria was simple: have fun, avoid romance, and stick to the fundamentals: action with a bit of humour and at least one solid performance from an actor behaving as if this whole production exists for him or her to, if you’ll excuse me, vamp all over the set in full embrace of the fact this is just a movie. Typically, this actor plays the role of a particularly delicious villain, but not always: I refer the reader to Treat Williams in Deep Rising and flashes of Brendan Fraser during that post-modern 1930s-style leading man thing he tried his hand at before it all went off the rails into something less interesting. The Strain has three of these: David Bradley, as the Holocaust-surviving, silver sword-toting octogenarian vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian, Richard Sammel as a Nazi-cum-vampire Eichorst and Kevin Durand as Vasily Fet, the imposing warrior from city pest control. I have high hopes too for Stephen McHattie, who to date has only appeared a handful of times (I have yet to watch the finale of the first season) as some kind of good guy vampire with a posh accent. It’s all great fun; Setrakian’s holocaust origins are shamelessly pulpy but work, as does Eichorst’s embodiment of the ultimate evil, a Nazi that was so on board with the end of the world he ended up switching teams to play for someone that could bring it about more literally. Durand’s character is cheesy, but the performance wins us over. For Fet, and the characters that work well, the whole thing is silly, really, because life in general is silly and unfair. The fact that it has become even less fair in the preceding two weeks hasn’t changed the terms of the game very much.

This works beautifully for a bit of genre fun, because when sitting down to watch something like this you bring your own set of expectations. This isn’t about leaving your brain at home; that odious phrase completely fails to capture the reality of lining up specific expectations to particular kinds of entertainment. No, this is about creating something specific for a specific type of fun. The show is about a vampire apocalypse, so the fact I’m watching means I’ve bought into certain things. A lot of your work is done. You don’t need, for example, to have characters agonize over whether to kill their friend once the friend has been infected. I know the rules of the game at this point. We all do. Of course, it’s a fine line to cross and at some point you lose all dramatic impact at all, but I find myself increasingly wanting to yell at the screen. Stop being skeptical about vampires, it’s the eighth episode!

The problem, really, lies in execution. The idea that you were betrayed by a close friend, that you were beginning to make amends and that you thought things had gotten better only to see him taken away by a cruel infection… that’s all a good idea! It works very well on paper. The fact that you would resent the member of the group that you had met an hour earlier for taking him out also makes sense. It makes sense on paper. It doesn’t work on the show. Unfortunately, the stakes are quite high these days and the ubiquity of the zombie genre in particular has made it so that the audience has seen this scene many, many times before. So, you either do an incredibly good job, or you do something else. The Walking Dead, for all its many flaws and its uneven quality over the years, tends to do this reasonably well, although it could just be that everyone is so upset all the time that we don’t notice them being upset over the most recent person in the group dying in tragic and unforeseen circumstances.

As unforeseen as such circumstance can be, I guess, when one lives in a world full of zombies. I like The Strain quite a bit, considerably more than I expected, but in patches. There isn’t a single episode I could say I like all the way through and similarly I’m not sure there’s an episode I would consider unsalvageable. When the show succeeds, it does so through a keen awareness that this should be fun. It fails when it relies on the execution of effective pathos and drama. This is one of those shows that has no internal logic; things happen because the writers want them to happen, because conflict is the essence of drama. The meaning is sapped away, unfortunately, when the setups are so frustratingly artificial. The Strain only works, really, if you imagine that the show is set in an alternative universe exactly the same as our own except that every single human being is a complete idiot. Characters practically never do something that would actually make sense. Corey Stoll, an actor I quite like watching, is left with all kinds of problems. Twelve episodes in I have figured out that he is supposed to be a terrible father and husband trying to be a better man, but nothing Stoll was given to do helped me get in that direction. It came through inference and the experience of watching shows and films that are a lot like this for a couple of decades.

It’s difficult, of course. How do you account for audience expertise? Thanks to the rise of science fiction and dystopian storylines in television in particular over the last decade, people sitting down to write this stuff have to take into account the fact that a vocabulary has developed. If you go too far and embrace an arch, or even camp, approach you are in danger of being reviled or ignored. The Strain, it seems, wanders into camp by accident now and again. I actually don’t want the show to be any sillier than it has been but I’ve been struck at how enjoyable its silliness has been. I could do with it being silly a bit more often.

The second season premiered last night and I’m hopeful it will usher in some solid changes now that our characters have cried over losing loved ones and argued about whether or not this is all really happening. We’ll see what happens. I’m fine with the show feeling comfortably familiar, I just don’t want it to feel like something I’ve seen before, and done better. It’s easier said than done, and I for one am hoping they pull it off. I like the idea. Just, you know… could you get the main characters to stop wandering around in a heavily populated city full of vampires at night for no decent reason? It would be a solid start.