The Folscrum Effect
by DICK CHENEY
creators Guillermo Del Toro & Carlton Cuse
When a bald man is given hair for a particular part — in this case the leading role in Guillermo Del Toro’s The Strain — we call that a folscrum in Yiddish. Mounting a turgid wig atop the skull of bald congressman Peter Russo in House of Cards (Corey Stoll) is a capital crime. But then, there are a lot of crimes going unpunished in the world at this time. The Strain is about how all the bad things that happen to humanity are really its own fault.
Just like in the news, The Strain concerns an entire flight of human beings being murdered. While such violence seems senseless in the real world, in The Strain death at least has a purpose. The downed Malaysian Airlines flight in the Ukraine forced Western countries to send a bevy of investigators to the scene of the disaster. Because that’s what this scene of total annihilation required — bureaucrats from organizations with names like The Center for Security and Cooperation. Ronald Reagan would have been like, “Give me the names and locations of the people responsible.”
Pampered Westerners never realize the severity of aggressors until things get out of hand. Even after Hitler invaded Poland there were still British politicians who felt things could be patched up with the moustached dictator. Forgiving them their naiveté is easier than accepting those people who want to “investigate” an act of war. “The black boxes will be crucial,” they scream, and then submit a report and go back to their wives. Miss you so much RR.
The Strain has a similar group of innocents trying to figure out why all the victims perished with only a small incision in their throat to account for cause of death. Only one coroner is permitted to look over the bodies, and when the bodies start to wake up, he is overwhelmed by their need for vampiric sustenance. The Strain imagines this plague only in medical terms — as a disease with a small snake-like host.
Del Toro frequently uses non-white characters in his films, and The Strain is no exception. He has carefully transcended the boundaries of typical roles offered Latino actors by casting a Queens-born Latino character as a criminal with a heart of gold who is working for some kind of undead conglomerate. Progress, indeed. At least Peter Russo’s love interest is a woman of color.
For Del Toro, presentation is everything, and The Strain takes a tired New York setting and brings the action in all the boroughs you do not normally see on The Good Wife. Originally Fox executives wanted to turn Del Toro’s concept into a comedy. This is a lot less of a stretch than you might think, since there is always something hokey and broad about the way Del Toro writes characters — they are so frequently exactly what they seem.
Fortunately, this fits exactly with Lost showrunner Carlton Cuse’s ideas about character and plot. Cuse eschews believability at all times, preferring to opt for a more fanciful approach that means somehow the CDC would be the only organization involved in trying to ascertain why an entire plane full of people ended up dead. No FBI or CIA would even get involved; there’s not even a hint of Europe’s ever-so-important Center for Peace Relations NGO. It’s basically just drunk congressman Peter Russo and the babe he is cuddling responsible for the answers, which makes sense.
It is hard to complain about the silliness when a show is as slick and gorgeous as The Strain is. Del Toro’s technical acumen in integrating film-quality special effects into this television series blows away anything we have seen before. He makes the amateur hour bullshit on Game of Thrones look like a kid’s level diorama. I can’t even look at Daenerys’ pathetic dragons now without thinking how absurdly fake they are.
There is a different, more cinematic feel to what The Strain offers. Maybe it’s the presence of Samwise Gamgee, or having unusual locations in such a familiar place. So much of television seems to be a matter of holding back the best material for later. This exhausting strain (cough) of set-up after set-up after set-up numbs us to what the best thrillers offer — escalation of stakes and conflict beyond our imagination.
Despite the book version of The Strain — written with the indescribably bad Chuck Hogan — being so terrible, this concept was made for a series, where we can be subsumed by the vapid spectacle of watching a vampire thousands of years old wait all this time just to get across the bridge from Queens to Manhattan. It is a relief not to have to look at Stephen Moyer’s face anymore.
Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is obsessed with Emily Gould’s novel Friendship at this time, and only takes breaks from rereading it to watch The Strain and Hemlock Grove. He hates Alan Ball with an all-encompassing passion.