The Strain bridges reassuringly old-fashioned Count Dracula tropes with pointedly contemporary social panic. Watching the series, which follows a group of professionals across all spectrums of the American class system as they attempt to curtail a vampire invasion, it’s hard not to think of the classic TV movie The Night Stalker. At its best, The Strain similarly weds workaday frustrations with primordial comic terror. Vampire hunting is revealed to be just a job, not like any other, but still unavoidably beholden to egos and endless swaths of red tape. Created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan from their trilogy of novels of the same name, The Strain plops ancient monsters right down in the middle of contemporary New York and positions them as the ultimate embodiment of the blinkered self-absorption of the corporate elite.
The surprisingly blunt classist comedy infuses the plot with welcome political tang. The leader of the vampire race is shown to be a traditionally faceless hulking shadow, but his second-in-command, Thomas Eichhorst (Richard Sammel), is an effete Old World vampire who revels in ceremonial primping while serving up bon mots about the inferiority of other species; he suggests a literally unkillable Bond villain. Eichhorst manipulates filthy-rich human Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) into selling his race out from under him for the promise of immortality. The broad strokes of their arrangement are simple: Eichhorst connects Palmer to his master, and Palmer helps Eichhorst circumvent immigration/importing policies that are necessary to spreading the virus that perpetuates the vampire invasion. It’s an amusing play on contemporary and historic border controversies: The trouble here starts because a rich white magnate, the sort of guy who’s normally on the news protesting the extension of any form of mercy to immigrants, crosses the wrong borders while greasing the right networks.
The Strain knows it’s a fantasy, and embraces poetic hyperbole in an aesthetic fashion similar to the more sophisticated Hannibal.
Del Toro, who directed the first episode and whose work clearly sets the tone for the remainder of the series, shows us government officials who’re defenselessly stymied by protocol as a new menace tears through their city at a terrifyingly instantaneous clip, as well as members of the celebrity elite who effortlessly circumvent quarantine rules and subsequently enable the burgeoning crisis. There are numerous scenes in which rich, villainous white men wield their power over working-class folks of all races, most pointedly Hispanic gang members who are cajoled and threatened with promises of tidying up sketchy immigration problems. Most of the good guys are explicitly shown to be suffering from severe money problems that force them into taking desperate measures that only accelerate their potential destruction. In fact, the vampirism often seems to be beside the point: The Strain is a story of one-percenters twisting the boundaries of society until it breaks open.
There are also otherworldly horrors that del Toro renders with characteristically loving specificity. The vampire virus is carried through a worm, which triggers an accelerated growth of autonomous new flesh within its carrier that resembles cancer as envisioned by David Cronenberg (a motif that affirms the governing metaphor of a society eating itself up). The victims lose their genitals, hair, nose, ears, and develop a huge, disgusting tongue-stinger protuberance that’s straight out of del Toro’s Blade II. But it’s the quieter, shrewdly placed details that draw you deeper into this world, grounding it in macabre quotidian oddness. Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), an aging Jewish pawnbroker who doubles as a stand-in for Van Helsing, keeps his dead wife’s vampire heart in a large glass case filled with water that he occasionally sentimentally dollops blood into. A Russian exterminator, Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand), notices that the city’s rat complaints are escalating at an insane rate, and lectures a hedge-fund kingpin about his blindness toward the history of his flashy home’s foundation, which indirectly led to a little girl’s rat bite. An infected man ties himself up in his shed in an effort to stave off eating his own family, only to have his wife feed him their abusive neighbor. A lothario’s piss break is interrupted by the sound of his dick dropping off into the commode.
The Strain is a refreshingly bold deviation from TV’s obsession with literal-minded crime shows that self-consciously flaunt their social relevance while wallowing in soap-operatic macho tropes. This series knows it’s a fantasy, and embraces poetic hyperbole in an aesthetic fashion similar to the more sophisticated Hannibal. The delirious images are bathed in fluorescent colors—especially blues, yellows, and, of course, reds—that are suggestive of 1960s comic books. A sense of heat pervades the series, both in the flowing of blood and in the general chaos of a social takeover that will surely get worse before it gets better (if the creators intend to follow their books, the heroes’ straits promise to get considerably direr). The Strain is pop hokum with bite—a playful death rattle for enraged humanists.