“The Strain” is not FX’s first foray into vampire fiction. But “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “You’re the Worst” notwithstanding, the “The Strain” is FX’s first success portraying vampires.
Now into its third season, “The Strain” had an interesting start in 2013. For one, it attracted a lot of buzz. Makes sense too. The show is a spiritual successor of Guillermo del Toro ‘s cinematic masterpiece Chronos. “The Strain” is also one of shifting identities. Chronos takes place in Mexico City. “The Strain,” meanwhile, tackles New York. And boy! It certainly does that.
Viewers enjoy a motley crew of survival archetypes. We have the scientist, his family, his lover-colleague, his assistant, the passionate underachiever, the criminal (hacker), the boxer, the holocaust survivor, and all flat associates (read: vampire bait) that these characters include.
Their banter and backstories are interesting, if not a bit cheesy. Visuals are the first highlight of “The Strain.” The second, and slower merit? Its allegory. In effect, Del Toro is crafting one of the most accessible mirrors of authoritarian despotism on TV. This is a common enemy. We see its collectivist tendencies in everything from “Star Trek:The Next Generation” to “The Walking Dead.”
So what makes De Toro’s “The Strain” so interesting? He’s not the first to combine the concept of vampires and zombies. For a recent example, who can forget 28 Days Later? Japanese pop fiction is definitely prone to combine the genre. So are half the fantasies where a contagion spreads that makes its hosts alarmingly aggressive and carnivorous. What “The Strain” does do, however, is situate it in a global symbol of immigration and connect it to fascism/feudalism.
So the premise is unoriginal and its details are unique. “The Strain” is not alone in that regard either. Shucks, the show is not even the first to correlate the undead with authoritarianism. What it does do, however, is play with the personalities that actually facilitate its rise. Weak feudal leaders. Insecure antisemites. Billionaires seeking to eclipse their legacy in their lifespan. All make appearances. Perhaps the best scene is when one of the blood suckers force-feeds a protagonist pineapple. Yes, “The Strain” can be that insidiously sophisticated.
Not that “The Strain” is a perfect allegory. Its story threads include accommodations that complicate its message. Season 2 introduces ancient-er beasties and an indifferent warrior demigod that is part vampire and part human. Both easily plug into the metaphor -the former as older incentives for evil and the latter as the western embodiment of “the soldier.” Both are also unnecessary clutter.
However you peel it, though, one thing is clear about “The Strain:” its exploitative critique. The joke is most definitely on FX -this is a liberal-leaning show through and through. First of all, there is little to no divine justice. These creatures are not repelled by a God or Gods. Some characters receive their just deserts, of course. But the few instances this happens feels like fan service…not some trite morality play.
The Strain, ultimately, is about Le Bon’s “the crowd” at its greedy worst. Perhaps the only detraction is its underlying hypocrisy. Liberal or not, “The Strain” is still generating revenue for FX. And if the show highlights anything, it’s that money moves history and that words are useless against a vampire…so far, at least.