Thoughts on True Blood
Posted by therebelprince on August 13, 2009
With the second season heating up, I thought I’d say a few words about HBO’s vampire drama True Blood. It’s not something I’m interested in reviewing regularly, but I figured I’ll check in every now and then on the series’ development.
I didn’t know if I would come back after the first season, which I found pretty cheaply characterised. While Alexander Skarsgård (left with Kristin Bauer) as the beautiful Viking vampire Eric, and Rutina Wesley as the free-spirited Tara really stood out, the poor leads – Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer – got saddled with cardboard characters who attempted to evoke vampire novel stereotypes without any embellishment. I think Moyer’s still stuck with the rather bland Bill, but I’m realising more and more that the simplicity of Sookie Stackhouse is a clever acting decision by Paquin.
(It’s probably worth pointing out that I haven’t read the books, so I’m never sure how much blame to place on Alan Ball and his team, and how much goes back to Charlaine Harris herself.)
Season two has definitely increased the series’ overall intelligence level. I really enjoy the world they’ve created here: it’s a Deep South with character and grit. I think it’s a pity that we’ve stepped away from the gritty world of ‘V’ dealers, but I guess we explored that pretty throughly in season one. This year, it’s about opening up to the magical aspects that lies beyond our comprehension, and about the hilarious but cruel cult that is the Fellowship of the Sun.
For me personally, I feel like most characters have been flitting in and out of the story rather haphazardly. While a lot of emphasis has been placed on Tara and the Maenad (the impeccable Michelle Forbes, who has possibly taken first place as the standout cast member), several characters – the Sheriff (William Sanderson, Deadwood’s E.B. Farnum), Pam (Kristin Bauer), Arlene (Carrie Preston) and Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) – have felt like shadows in the corner this season. In the case of Pam and Sheriff Dearborne, they were never prominent but I think because they’re both played so well, it seems like they should be more than tertiary characters in the narrative. Lafayette and Arlene, meanwhile, outlived their season one usefulness and now seem to exist as writers’ afterthoughts. Looking back, I can’t actually complain about any of the storylines we have got, but it certainly feels a bit less cohesive overall.
Surprisingly, in light of that, there have really only been three overarching storylines this year, so I may as well discuss each of them in order.
First, the vampire world itself. My limited understanding of the books is that we’re going to see a lot more of this next year, although we’ll be meeting the Vampire Queen (Evan Rachel Wood) later this season. Having said that – and this could just be my problem – I find the vampire storylines to be the least interesting. This is possibly because, in our culture soaked with Buffy and Twilight, vampire tales seem a little passe. Truthfully, the vampire myth has remained popular primarily because the simplistic metaphors of sex and death are easily accessible among the emo set, and the disenfranchised of all ages. It’s not particularly challenging to splatter some red and play around with dark, haunted vampires biting young innocents to get the heart pumping (so to speak). That’s not to say that vampire tales can’t be told well, but I much prefer this world that appears to be full of different mystical elements, as it gives me the hope that there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
Lorena (Mariana Klaveno) hasn’t really captured my heart, although I liked her confrontation scene with Sookie in “Timebomb”. My dislike of her probably stems from my lack of interest in Bill and his brooding vampire ways. Spike was always more interesting than Angel, and so too I desire to know more about Eric than I do Bill. Perhaps I’m cruel, or perhaps I’m just in love with Skarsgård: I can’t decide. Anyway, I’m thankful for the arrival of Godric (Allan Hyde), as his presence seems to have united the disparate storylines of Bill and Sookie, Bill and Lorena, Eric and Bill etc, under one banner. His comments in “Timebomb” that he wants a world where humans and vampires live in peace seem genuine, and really force the show back onto its central premise.
