FX’s new creep-out drama “The Strain,” premiering Sunday night, reclaims vampirism from prissy romantics and lovelorn teens by creatively upending old ideas of the immortal dead. Someone had to. In recent years we got so hung up on sexy vampires who ached to assimilate into society that we forgot how to make them undesirable and frightening.
In “The Strain,” vampirism (or something like it) spreads like a virus, infiltrating our bodies through ramen-noodle-sized worms. At the same time, the show honors a traditionalist, Nosferatu-like notion of a moneyed Eastern European bloodsucker (he arrives in an ornate box filled with his native dirt and is too hideous for the camera to fully behold at this point). But to that, “The Strain” folds in a riff of sorts on zombie-style pandemics with an added dash of parasitic gestation to enliven the show’s goriest scenes.
The better parts of “The Strain” will unsettle viewers with this new species of monster, a threat that spreads in a novel way that isn’t easily explained. That’s also part of the show’s initial stumble — in establishing characters caught up in a contagion crisis, the creators and writers are also apparently still trying to figure out how a TV series works in 42-minute increments. The first couple of episodes seem as if they’ve been assembled from a kit that’s missing a few nuts and bolts; by the third and fourth episodes, however, a viewer gets a much better sense of “The Strain’s” style and bite.
Created by Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) and Carlton Cuse (“Lost”) and based on a trilogy of novels by del Toro and Chuck Hogan, “The Strain” begins on an international flight that lands at JFK. From the outside, there are no signs of life on board; all the plane’s window shades are drawn. Authorities send in a “canary team” from the Centers for Disease Control to suit up and see what’s inside. The passengers and crew are all dead in their seats — peacefully, it seems.
While officials scramble to keep a lid on the details, lead investigator Eph Goodweather (Corey Stoll from “House of Cards”) and his colleague Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) discover that not everyone is completely dead. There are four survivors, including the pilot, a goth rock star, a tenacious attorney and a little girl; soon enough, they are not quite themselves.
“The Strain” is notably different in tone and execution from the survivalist despair of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” but it shares a similar intent to keep the thrills coming. There’s something refreshingly old-fashioned about “The Strain” when viewed merely as a lean horror show, free of metaphor or derivative camp or hidden meanings.
Any saga about the spread of a disease necessarily involves multitudes; I’ve seen worse and better attempts to launch a TV series with this many people caught up in so many tangents. Besides Eph and Nora, “The Strain” is centered on the monster and his aide, Thomas Eichorst (Richard Sammel), who’ve convinced an immortality-obsessed billionaire (Jonathan Hyde) to transport the monster to New York. Other stories involve an ex-con and gang member (Miguel Gomez) trying to make a better life in Spanish Harlem; a compromised CDC employee (Sean Astin); and, rather quickly, each vampire seems to come with his or her own story too, as does an elderly pawn shop owner (“Game of Thrones’s” David Bradley) who has tussled with these creatures before.
The most fascinating of these narrative tracks follows a city exterminator, Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand), as it dawns on him (and the sewer rats) that something awful is happening to Manhattan. The least interesting story involves Stoll’s character’s struggle to find a work-life balance, win shared custody of his son and cope with his ex-wife’s nagging disapproval.
Seriously? In the middle of a vampire epidemic? Daddy has to work.
The Strain (90 minutes) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on FX.