Friday, July 25, 2014

Television Reviews: The Strain (FX), The Musketeers (BBC America)

The Strain
Vampire myths have always reflected the tensions and fears of their originating societies. Bram Stoker's Dracula gave the reader images of "perverse" (i.e. non-marital/non-missionary/non-reproductive) sex, the threat of the darker, corrupt or foreign man to the white or virtuous woman and fears of unchaste liberated women, venereal diseases and death. Death and sex are often linked because each process is critical to life. For the past 40 years with some occasional notable exceptions provided by such writers as Stephen King or Brian Lumley, or films such as 30 Days of Night, the vampire's primary media image has emphasized the sexual or romantic loner elements and played down the undead monster or alien monstrosity interpretations. Such writers as Anne Rice, Stephenie Meyer and perhaps to a lesser extent Charlaine Harris have created and inspired a large number of vampire stories that for my taste veer far too close to gothic romance stories or even soft core porn. Each person has their own likes and dislikes. I just happen to prefer the myth of a vampire as an alien/undead thing, not a bisexual goth or tortured romantic or suave antihero. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the other renderings. It's a large world and fortunately everyone can find the sort of entertainment that they enjoy. To each his or her own. You may be familiar with the film director and producer Guillermo Del Toro and/or the writer Chuck Hogan. You may not have known that a few years ago they wrote a trilogy of vampire novels in which the vampires were light years away from pretty boy fops. These vampires are not moping around whining about immortality nor do they "sparkle" or hang around high schools experiencing puppy love with tremendously boring teen girls. These vampires are not looking for the reincarnation of their lost love. You don't want to meet these vampires in alleys, dark or otherwise. Del Toro has made that quite clear in his public comments about his new series.

The vampires are monsters. When they drink your blood it is not a metaphor or substitute for sex. Sex is not really on their agenda. Drinking your blood is their agenda. 


The first book in this trilogy was titled The Strain. I won't claim that it revolutionized horror literature or anything like that but I found it to be a welcome addition to the modern vampire genre. It injected a fair bit of real horror and fright into a style which I thought had become almost effete. I was happy to see that not only was there a FX series based on the books but that Del Toro and Hogan would be involved in writing, directing and producing. The results so far (the series just started last week) have been pretty good. If you were impressed with the physical look of the vampires in Blade 2 (directed by Del Toro) you will be pleased with The Strain's updates. An international flight from Berlin to NYC's JFK airport lands at night in the wrong section of the airport and then goes silent. No radio contact, no cell phones calls, no text messages, no nothing. All the shades are drawn except one. Because we are post 9/11 every single New York and Federal agency with even the remotest claim of authority over an event like this is jockeying to direct the response (and take credit for fixing the problem). The airport tarmac is full of government officials and bureaucrats like the late Alexander Haig who are running around telling everyone that "I'm in charge here" and strutting around engaging in baboon like displays of authority and aggression.
Somewhat implausibly(?) control is initiallly handed over to the CDC in the person of one Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) a man who is in the middle of required counseling sessions with his estranged and soon to be ex-wife Kelly (Natalie Brown). Kelly wants to divorce Eph because as head of the CDC rapid response team, Eph always puts the job first. Eph loves his wife and son but he has some issues about always having to be right. He's also a recovering alcoholic. Although he's doing his best to hold back sarcastic responses during the counseling sessions, Eph has no choice but to prove Kelly correct about his excessive job dedication when he gets paged. Along with fellow CDC worker Dr. Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro), Eph enters the plane to discover that all the passengers are dead with no apparent signs of trauma. There are some other anomalies.  This is obviously a shout out to the ship The Demeter, from the Dracula novel. Meanwhile across town death camp survivor and walking bada$$ grandpa Professor Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley aka Walder Frey from Game of Thrones) sees the news coming out of JFK and knows exactly what's happened. He also knows he won't be believed. Look for Sean Astin (Samwise from Lord of the Rings) as a CDC administrator. Unfortunately, at this stage in my life "The Strain" comes on too late (Sundays at 10 PM) for me to watch in real time. Furthering my irritation, my cable provider/FX has thoughtfully disabled the fast forward provision on its on-demand selection. So watching the premiere on a work night required me to devote a little over 95 minutes of my time. That was no good. Subsequent episodes are only a hour. So time will tell if I will watch the series during the week, wait until the weekend to watch the Sunday episode or take my brother's suggestion, join the modern era and obtain a DVR. 

