Martin Carr reviews the eighth episode of The Strain….
Manhattan has become a haven for the infected. Creatures run rampant whilst a lone faction advances across the city. Finally in a deserted electrical supply store there is a meeting of minds over some UV lights.
The true test of a television series and its writing are minimal actors, one location and no distractions. They did it with situation comedies Men Behaving Badly, Only Fools and Horses, Open All Hours, as well as television staple Eastenders. Over the pond programmes such as Frasier and Cheers have employed a similar trick which saw them run for years. In comedy such situations are used to instil pathos, while drama uses humour to inject levity and alleviate tension. These examples are from programmes which excelled and excel week on week in an ongoing ratings war to attract viewers. There are many of course who fail to achieve these intentions by a country mile.
As The Strain progresses into the realms of character study rather than all out monster mash, we run into a problem which was always on the cards. Torn between being neither one thing nor the other genre wise, The Strain exists in a strange limbo where character meetings are coincidental at best and convoluted at worse. This in turn makes us question any emotional attachment we have placed in them, meaning that when they do meet up at close quarters our allegiances are divided.
This creates a number of problems. Firstly by forcing characters together it underlines any flaws in their development. As a rule poor writing dictates a less than adequate level of audience empathy. At this point I should point out that Chuck Hogan, co-author, wrote the teleplay for episode eight. Now at no point am I blaming the source material just the way it has been developed. I understand that for three novels to be squeezed into five seasons certain things must be jettisoned, while other elements get truncated. Quite the opposite sort of quandary faces virtually every other television show State side. For them the pressure is not remaining true to a source material, but rather attempting to spin gold out of thin air every week for Nelson ratings.
This week reminded me of a film called Dog Day Afternoon. Directed by Sidney Lumet of Network fame and written by Frank Pierson, who died in 2012, the film develops within the close confines of a main street bank robbery. It is essentially a two hander between Al Pacino, John Cazale and Charles Durning. What Pierson does through the writing is point out an essential fragility between Pacino and Cazale, something built upon by two great character actors. Within thirty minutes we empathise with them even though it remains obvious the robbery is doomed to failure. In terms of close quarter character studies there remain few to match this master class in screen writing or direction.
With the knowledge that The Strain has been picked up for season two of a proposed five, it is this reviewer’s hope that a fragmentary narrative sustains the interest and builds character interest. Hopefully as the story progresses it will become clear what The Strain is trying to be, because right now it remains a jack of all trades and master of none.