Despite its literary underpinnings, “The Strain” gradually became more comicbook-like throughout its highly entertaining first season, and fully embraces those qualities for the better launching into season two. Having settled on a solid core of players after some casualties along the way, the show forges ahead with a strong sense of momentum and vision, as well as an intricate mythology that connects the ancient evil of the series’ vampire race, the strigoi, to the past. FX dramas are full of dark corners, but unlike many of those other shows, this fast-paced hour benefits enormously by not taking itself too seriously.
Lest anyone has forgotten, a towering vampire called the Master has invaded New York City, unleashing a viral outbreak of bloodsuckers with the help of a wealthy businessman (Jonathan Hyde), who thirsts for the gift of eternal life; and a former Nazi (Richard Sammel), who has achieved it. Those opposing them include a concentration camp survivor, Abraham Setrakian (the indispensible David Bradley), whose backstory has been among the show’s greatest strengths, and whose admirable vitality is, thankfully, addressed in the opening flurry of episodes, which include a super-sized premiere.
Joining Setrakian’s cause are epidemiologists Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro), who turn their attention to creating a biological weapon that will destroy the strigoi, which is logical, if not quite as much fun as watching them get shot, skewered and beheaded. Relationships also continue to evolve, with the Ukrainian exterminator Fet (Kevin Durand) expressing almost sweet concern about Setrakian — he’s constantly urging him to eat — and growing closer to Dutch (Ruta Gedmintas), who is slowly adding vampire butt-kicking to her other useful talents a hacker.
As for the Master (played by the nearly 7-foot-tall Robert Maillet, who also menaced Leonidas in “300”), flashbacks reveal more about his history as well, while the towering beast plots using Ephraim’s ex-wife (Natalie Brown) to do his bidding. The war also expands to the outer boroughs, forcing officials to contemplate the extent to which they’re willing to go in terms of collateral damage, while the ruthlessness of the strigoi is demonstrated in truly cringe-worthy fashion.
Fortunately, co-creators Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan and showrunner Carlton Cuse have earned the right to push these boundaries, having established a world run amok where opposing vampire factions and darting yard-long suction devices now seem more natural and organic than Ephraim’s hair. Part of that has to do with the conviction the cast brings to the material, in much the same way “The Walking Dead” has turned the existential threat posed by marauding zombies into the high-stakes backdrop for character-driven drama.
As noted when “The Strain” premiered, in many respects the program feels like the “Walking Dead” companion AMC has yet to develop. And while the show’s initial debut seemed like a timely way to dramatize fear of viruses and pandemics at the time Ebola was in the press, in the way science fiction often does, it’s evolved into the equivalent of summer popcorn fare — a chess match pitting the plucky humans against the scheming vampires that’s plenty enjoyable without toting around any real-world baggage.
Sustaining this sort of concept, admittedly, is always a formidable challenge. But for now, at least, as it endeavors to extend the war, “The Strain” isn’t even breaking a sweat.