Sadly (and if you choose to skip down to the other sections, I'll understand), "The Strain" was not the surprise I was hoping for. Executive produced by horror filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, based on their trilogy of novels, it follows the release of what looks like a virus in New York City. Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), head of a specialized arm of the CDC, is sent in to investigate an aircraft that lands at JFK airport and completely shuts down, with all 210 passengers inside. What he and his team discover is not just a virus, but more of a curse: an old-world infestation of wormy creatures that turn human bodies into blood-sucking zombie hosts. As viral panic rises, Dr. Goodweather and Professor Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley), one of the few who knows exactly what "The Strain" is, work to find and kill the ancient creature controlling the outbreak.
The driving force behind "The Strain" is Guillermo del Toro, who in addition to his producing and writing duties, also directed the series pilot. There are many who love del Toro, but outside of the rare dovetailing of his approach and the material, such as Blade II, I haven't found his stuff to be on my wavelength. Nonetheless, I was curious to see if I'd prefer him in a TV format, and for the first few episodes, I was on board with "The Strain." It begins as a thriller and brings in elements of horror and fantasy, a blend I found enjoyable. The pilot is an effective outbreak drama that keeps ratcheting up the tension with each new gruesome discovery, and introduces characters with plenty of potential. As the show continues, however, the scientific and semi-realistic elements start falling away, leaving the kind of horror-fantasy that del Toro is best known for: more Hellboy II than an other-worldly Contagion. It's not a criticism of the show, per se -- I don't think the show's creative team are ineffectual at doing what they're doing -- but it changed from a show I liked into a show I wasn't particularly interested in. (That said, it's kind of funny that the episode I liked the most was the one del Toro directed himself.)
That said, even as someone who doesn't find secret cabals and ancient evils as interesting as a wormy virus crawling through New York City, there are things about "The Strain" that remain consistent throughout. The show has a cast of character actors and newcomers that work together quite nicely, even if some are saddled with more stereotypical parts to play than others. In particular, Corey Stoll, whose big breakout came as a supporting character on "House of Cards" and shot up from there, is a surprisingly effective leading man. Despite his terrible wig, he has an ability to make the stereotypical "distant dad" / "smartest guy in the room" fit on him with a natural cadence, and he's got a good handle on the occasional bit of humor. He's paired well with veteran character actor Bradley, who brings the right blend of cantankerousness and wisdom to Professor Setrakian (even if the flashbacks featuring his character are among my least favorite of the series' narrative devices). I am also personally delighted to see Pontypool's Stephen McHattie in anything, much less the leader of a vampire hunting squad.
The series is generally fairly stylish, and a revolving door of fun guest directors (including Peter Weller!) seem to have a good time playing in del Toro's sandbox. The show is fairly action-packed, with plenty of grue and gore for horror fans to enjoy, and the worms themselves are a particularly gruesome creation that gets the skin crawling whenever they appear on screen. I also can't count the number of supposedly major TV shows I've seen that couldn't wrangle a decent digital special effect to save their lives, so it's a relief to see the program bankrolled by FX, who seem to have spared no expense in helping the show look as much like a feature film as possible. It may not have worked for me, but fans looking for an extended serving of del Toro's passions will probably find "The Strain" to be a bit more catchy than I did.
When I was younger, I would often spring for the bigger sets, which came with busts and figurines and trinkets and other material extras, and generally turn around and sell them once I realized they weren't all that. This version of "The Strain" isn't much different: it's a striking-looking item to have on the shelf, but in terms of its actual construction and the materials, it feels a little insubstantial. Constructed of light-weight plastic, it feels kind of hollow, unlike a real collector's item. That said, there's a fairly minimal price difference between the standard and deluxe editions of "The Strain", and the rest of the value can be found down in the supplement section.
The Video and Audio
On Disc 1, things kick off with a "PE"-exclusive audio commentary on the pilot episode by director Guillermo del Toro. del Toro has always been a joyous, excited man, and this commentary track is no exception, in which he covers the development of the books into the TV series, and what it was like seeing those characters and ideas in another medium.
Video features on the disc include "In the Beginning" (14:11), a featurette included on both editions about the making of the pilot episode. For me, this supplement was kind of a bummer, because much of the discussion makes the show sound more like what I had hoped it would be compared to what it was. The disc rounds out with a reel of deleted scenes (6:58) for the episodes, which is the other "PE"-exclusive on this disc.
Disc 2 has no commentary, only the video features. Again, we get another reel of "PE"-exclusive deleted scenes (6:03), and a featurette included on both editions, "A Novel Approach" (9:38), which has del Toro talking about his inspiration for the book series.
The third and final disc has another commentary, this time on the season finale, by writer Carlton Cuse. Cuse is not nearly as animated as del Toro, but provides some insight on the development of the series and the story over the course of the first season. More skippable than the first commentary, but potentially of interest for fans.
A few more video extras are included on the final disc. "He is Here" (9:22) is a look at The Master himself. The viewer is also treated to a short gag reel (2:59), and a series of teasers (2:11) for "The Strain" Season One. The "PE"-exclusive extras wrap up with yet one more reel of deleted scenes (11:22), this one being the longest and the most substantial. The set finishes up with a third featurette found on both releases, "Setrakian's Lair (9:47), which finds David Bradley giving the viewer a set tour of the items in his character's arsenal. Fans of the show will also get a glimpse of some of what's to come in Season 2. All of the video extras are presented in HD.
Although most of the extras included on the set, del Toro commentary excepted, are pretty run-of-the-mill, for the price difference (especially given the actual Blu-ray itself is a standard case that can easily be taken out of the bust and shelved normally), fans may find it worth it to pick up the deluxe version just to get the whole package. The bust itself isn't that impressive, but more extras might be enough to warrant a minimal price increase.