Watching True Blood is akin to consuming junk food at a classy eating establishment. It’s expensive, beautifully presented and provides instant gratification. But half an hour later you’re hard-pressed to remember anything about it.
It is perhaps appropriate that this is consistently HBO’s current biggest hit show, as it points up the unsubtlety of cable network prerequisites; gallons of blood and acres of flesh. In other series these elements are blended in such a way as to make them seem sort-of appropriate to the subject matter. With True Blood, the writing is typically as crude and overt as the visual content. But packaged very, very nicely.
A big point about True Blood is its disproportionately impassioned (female) fanbase. It’s not something you’ll take much notice of if you consume the show over a few evenings once a year, when the season sets are released, then forget about it for another 12 months. But it seems the characters, their trajectories and onscreen domination (or not), provoke strong responses. In particular, the nominal leading man status of Stephen Moyer as Bill Compton is not to the taste of the multitude who swoon for Alexander Skarsgård’s Eric Northman. There’s no question that Skarsgård is the more charismatic performer in a much more obviously “cool” role, but I must profess ignorance of the emotions stirred up over who Sookie (Anna Paquin) should be with (Bill, Eric or Joe Manganiello’s werewolf Alcide) until relatively recently. This series has never really inspired me to read up much on its background or following and, while I can get with the general complaint that Season Four wasn’t all that, I couldn’t agree that the last two seasons have been outright terrible. It would be more of a case that, like Dexter (although never as good as that series at its peak), that more recent runs of True Blood have simply failed to maintain the consistency of its early stages.
True Blood may foster a following for its central love triangle (or, at times, quartet if you include Alcide) to rival Twilight, but its natural antecedent is Buffy. I’m sure devotees of TB deride any comparisons, but it can’t help but invite them. Joss Whedon’s series may not feature the graphic elements of the cable show, and is replete with the kind of smart dialogue Alan Ball’s series’ couldn’t (wouldn’t?) dream of, but both feature a young, blonde, “chosen” female protagonist in love with a brooding, dark haired vampire; in both series their relationship is supplanted by a scene-stealing blonde vampire who quickly becomes firmly entrenched as the audience’s favourite character.
True Blood gradually broadens its scope to include more magical phenomena and creatures, whereas Buffywas in there from the start, but both series overtly apply the supernatural as a metaphor for the challenges of life and the changing experiences and growth or setbacks it brings. Buffy’s canvas is younger and, as a Whedon series, it has a self-conscious tone absent from True Blood. Levelling the playing field somewhat is that True Blood’s commentary is sometimes so on-the-nose as to pluck it from the face. The series’ storylines address religion, sex, race, and equality as running themes, but with such scant regard for finesse they could hardly be categorised as subtext. In particular, the religious content of the series (even given the Louisiana setting) doesn’t so much nudge gently as attempt to throttle the life out of you.
Hindsight is likely to label the third season as the series’ peak. If some of the new elements and characters didn’t live up to their potential (werewolves and werepanthers, the intriguing but ultimately damp squib of the fairie realm), it introduced the season-stealing Russell Edgington (Denis O’Hare), who was quite understandably brought back for the fifth, and Evan Rachel Wood’s vampire queen became another central anatagonist. The fourth year struggled uncertainly during its first half, with Eric unwisely rendered amnesiac and the witches plotline taking an awfully long time to justify itself. The best thread by far was the development of the medium skills of Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) and his relationship with Jesus (Kevin Alejandro); there was an emotional wallop there that exposed most of the other plotlines as merely going through the motions.
And, to an extent, Season Five also leaves that impression. At times the need to serve the entire cast and characters, or posing the question of what can we do with them this season rather than having a strong idea going in, is clearly leading the writers’ choices.
Some of the resultant character shifts work better than others. The decision to make Tara (Rutina Wesley) a vampire is a good one in that it makes Tara more engaging and the writers less prone to spinning her in ever decreasing doomed circles. But it’s a symptom of Buffy syndrome where, by the end of the run, the only non-fantastically gifted character is Xander. Unlike many of the fanbase, it seems, I like Tara and Wesley’s performance, but it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that vamping her up is a cop-out for not being able to find her something positive or different to do as a human; an admission of defeat.
