Catching Up: True Blood (S01E01-04)
Before I’d even seen a second of it, True Blood was high on my hype list for the sole reason that Alan Ball was set to work his magic on the adaptation of the southern vampire series of novels by Charlaine Harris. Ball, for anyone unfortunate enough not to know, was behind one of my all-time favorite shows, Six Feet Under, and so I knew True Blood couldn’t be just any vampire tale, but something special. Then along came the first episode and things were looking iffy. The second and I was starting to worry a little. But four episodes in now, my fears are waning and I’m finally seeing the potential for a truly great show to emerge. Thank God, Alan Ball hasn’t failed us yet.
I sat on the fence as to whether I would review this show or not, and my lukewarm reception to the first few episodes may have killed some of my drive. This review here is pretty much my impressions on the first three episodes (even though the pictures above are all from the third), so if you don’t want to be spoiled for any of what happens in the first few hours, run away now.
A little summary first. True Blood is the story of small town waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) who has the ability to read minds, which has proven more of a burden to her than a gift. Vampires exist in her world and they have recently come out of the closet per say, revealing their existence to the world, and people are now having sex with vampires, killing vampires to sell their blood (a sort of illicit mind and libido altering drug for humans), and debating vampires on the evening news. One of these Vampires named Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) strolls into Sookie’s life one night and the realization that she cannot read his thoughts draws them together and into the beginning of a complex and bizarre journey. Sookie’s sex-crazed brother and possible murderer Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanton), her best friend Tara (Rutina Wesley) who is never one to censor her thoughts, and her charming boss Sam Merlott (Sam Trammell), who’s had a crush on Sookie forever, are among a few of the characters that help give this show its quirky charm, if you can call anything about this messed up world charming.
This is a vampire show, but it isn’t quite like any vampires you’ve seen before. It’s grittier than Buffy, sexier than Anne Rice and with way less of the angst filled Mary-Sues populating the pages of that horrific Twilight series that’s so faddy right now. By now, anyone undertaking a vampire story has to know: they’re not breaking any new ground. What can be done to step around the cliche route is to add new elements to the lore and to explain the new and existing mythology at work in the world in detail, both of which True Blood does okay with at first, but excels at by the third installment.
The new ground tread may not be revolutionary, but it’s enough to set the series apart. Set in a rural Louisiana town, the comparison could be drawn again to Anne Rice’s New Orleans vampire clan. While they both drip with sex, Blood is a more raw, violent, and perverse Louisiana, and it feels more like the real south than Rice’s bizarro world. The characters have thick Cajun flavored accents, live in old southern homes with peeling paint, and know how to show world class southern hospitality, even if they don’t always practice it. There’s hanging moss, secluded local dives, and a fixation on old Civil War era family histories (which the black folk in town aren’t too keen on remembering). And never before has it seemed appropriate to call it the “Dirty South” because True Blood is plain filthy. Vampire-Holics be warned, these aren’t your parent’s blood suckers. These undead and the mortals, too, have sec with each other like it’s their last day on earth, and when the next day comes they go at it again, as if the next one will definitely be it. There’s enough T&A in the first few episodes to fool some into thinking their watching softcore pornography and enough blood and gore to make your stomach feel a little uneasy. The squeamish and the prude should stick with tamer incarnations of the vampire myth, but if you’re game True Blood proves it isn’t throwing sex and violence in your face gratuitously. No, it’s crafting a world that is amped up with sexual tension and energies, but always feels dangerous, with something dark always skirting around the edges. While all of this was present from the start, it does come off at first as Ball trying to push boundaries and use every privilege given by broadcasting on HBO, but it slowly reveals that it needs this to portray the type of world these characters are living in, and to integrate romance and laughter in, but never loud enough to make you forget that there is something unsettling, something evil waiting in the wings.
The second aspect, the time tested vampire mythos, was missing at first. There was Bill, but almost everyone else was human, but the introduction of a whole clan of nasty bloodsuckers brought the rules and the history of this race to the table. There is a hierarchy, with scary elder vampires that cannot be crossed, and there are pacts vampires cannot break with their brethren. When Bill claims Sookie as his own, not to feed on her but to protect her, the others of his kind will not touch her. Some vampires can change shape, though not very many (I suspect the dog may be one), can cast glamors on humans to make them allow the vampire to have their way, though Sookie is apparently immune, and they can move at superhuman speed, appearing and disappearing so fast it seems they’re teleporting in and out of the scene. Some live secluded lives, like Bill in his old ancestor’s home, while others gather in groups–in hives–and delight in reeking havoc on the human world. The mythology has all been seen before, but the attention to detail and complexity of it all only four episodes in is impressive. I can only see it growing more complex as the show ages, and the thought of extended vampire clans and families and their codes and laws is exciting. This really feels like it has the potential to delve deeper into the vampire mythos than any show before.
