“It’s dumb, but it’s a lot of fun.” That’s the most common assessment I’ve seen of The Strain from the people enjoying the show. It doesn’t speak well for a series when its fans lead their description of it by insulting its intelligence. Those people are partly right: The Strain is dumb, but I can’t find much fun in it.
In the second episode of the season, characters began referring to a solar eclipse expected in just a few days. References to it have never been too far from characters’ lips (I suspect we’ve heard at least one line about it virtually every episode since). This episode—with its eclipse-related title “Occultation” and its opening tracking a satellite orbiting the planet until it reveals the moon, pendulously poised near the sun—gives us that eclipse.
Between the unease and dread with which the event has been referred to so far, and the audience’s knowledge that an eclipse is a special disaster for a city confronted with vampires, you’d expect this to be a pivotal episode, or at least one in which the vampires finally explode across New York in some kind of thrilling action set piece. You’d be disappointed.
Instead, the episode builds most of the way to the eclipse, builds the foreboding too (Goodweather’s wife, just as the moon is about to pass before the sun, say “it’s a bad omen”; The Strain never sidesteps a cliche when it can jump onto one with both feet), and then almost nothing happens. The eclipse lasts for less than five minutes of the episode and the totality of its effect is a single vampire getting loose in a traffic jam and killing a couple of cannon-fodder FBI agents before getting its skull crushed. No explosion of action, no event that expands the outbreak, not even any particularly worthy visuals. An eclipse comes, an eclipse goes. We spent four episodes anticipating the event and it turns out to not particularly matter. That’s the sign of a dumb show.
Another flag of dumbness is the total inability of the people who know the truth to convince anyone of it. In the first episode, Setrakian came off like a crazy homeless person when trying to warn and inform Goodweather. In this episode, Goodweather sounds paranoid when trying to convince his ex-wife and son to get out of the city, thus ensuring they’d stay put. Fet has a similar situation: parents who he hasn’t spoken to in two years after a falling out over his rejecting a “graduate school scholarship” at Cornell to study architecture. He also fails to persuade them to get out of the city. In fact, the only person who can convince their loved ones of anything is Dr. Martinez, whose Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother can’t remember enough from hour to hour to object to her daughter’s directives.
Showing how these characters’ knowledge of the truth has cost them their relationships, how ruined relationships are the collateral damage of fighting evil, could be interesting, but that’s not the situation. These relationships were broken before the evil cleared customs. These characters’ emotional intelligence and relationship skills faded long ago. Which, of course, is required for the series’ plot to progress.
The dumbest possible things have to happen now to create drama later—for Fet’s parents to die, for Goodweather’s son to be infected, or whatever other obvious developments await us. If fun accompanied the dumbness, it might be bearable. But when an eclipse during a vampirism outbreak can’t generate more than a few moments of interest, there’s too little fun to overcome the dumb.