With Bill, one wonders how much the decision to turn him bad is down to Moyer’s influence (he also directed an episode this season). My problem with the change isn’t that we’ve seen it all before (Angel, in both Buffy and Angel on a number of occasions; and it has to be said that, for all of David Boreanaz’s limitations compared to Moyer, the former makes a better fist of it) but that I never really believed in the transformation. Something is missing in terms of selling it to the audience; no matter how much the writers talk this up as being a dramatically powerful change in motivation, of being “born again” (this is the extent of the subtlety on this show), it doesn’t fly. And, again, there’s déjà vu with the final season of Angel, where Spike comes into focus as the more sympathetic “human” character when previously it was the titular protagonist. Perhaps Moyer fails to convey the change, or perhaps it’s that his acceptance of Lilith needs to be conveyed by the writers as strongly as Eric’s rejection.
Elsewhere, the werewolf storyline continues to be at best half as interesting as it should (I’ve always liked werewolf mythology, but it’s curious how consistently movies and TV make them rather banal), although it’s nice to see Robert Patrick as Alcide’s wayward dad. I’ve never found Jason Stackhouse the classic character the writers regard him as (it’s difficult to make stupid interesting), despite Ryan Kwanten’s performance. Likewise the rather drippy, earnest Sam; Sam Trammell is thrown the bone of an episode where Luna shifts into the form of Sam Merlotte, but the extended business concerning Luna’s daughter is a bit of a chore. Sookie takes a bit of a backseat during this run (because she is only defined by the absent men she loves?) and she considers draining off her powers; reasonable, as she and Jason are being set up for a stronger arc in Six concerning the murder of their parents and her being promised to vampire Warlow.
Terry’s (Todd Lowe) Iraq backstory is not only clumsily handled but weakly thought out (although the fire demon effects are rather good). And, great as Chris Bauer is playing Andy Bellefleur, I can’t see his fairy quadruplet babies being anything other than a crappy comedy running gag for Season Six.
In contrast, the flashbacks to Pam’s (Kristin Bauer van Straten) human life, and her relationship with Tara allow for some fine nuanced playing from van Straten (as I’ve said, subdued is not the show’s strong suit). And, while I’m not sorry to see the departure of the series’ dullest character Hoyt (Jim Parrack), every scene featuring his one-time belle Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) is a joy. If I was to single out the characters that leave me wanting more, they’re Jessica and Lafayette; in other words, not the nominal leads.
Crucially, even though the Lilith “true believer” concept is repetitive and somewhat witless, the central storyline concerning the Vampire Authority is a solid one. Upping the ante with the conflict between mainstreamers and true believers escalating into a vampire-human war has a lot of potential, even if the danger is that we'll only see the localised Bon Temps evidence of it during Season Six. Teaming Bill and Eric, and keeping them removed from Bon Temps and Sookie for most of the season, is a smart move and ensures the over-explored romance is put on the backburner. I’m not sure the Authority is ever quite as impressive or threatening as it should be, but there are enough new characters and twists and turns to make it consistently engaging. Christopher Meloni’s Roman, the dedicated mainstreamer, Christiopher Heyerdahl as Dieter Braun and Lucy Griffiths’ Nora (Eric’s sister) are probably the standouts. But Michael McMillian is given a new lease of life as evangelist turned vampire Steve Newlin; his scenes with Denis O’Hare are frequently hilarious, and he’s even gifted the chance to play Sam in the season finale.
So, always very watchable but never essential viewing. I can’t escape the feeling I’ve seen this all before. There’s nothing all that dramatic about Bill-as-Lilith when you’re familiar with Angelus or Jasmine (Season Four of Angel). Is this a show that will finish at the end of its seventh year, or will HBO seek to extend it due ratings success? I don’t doubt there are sufficient stories to keep it on air, but it would be symptomatic of the show’s main problem. This is a series that rambles around somewhat aimlessly, dictated too much by soap opera elements. I never get the sense that there’s a long-term plan for the characters. Each season works on its own terms, but perhaps a bit more focus is in order.