Cory Stoll is Ephraim Goodweather on The Strain
  • Michael Gibson/FX
  • Cory Stoll is Ephraim Goodweather on The Strain

The Strain, a vampire horror novel trilogy written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, tells the story of the rise of an ancient evil and the fall of humanity, the spread of an infection and the pursuit of a cure. Originally conceived for television, the trilogy’s been adapted (or returned to its rightful home, depending on how you look at it) for FX by del Toro and Carlton Cuse (Lost, The Bates Motel). The series premiere, which aired on Sunday, approaches the supernatural elements of the story better than it does the more human ones—but I have faith that The Strain won’t always appear so workmanlike.

The pilot episode, “Night Zero,” gets off to a suitably scary start: we watch the final moments of the passengers and crew aboard a Boeing 777 heading for JFK airport from Berlin. A shadowy monster bursts from the cargo bay and the screen cuts to black, but the plane lands somehow and then sits on the tarmac in dead silence. Unable to communicate with anyone on board the plane, the JFK ground crew calls in all manner of first responders, including the CDC’s canary team, a team of epidemiologists who investigate biological threats.

The team is led by Dr. Ephraim “Eph” Goodweather (Corey Stoll), who calls dibs on examining the plane and its occupants by raising the specter of biological warfare, warning the other national agencies that if they “don’t like terrorists, try negotiating with a virus.” The autopsy of the bodies reveals near-surgical incisions to their throats as well as a complete lack of blood; an investigation of the plane reveals weird chemical traces and a possible transmitting agent for the virus or infection (those gross worms we saw in promos). We also learn that there were four survivors (who are quickly quarantined), and that this may have happened before (enter the old guy, played by David Bradley, who was there to witness it).

The treatment of vampirism as an infection is our introduction to the shared conceit of the novels and series: a microscopic examination of what makes these monsters, well, monsters, and by contrast, what makes us human. But the authors and showrunners don’t bog down the story with a lot of mystifying jargon. For the most part, the scientist characters speak plainly. The story is driven more by action than exposition.

Where the show falters is in the more earthly realm: we get an awful lot of Eph’s backstory in the two-hour premiere. There are multiple scenes, demonstrating how Eph is failing at achieving a work-life balance, that are just kind of dull and needless. He’s an epidemiologist who is tracking the source and attempting to cure an infection/virus that’s already killed 200 people. We’re already rooting for the guy—we don’t need to see him fighting for his wife or texting “love you” to his son.

I’d be remiss not to mention the gore, though since the pilot was written and directed by del Toro (Blade II, Pan’s Labyrinth), it’s to be expected. But again, since we’re talking about Guillermo del Toro, it’s not straight viscera—there’s always a little comedic relief as a chaser. It’s this deft switch in tone (and the fact that I’ve read the books) that inspires my confidence that interest in The Strain will spread.

The Strain, FX, Wednesdays at 9 PM