One recent evening I was watching The National on CBC. Like other news outlets, it was reporting on young Canadian men becoming fighters with the Islamic State (ISIS), that most terrifyingly barbaric of fundamentalist armies.
Viewers were told that parents of the men were "heartbroken and confused," and underlying everything in the report was this vague, troubling fear that something had infected Canada – an evil force, lurking somewhere, was pulling some of our young men into violent extremism.
Troubled, I departed the news and caught up with The Strain (Sundays at 10 p.m. on FX Canada), a drama that's lurid, gory, camp and all about some strain of vampirism that turns people into hungry zombie things. And there it was again, just as it was on the news: that fear of something ancient, barbaric and relentlessly violent; the fear of a plague, a pestilence, a virus of unimaginable malevolence.
We've seen a lot of similarly themed TV drama in recent years. Some are specifically meant to parallel reality and poke away at our fears. When it began six years ago this month, True Blood was described by Alan Ball, who adapted the novels by Charlaine Harris, as "popcorn TV for smart people." Certainly in its first seasons True Blood was anchored in the neat, metaphorical meaning of its story – the vampires standing for any outsiders, especially gays and lesbians, on the fringe of an insular society that isn't as staid as it claims to be. The fear of "others" was niftily dealt with in a very rococo, Southern Gothic style of fun and games.
The Strain is "popcorn TV" that's less obviously "for smart people," but it is certainly about our fear of ancient barbarity returning to cast our world into chaos and brutality. It's comic-book crazy at times, yet it is, as Entertainment Weekly noted, rather like Albert Camus's The Plague on pop-culture steroids.
The show began with an opening episode that might as well have carried a label declaring, "This is about our fear of Ebola." A plane lands in New York City with most of the passengers dead, and the surviving handful later turn into ghouls with fiercely bloodshot eyes. For all the comic-bookness, it is genuinely scary. The real blight on the plane, though, turns out to be an ancient coffin containing smelly dirt and some kind of terrifying bloodsucker creature.
A concoction by Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan's Labyrinth (adapted from novels he co-wrote with Chuck Hogan) in cahoots with Carlton Cuse (Lost), The Strain is ridiculous on many levels. The dialogue is cheesy, and the scenes of chaos are goofy. It's set very specifically in New York City and yet made in Toronto – part of the fun here is seeing distinctive local areas masquerading as Brooklyn or somesuch place. It's summertime fun. We all know that the handsome and clever (and absurdly named) hero Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), a Centers for Disease Control expert, will make things right. We laugh at the jokes when they pop up.
But at the same time, that ancient smelly coffin on the plane carried into North America a very ancient kind of violent extremism. It is linked, in the plot, to the Second World War and the Holocaust. It's the evil of egotistical brutality.
The best kind of escapism does not let us escape at all. It obliges us to be as aware of our fears as the daily TV news does. That's what The Strain achieves, just as much as some more lauded and plainly serious cable TV dramas.
Frankly, we live in fear these days. And everything – absolutely everything – on TV seems to reflect that fact back to us.
Highway Thru Hell (Discovery, 10 p.m.) returns for a third season tonight. Discovery says: "Highway Thru Hell is what happens when tough guys meet tough conditions. Mangled metal and jangled nerves – and the elite team of men who can conquer both." And indeed that's all true. But this is, as before, a very Canadian venture into the macho-men and big-wheels territory. Most of the action unfolds on the Coquihalla Highway – "100 treacherous kilometres cutting through the heart of British Columbia's Cascade mountains."