If anything has diluted this premise, it’s the (welcome) addition of the Maenad/shapeshifter plot. It’s a travesty that Michelle Forbes (below) has never been given a series lead role (at least, one that made it an abortive first season). She’s an intoxicating actress, although I think she’s grown a bit tired of playing the relentlessly stern professional that she’s played on everything from 24 to Star Trek. Maryann is a refreshing character, entirely evil but always conniving to convince you otherwise. She has her bloodied hooks into Tara, Sam (Sam Trammell) and Eggs (Mehcad Brooks). (Speaking of Eggs, I hope he comes out of this okay – Brooks is beautiful, and a great equal for the troubled Tara.) I think the storyline took a bit too long though: did we really need 8 episodes (plus 3 last season) to let the characters figure out what we already knew about Maryann? I realise that the book subplots are being extended across seasons, but I never thought an HBO series could take so long to get to the point – and I’m someone who generally adores languid storytelling!
If there’s a weakness to the series, it’s an occasional desire to let the characters wonder about things that we’ve long since realised. Alias learnt this in their first season, when fans turned against the “intrepid reporter” Will Tippin (Bradley Cooper). He was seen as an interesting hero from the producers’ part, but as fans knew the secrets he was investigating, they found him to be boring and behind the 8 ball. Perhaps Ball and co could learn a similar lesson here. I’ve appreciated this storyline partly because of Forbes, and partly because it opened up the world. Beside the maenad, both Sookie and Sam have found one of their own: Sam with the ill-fated Daphne (Ashley Jones), and Sookie more importantly with a hotel clerk who will hopefully help her figure out where she comes from. (Lorena in “Timebomb” seemed to imply that his blood was different to other humans, so who knows what Sookie is?) I suspect that the storylines of Sam, Tara and the rest of the citizens of Bon Temps are always going to be treated as secondary to Sookie and Bill, but I just hope the writers keep remembering how interesting the world beyond vampires is.
Which leads us to the Fellowship of the Sun. Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten) is one of my favourite characters on TV at the moment: like Sookie, he’s a complete idiot but that doesn’t stop him from being sweet, adventurous and awesome. While Jason has been disconnected from the main plot all season, he’s lead us into the wonderful world that is the church. Reverend Newlin (Michael McMillan) and his oh-so-perfect wife Sarah (Anna Camp) are among my favourite season 2 characters, sparkling with clever characterisation and giving us a great insight into the opposition. Jason has such a sweet nature that he’s able to be genuinely interested in people while – with his childlike observational skills – manages to see when they’re being duplicitous. I understand that Jason is quite a minor character in the novels, and I do think that he has a limited shelf life (he did spend most of last season having mindless sex after all). I hope against hope, though, that he remains strong.
It’s a little disturbing that Godric has just deflated this entire storyline with one speech but the fact of the matter is: he’s the future of vampirism in America. He doesn’t want death and he doesn’t want a war. Godric is going to have a battle with the vampires who killed Newlin pere and who remain interested in killing humans, and this is the kind of storyline I’m interested in seeing.
In closing, do I like the show? Yes, for what it is. Unusually for HBO, True Blood isn’t a series that strives to have overarching themes and deep ideas (let’s be honest: from Dracula through Anne Rice, vampire myths are the easiest and most transparently symbolic of the supernatural). It features fun characterisations, from Eric and Maryann to hapless detective Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer) and his surly son Terry (Todd Lowe), and presents its story at its own pace. This is not Mad Men or The Sopranos, where delicate final scenes leave us with a poignant image: instead the last moments are cliffhangers, telling us unequivocally that the narrative is king. And here, that’s not a bad thing. I’m looking forward to the future of the very sweet relationship that is Hoyt (Jim Parrack) and newly-made vampire Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll). I’m confused but intrigued by the murder of Miss Jeanette (Aisha Hinds). And as long as Eric hangs around, I’ll even be able to put up with the dour, melodramatic Bill. The world of True Blood is going to keep expanding, and I actually hope this series runs for a long time. It may lack the subtleties of most HBO programming, but it carries a solid narrative and nailbiting episodes. Ever since Flight of the Conchords, HBO has had a surprising array of series which looks set to continue with Bored to Death, Shameless and Game of Thrones. I’ve always considered the core triumvirate of The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood to be the greatest works of television art, and so I’ll admit this new tone threw me. But I’ve always seen the network as an unexpected theatre outing, or an intelligent book club. You may not know what you’re going to get most of the time, and you might not initially “get” it at all. But more often than not, it’s worth the effort to understand. So I’m gonna see where this one goes.