[7 September 2008]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
There’s something not quite right about “True Blood,” HBO’s new parable/drama series about modern-day vampires living in Louisiana.
Let’s allow that “True Blood” is on HBO, which has a high tolerance for bizarre little shows that don’t reveal all their secrets right away (though some subscribers would argue that in the cases of “John From Cincinnati” and “Carnivale,” the secret was that neither show knew what the hell it was about).
And let’s grant that the show’s creator, Alan Ball, has an Academy Award under his belt for “American Beauty” and also created “Six Feet Under” for HBO, so we should cut him some creative slack.
That said, however, I am worried that by recommending “True Blood” wholeheartedly to readers, I am setting you (and myself) up for disappointment. After all, you don’t just watch an hour or two of a new HBO series - you set aside a weekend to watch all the episodes. Or, if you’re old-fashioned, you turn it into appointment TV. It’s what HBO viewers do, especially if they think there’s going to be some grand payoff.
I’m not sure we’ll have one here. But before we get to my concerns, it’s only fair to tell you more about the show and why I like it, despite its initial flaws.
“True Blood” is based on the novels of Charlaine Harris, who created a character named Sookie Stackhouse, played here by an all-growed-up Anna Paquin. Sookie’s life was unusual enough before vampires came into it. She’s telepathic, always has been. Other people’s thoughts, not the music of the bayou, form the soundtrack of her life. She can hear what they’re thinking.
Needless to say, this has made it hard for Sookie to enjoy going out on dates - they usually end up with her throwing food across the table at her dirty-minded suitor. So she mostly stays home with her kindly grandmother Adele (Lois Smith) or works at the local bar and grill, Merlotte’s, where most of the show’s other characters hang out, including her tart-talking best friend, Tara (Rutina Wesley), who shares Sookie’s inability to hook up with the opposite sex. Most of those close to Sookie know she knows what they think.
Then, one day, something odd: Into Merlotte’s walks a tall, mysterious stranger (Stephen Moyer), and somehow Sookie instantly knows she is looking at a vampire. “True Blood,” in that moment, puts its cards on the table. It tells us that these two are headed on a long, slow, uncertain trajectory to everlasting something together.
The problem here is everyone’s reaction to the discovery that there’s a vampire in their midst. In the future present that “True Blood” occupies, vampires don’t need human blood to continue their undead existences.
Synthetic blood has been developed, and this has permitted vampires to meet their nutritional needs without engaging in antisocial behavior. In turn, this has removed the shame and stigma (stigmata?) of being a bloodsucker.
Vampires, as someone on “True Blood” puts it, have “come out of the coffin.”
Yep, Alan Ball wants to tell the story of gay America and its endless struggle with ignorant, buffoonish, mostly Christian America through a parable. Actually vampires are sort of a hybrid pariah in “True Blood,” absorbing libels about both homosexuals and African-Americans.
They are suspected in area killings; they are living a deviant lifestyle; they make for unusual sex partners; they attract a subculture of kids looking for kicks, called “fangbangers”; and so on. Oh, and vampires are of the devil, as if you didn’t see that one coming.
Ball didn’t create the anti-vamp movement - Harris did, in her books - but he overplays the fear card. Though in some ways he has one of the defter touches for mass entertainment of anyone working for HBO (he does, after all, have a credit on “Cybill”), when he gets on the subject of gays, he seems to lose all perspective.
This was a problem on his last show, too, and now, in his humorless depiction of the general public as indistinguishable from Fred Phelps and his nutball sect - we briefly see a roadside sign that reads, “GOD HATES FANGS” - Ball completely misreads the ever-evolving mind-set of Middle America.
Same-sex marriage has gone from wedge issue to nonissue in four years. Evangelical kids are growing up gay, and their parents are finding Scripture not nearly as certain on the matter as their pastors.
Anyway, Ball’s agenda gums up a fair number of scenes.
My hope is that “True Blood” will get all of this tub-thumping out of the way in a few weeks and start its tremendous potential as an ensemble drama with hints of comedy. Paquin is sweetly believable as a hot little honey with intimacy issues. She has an endearing knack for taking the swarthy vampire down a notch - including making fun of his unromantic first name, Bill. A vampire named Bill! Imagine. It’s almost normal.