Anyway, if you are into vampires, disturbingly creepy body horror, disaster films, or Del Toro creations you could do worse than to check this out Sunday nights, provided you are younger and/or don't have to be up bright and early on Monday mornings. There is explicit violence and occasional blink and you missed it nudity. The biological and scientific elements mesh seamlessly with the supernatural.

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The Musketeers
Everyone probably knows the story of The Three Musketeers, written by Alexander Dumas. It is a pretty good adventure story as such tales go. Some people may be unaware that Alexandre Dumas was a man of partial African ancestry. I wrote about his father here. Some of the younger Dumas' themes and fables were taken from stories told about his father and other black nobles of pre-revolutionary France. It is perhaps fitting then that in this new BBC America version of the story, the Musketeer Porthos, who in the book had some similarities to both Shakespeare's Falstaff and Dumas' father, has been altered to be a biracial black Frenchman, just like the elder General Dumas. I guess you could say that's both a step forward for color-blind casting and ironically for more historically accurate casting. Dunno. I like what Charles and the show writers have done with the Porthos role from what I've seen of the show to this point. 


Anyhow I am not going to detail much of the plot here because you probably already know it. The series creators take large liberties with it. I mean massive. I mean gargantuan. I mean gigantic. But for all of those changes, I think that the series still works as good entertainment. It works because although the creators change many details, add different motivations and make all sorts of other changes they still allow some basic truths to shine through. Athos (Tom Burke) is still a nobleman who is haunted by his marriage to the deadly Milady (Maime McCoy). Porthos (Howard Charles) is still a giant brawler who has fierce dedication to his comrades. Aramis (Santiago Cabrera) is still a man perched between dedication to the church and dedication to sleeping with as many women as he can. D'Artagnan (Luke Pasqualino) is still a quick tempered Gascon youth who has come to Paris (he's looking for vengeance for his murdered father instead of his fortune) and is slowly falling in love with the very married Mrs. Constance Bonacieux (Tamla Kari) And Cardinal Richelieu (Peter Capaldi) is still a ruthless, intelligent and occasionally acerbic manager and backroom dealmaker who is equally invested in increasing the glory of France and the glory of Cardinal Richelieu. The Cardinal is evil. But he's not so much actively malicious as he is willing to do anything to reach or justify his ends. He's not running around kicking puppies for fun. But if he discovers that his lover has been stepping out on him or worse, telling other men his business, he will have her murdered without thinking twice on the issue. Capaldi could probably step into the shoes of Peter Cushing or Vincent Price if he wished to do more period roles. He really is that good here. He's a true pleasure to watch.


The Musketeers and D'Artagnan are as much detectives and secret agents as they are soldiers and swordsmen. They work to maintain the authority of the state and the power of the King and Queen. They don't always like this. However they also work to prevent murder, avenge wrongdoing, stop urban renewal projects explicitly designed to drive out the poor and in one episode even prevent a would be slave trader from wreaking havoc. To an extent, some of the early episodes often play out like police procedurals as each week a different Musketeer is forced to confront a damaging secret from his past. He usually tries to keep the others out of his business but of course being Musketeers the whole "All for one and one for all" usually kicks in. The Cardinal is usually always attempting to humiliate, embarrass or otherwise dismiss the Musketeers. He even set up one of them for murder. Cardinal Richelieu sees the Musketeers as a threat to his domination of or access to the King. The Cardinal believes that the King must rule France but that he must provide sole advice and counsel to the King. Anyone who gets in the way of that purpose is a threat as far as the Cardinal is concerned. If you stay out of his way and out of his business he's not likely to bother you. Do otherwise and well you get in his bad books. Nevertheless occasionally the Cardinal and the Musketeers are compelled by events or even the King to put aside their differences for the greater good. The Cardinal is, above all, a patriot. If you like period drama, with all of the attendant costumes and settings this show is worth watching at 9 PM on Sundays.

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