Michael Gibson/FX

The Strain: Never Stop Sucking

Guillermo del Toro’s vampire drama continues to disappoint in its third season

[Spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2.]

To watch The Strain is to gaze into the abyss of crushingly relentless mediocrity. Ostensibly named after its novel vampirism-as-epidemic conceit, the supernatural horror-drama could just as well describe the experience of viewing this staggeringly unengaging series cocreated by Guillermo del Toro. The decision to tune in to most TV shows usually comes down to a cost-benefit analysis: Does the good outweigh the bad? But The Strain inspires a treasure hunt: a long, tiring, and probably futile search for something of value in the miles and legions of worthlessness.

Returning on Sunday, August 28, the FX series looks as if it’ll flounder in its attempt to mix sci-fi, myth, and moving melodrama for three years running. (The network has cut down the episode order this year from 13 to 10.) Del Toro’s most recognizable authorial signature is blowing the dust off frumpily familiar tales with gorgeously fresh and spooky production design — a sensibility that makes Pan’s Labyrinth into a modern classic and last year’s Hitchcock-influenced Crimson Peak a throwback treat. But those same instincts make The Strain a slog — never incompetent enough to be considered “bad,” but never scary, funny, campy, thoughtful, or ambitious enough to finally be good.

Last season’s finale ended with the (unexpected yet wholly unaffecting) death of Doctor Ephraim Goodweather’s (Corey Stoll) partner, as well as the kidnapping of his son by his undead mother. The Strain began with a custody battle between “Eph” (ugh) and his ex, Kelly (Natalie Brown), and Season 3 continues their fight for Zach (Max Charles), the world’s stupidest child, amid the apocalypse. (Hey, kid, if you can physically sense your vampire mom’s hunger for the blood running through your veins, maybe don’t trust her?) The show’s world-building canvas is as wide as a mountain range, but its buzzing concerns are as small as a fly. In the three new episodes, gangbanger Gus (Miguel Gomez) empties his arteries to feed his turned mom, billionaire Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde) still wants to live forever, and exterminator Fet (Kevin Durand, continuing to sport an accent from Saturn for his Ukrainian immigrant character) can’t see that the half-vamp Quinlan (Rupert Penry-Jones) is his ally.

Those smaller stories would be fine, even great, if The Strain ever bothered to flesh out its characters. But nearly 30 hours in, even Eph is still a cardboard cutout, and the acting is too prosaic across the board to add depth to the flat scripts. The first two seasons drummed the same two thematic beats: that humanity is too selfishly shortsighted to save itself, but that love might overcome anything. (Don’t even get me started on the plodding storybook voice-overs that had to spell out those ideas for the audience, but then again, this is a show that features an undead SS officer to illustrate that monsters that kill people and suck their blood truly are evil.) A third theme emerges this year — that of parental sacrifice — evinced in flashbacks to Quinlan’s first-century early life. The Strain’s concentration camp–set scenes with vampire disciple Eichorst (Richard Sammel) set a bar for its flashbacks so low it was underground, so the good news is that Quinlan’s origin story is at least a step up from that. But we could’ve done without Zach’s C-section birth, which illustrates, uh, that his mom really loves him, in case that wasn’t clear from her being his mom and the dozens of times we’re told that the infected prefer to contaminate those they adore most.

Is there any facet of The Strain, then, that glints in the dark? The vampires look kind of hokey — the glowing red eyes feel like a silly, Buffy-era touch and their foamy-saliva blood is a disappointing, low-grade gross-out — but much of the visuals remain great. An action sequence in the premiere finds Fet and some military comrades in an underground crypt decorated with life-size angel statues, squaring off against a horde of “munchers” with red flares, machine guns, and infrared goggles in, again, an old-with-new, Gothic-techno blend of the fusty and the avant-garde. But most of that scene features a bunch of unnamed, rando vampire-killers we’ve never seen, and it’s hard to give a shit when they get wormed while the named vampire-killers we should care about are off spinning their wheels. So for now, the accomplishment The Strain will have to be content with is that of being a vampire show actually dumber than True Blood.