The first season of Guillermo del Toro’s vampire apocalypse series ‘The Strain’ was, let’s be honest, often a strain to watch. The show was uneven at best and never lived up to its potential. Nevertheless, it’s back for a second season. Does the new premiere offer any improvement?
It’s way too soon to tell how the season will go, but for now it appears to be more of the same. While ‘BK, NY’ (is that supposed to stand for “Brooklyn” or some unexplained Burger King tie-in?) is perhaps a better-than-average episode with nothing too overtly lame or stupid, it doesn’t especially feel like a season premiere with any particular huge plot turns to kick off the year. Rather, it feels like a middle-of-the-season episode that just moves things along the same direction they had been going.
To be fair, the premiere opens with an interesting prologue segment (the only scene directed by Guillermo del Toro himself) set in 1932 Romania. Young Abraham Setrakian’s grandmother tells the boy a story (thus cutting to a flashback within the flashback) about a kindly giant named Josef Sardu who encountered an ancient strigoi (the show’s term for vampire) that captured and puked worms all over him, thus transferring the evil consciousness to a new host. This now gives the Master a name and explains why he’s so huge and hulking. It also telegraphs a small plot twist to come.
In the present day, elderly Setrakian goes underground hoping to track the Master, but gets captured by the vampire commandos instead. The head commando is credited as “Quinlan,” but when he says his name it sounds more like “Vlad” to me. I’ll chalk that up to the actor having trouble enunciating his words through the latex prosthetics. Rather than kill him, the commandos bring Setrakian to their secret lair (where he runs into Gus the gang-banger again) and introduce him to the “Ancients.” Speaking on behalf of his leaders, Quinlan explains that the evil Master used to be the 7th Ancient (though we only see three of them in the chamber now) who went rogue and broke off from the others. He also tells a story about an ancient book that I suppose will be important later on. He then offers Setrakian an alliance: “Sometimes great enemies become allies.” Before Setrakian leaves, he’s reminded of just who he’s doing business with when the three Ancients awaken and feed on a naked victim chained to the floor between them.
The Master, meanwhile, has been badly burned since his last encounter with Setrakian and Eph. (Amusingly, all the crispy charring actually makes the silly makeup look a little less awful than it did before.) He tells Eichorst that his body is dying and asks him to bring Ephraim’s vampire wife before him. Uh oh, I wonder what he might have planned for her!
Speaking of Eph, he and Nora return to the CDC lab to collect some supplies and have to kill a bunch of their now-vampirized co-workers. Nora worries that Eph is drinking again. They debate whether they should be working on a vaccine to prevent infection or a cure for those already infected, when everything they know about how diseases should work is wrong. They eventually decide to work towards the cure, mainly because Eph’s petulant son Zach can’t stop whining about his vampire mommy. Eph comes up with the idea of infecting the infected with… something. I don’t really understand the details. I’m sure they’ll be explained better later.
Pest inspector Fet and super-hacker Dutch get a couple seconds of screen time to remind us that they’re also still on the show. They spend most of the episode vampire-proofing Fet’s apartment building, which is now the team’s base of operations.
Even in the midst of the vampire apocalypse, business is business. Evil CEO Eldritch Palmer buys a building from a cute real estate broker with the ridiculous name Coco Marchand (Lizzie Brocheré). He’s quite smitten with her and offers her a job working for him. He also gives a public speech to announce that he has extended the city a line of credit. This makes him look like a big hero, but of course all it really does is put the city under his thumb.
A school for blind children is evacuated due to the kindly assistance of… the Stoneheart Group. Oh crap. That’s not good. Sure enough, they get transported to the new building Palmer just bought, where they’re greeted by Eichorst.
Setrakian announces that he needs to go to a storage locker in Chelsea to pick up weapons and notes that he saved away separately from the pawn shop in case the shop was ever overrun. How convenient. This is basically an excuse for our heroes to put themselves into a dangerous situation so they can get attacked by vampires – which is exactly what happens. First they find a couple of survivors hiding in one of the lockers. Then the vamps come out, of course just as the timer for the lights runs out so we can get a lot of running around and shooting in the dark. Eventually, all the characters we know come out unscathed, but the two bystanders they found get infected. Rather than kill them immediately, Eph suggests that they should be the first test subjects for the cure he’s making.
At the vampire lair, no surprise at all, Eph’s wife Kelly is chosen to become to the Master’s new host body. Her connection to her son Zach will prove useful. The episode ends with all the blind kids we saw earlier, now vampirized, climbing up out of a pile of dirt. I don’t know what that’s about. How useful could blind kids be?
For some reason, the premiere episode has no opening credits at all. The show’s title and cast list are saved for the end. It’s an annoying affectation for a TV show.
As you can probably tell, I’m not overly excited that ‘The Strain’ came back for another season. It’s one of those series that falls right on the borderline between my sticking with it or dropping out. Since I’ve come this far, I feel like I ought to keep watching until it gets so bad it’s intolerable, at which point I’ll probably continue to hate-watch it for a while anyway. That’s how these things usually go.
The Season 2 premiere doesn’t quite fall into the hate-watch category. In fact, it’s decidedly… OK. Not great, not terrible. Just OK. Unlike a lot of the first season, I don’t have any specific scenes to call out where the characters behave like total idiots for no reason, so that’s an improvement. Even so, I can’t build up much enthusiasm for a product that’s so derivative – of other vampire stories, and of other Guillermo del Toro works. I feel like del Toro is slumming with this, when I know that he’s capable of better.