The heart wants what the heart wants, and sometimes, the heart wants to drink your blood. That’s very much the case on The Strain, the new FX supernatural drama from Lost veteran and Pacific Rim director Guillermo del Toro. Based on del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s book series of the same name, The Strain hops on the twilight years of the vampire bandwagon and spins the genre on its head — quite literally, in the case of one ill-fated character whose head spins round and round until it snaps, pops and becomes paste on pavement, a la a certain Game of Thrones hero.
Crushed heads and Sunday night air times aren’t the only connective threads between Thrones and The Strain. The show boasts an expansive cast of recognizable faces, including David Bradley, best known to the Westerosi faithful as the loathed Walder Frey. Here, he plays an equally hardened man, albeit one we’re meant to root for: heart-hoarding Holocaust survivor Abraham Setrakian, a pawn shop owner who brings a wolf-handled sword to John F. Kennedy Airport to investigate a deadly mystery.
Leaving House Frey, we turn to House of Cards, by way of the erstwhile Peter Russo — actor Corey Stoll, here playing the fully-haired Ephraim Goodweather, an A+ CDC employee but an F-grade father and husband. Eph is among the first on the scene when Regis Air Flight 753 arrives at JFK fresh off a trip from Berlin, with all but four passengers dead from unknown circumstances. Joined by Alias veteran Mia Maestro as close confidant Nora Martinez and total Goonie Sean Astin as undiscovered traitor Jim Kent, Eph struggles to find an explanation for the 200 dead passengers — but Setrakian, and a soil-filled coffin, just might contain the answers.
Unfortunately, Eph and Abe don’t see eye to eye just yet, yielding few answers by the end of the Strain pilot. But what the show lacks in resolution, it compensates with mood and monstrosities.
The pilot, directed by del Toro, isn’t exactly action-packed, but there are enough scares and violence to appeal to fans of his work, and to the Walking Dead crowd looking to satisfy their bloodlust until the AMC series returns in October. Two scenes in particular — the aforementioned head-popping of an airport official, and the brutal demise of a surgeon performing autopsies on the undead Regis passengers — supply more than enough nightmare fuel to keep viewers wide awake until next week’s new episode.
There are several antagonists to track, of differing degrees of power and importance. On the softest end of the spectrum is Matt Sayles, the Sears manager in a serious relationship with Eph’s ex-wife. The coffin-contained Master is at the opposite extreme, sucking blood with an Aliens-inspired tongue and demolishing brains with a ferocity not seen since Hulk smashed Loki in The Avengers. Somewhere in between are the mysterious Palmer and Eichorst of the Stoneheart Group, somehow tied to the impending vampire pandemic. Each party represents the shifting scale of drama at the heart of the show: Eph has to contend with his shattered personal life, while investigating an incomprehensibly powerful creature backed by an equally powerful corporation.
The Stoneheart Group sports shades of Charles Widmore and the DHARMA Initiative of Lost, and they aren’t the only connections to Cuse’s past show. The frequently mentioned, now-headless airport official is played by Andrew Divoff, who played the one-eyed mercenary Mikhail on season three of Lost; there’s the image of a mysterious power bursting out of an airplane hatch, not unlike the events of Lost‘s first and second seasons; and the show even begins with an inexplicable horror befalling the passengers of an airplane, with one of the only survivors being a drug-addicted rock star. Sound familiar?
But the similarities between The Strain and Lost aren’t unwelcome. Where most would-be-Lost shows wind up DOA, The Strain lands with life, thanks to del Toro’s signature style, well-drawn characters, an intriguing mystery and haunting themes. (Incidentally, the show’s composer, Ramin Djawadi, is the man behind the Game of Thrones theme — yet another connection to a mega popular series.)
The Strain infuses a unique twist on vampire mythology with just the right mix of realism and weirdness to offer up a series unlike anything else currently airing on television. If Cuse’s collaborator Damon Lindelof is channeling the melancholic aspects of Lost on his new show The Leftovers, then Cuse hogged all of the dark humor and freakiness for himself. I know which show I’d rather spend my Sunday nights with.