Now, let’s talk about Sookie and Bill. I like telepathic Sookie Stackhouse a lot. I also like Anna Paquin a lot, and the combination of this character with this actress is a win-win. Even with my initial doubts, I found myself instantly attracted to Sookie’s warm, gap-toothed smile and optimism, which is balanced by a fair amount of righteous rage and balls bigger than any man’s on the show. She is a good friend, letting Tara crash, eat and shower at her place to escape her drunk mother, a good sister, sticking up for her brother, and a vampire activist, though only for one particular fanged individual. Bill Compton is the definition of a gentleman, soft spoken and well-mannered, but he has a whole lot of baggage that inevitably comes with being alive for over 100 years. He’s a vampire trying to live as normal of a life as an undead person can, but that’s a hard thing to do when you walk into a restaurant and everyone stops eating to stare at you. And when people are pretending to be your friends only to try and drain your blood to sell minutes later, which happens to Bill in episode one. Sookie comes to his rescue and from that moment on the sexual tension between the two of them doesn’t let up and will probably have you squirming in your seat. The sparks flying between most characters bounce off me like a wall, but whenever Sookie and Bill are dangerously close together, I turn to JELL-O. You know they both want each other, in spite of Sookie being afraid and of Bill being magically reanimated, and their relationship is the thing fangirls/guys are made from. Fanfiction and fanart will be rampant soon, I’m sure. But hey, even I’m slowly giving in, wanting to shout at the screen for them to just do it already. And by do it I mean have hot (or would it be cold and clammy?) vampire on human sex. Does Bill even have a sex drive, though and could virgin Sookie get pregnant by him? These are questions yet unaddressed, and in the mean time Sookie will just have to continue to please herself, thanks to driking some of Bill’s libido enhancing, sense heightening blood.
Sookie’s BFF, Tara, is a character I’m still not entirely sold on. In the original pilot she was played by Brook Kerr, but early screenings had people saying she was too annoying. So they re-shot the thing with Rutina Wesley, who is as far at the opposite end of the loud and abrasive spectrum as you can get: A little too far, in fact. Though neither actress’ interpretation is perfect, I happened to like Kerr’s original performance better. She stood out and made a bigger impact on me than Wesley, who fades into the background of any scene she’s not heading, and even then seems kind of dull. I will say that she does come across as a real person, but there’s nothing very compelling about her yet. Her friendship with Sookie hasn’t been established well (they’re good friends but hardly interact), her crush on certain guys is played off way too obviously with her constant eye twitches and rolls and bobs and whatever-the-hell they’re doing, and the storyline with her drunkard mom is somewhat interesting, if only because it’s more graphic than most shows, but it’s still a somewhat tired plotline. She seems to work best when working in the bar, where her unhinged jaw leads to some pretty funny interactions with the patrons and her coworkers. I like Tara’s flamboyant (that’s putting it mildly), gold pants wearing cousin who sells illegal drugs and prostitutes himself out of his home. He also accepts being taped dancing around in underwear as payment for his wares, as Jason finds out when he needs some “V Juice” to help keep up his reputation in bed, among other things.
Speaking of Jason: That kids is messed up, and there’s definitely something up with him yet to be discovered. He thinks he strangled a woman during sex, but a hidden video camera recording them the whole night reveals she had only faked being dead until a very freaked out Jason had fled her home. But someone had come back later and killed her dead, for realz. After a quick cry into the cleavage of one of Sookie’s coworkers and Jason’s on again, off again fling, Jason moves on and begins banging her on a regular, several times a day basis. But things turn sour with them, to the point that she runs him out of her house with a gun pointed his way. He leaves and the next day Sookie finds her dead at home. Is Jason killing these women and, if so, is he doing it consciously or subconsciously. There’s a mystery surrounding him I haven’t quite yet figured out, but consider me intrigued.
If you, like myself, were underwhelmed at first, I urge you to at least give True Blood four hours of your time. If you don’t like it by then, maybe you should stick with someone else’s vampires, but this show has shown considerable improvement in a short amount of time. The first two mediocre episodes setup for an impressive second two, with fang-sharp writing, dysfunctional and quirky characters that are growing on me, and a mythology that’s taking its time to unravel. AFter the brilliance of Six Feet Under, I owed Ball to give this show a chance, and I’m glad I stuck with it and, forgive me in advance, sunk my teeth into what has all the markings of a show coming into its prime and gearing up to be something special.