HBO's vampire show managed to grow its ratings and expand its universe in the second season. So why was it so frustrating to watch so much of the time?
True Blood season two wrapped up over a week ago, but I was a little behind on the episodes, so I just finished watching the finale the other night. And I think it's worth discussing the high points and low points of the season on what has become HBO's most popular show. Obviously, when talking about the season in total, major spoilers will appear throughout. So if you're waiting for the dvd release, I'd recommend you skip this entry.
While the first season of True Blood started off slowly, with a few too many "Look, we're on HBO and we can show explicit sex!" scenes, it gradually rounded into form and became a highly entertaining, engaging show. Season 2 started off intriguingly, as Sookie and Bill dealt with new teenage vampire Jessica, Jason was recruited by the Fellowship of the Sun, and Tara continued to spend most of her time with the mysterious benefactor Maryann and Eggs, a fellow recipient of Maryann's generosity. On top of that, Lafayette was revealed to be alive, but trapped in a dungeon underneath the vampire bar Fangtasia. And at Merlotte's, Arlene was getting over the death of her latest husband by cozying up to Gulf War vet Terry while new waitress Daphne was showing herself to be maybe the worst waitress the bar had ever seen.
It was a lot to handle, but the first couple of episodes were very solid, especially when Sookie was attacked and nearly killed by a mysterious creature with poisonous claws. But after that, the show ran into the problem that dogged it for the entire rest of the season: pacing. The writers, directors, and producers of True Blood seemed to be clueless about when to push a plotline forward and when a storyline was at its most interesting. The worst offender was the Tara/Eggs/Maryanne thread. Michelle Forbes is great whenever she shows up and she did bang-up work all season as Maryann, but good acting only gets you so far. There's only so many orgies full of hypnotized townspeople with an out-of-focus Maryann reveling in the center one can watch before it becomes boring. That number turned out to be about three, or maybe four. But the show took six or seven episodes before we ever got an explanation of what the heck Maryann was and why she was so powerful. On top of that, we had to watch Tara moon over Eggs all season long. And don't get me wrong, Mehcad Brooks is a very, very good-looking man, but his character was more or less empty. Which gave the impression that Tara completely and easily fell under his sway simply because he was attractive and liked her. I'm not sure that was the point the storytellers were trying to make, but that's how it turned out.
Which brings us to the issue of the intelligence of the characters on True Blood. There is only one intelligent character on True Blood- Eric. As played by Alexander Skarsgard, Eric is the one person who has a pretty good idea of what's going on, and knows how to play it to his advantage. The rest of the cast basically just reacts, usually foolishly, to whatever events are transpiring. This is especially true of our ostensible leads, Sookie and Bill. Bill spent a large portion of the season impotently arguing against Eric, his superior, about how much authority Eric had over Sookie. And for the rest of the season, he was trapped in a hotel room by his maker, the more powerful Lorena, and he didn't have the smarts to figure a way out of his situation. Only in the season finale was Bill allowed to really do something, coming up with the plan that ultimately defeated Maryann.
Similarly, the show can't decide whether Sookie is a wide-eyed innocent or more crafty than she appears. They'd like us to believe that her telepathic powers give her an edge that belies her pure-looking exterior. But Sookie also spent a great deal of the season rushing ill-prepared into situations and paying the price for it. First she was supposed to go "undercover" into The Fellowship of the Sun to try and find the missing vampire Godric, but was captured almost immediately despite being able to read the minds of everyone she was up against. And then, in the final two episodes of the season, she rushed back to her house with no plan other than her determination to save Tara, and ended up just as trapped as her friend because of it. It's tough to get behind the principal characters when they continually act like such dumbasses.
All of this is not meant to imply that the season wasn't enjoyable. On a week-to-week basis, True Blood still provides a wealth of fun scenes. Nelsan Ellis is a pleasure to watch as Lafayette, whether he's being tortured in a dungeon, dealing with paralyzing post-torture anxiety, or dreaming about Eric. Putting Jason into a Fellowship of the Sun boot camp and having him eventually get seduced by the head preacher's wife allowed Ryan Kwanten to flex his comedy chops. The storyline of Jessica gradually falling for local lunkhead Hoyt was cute and sweet. And occasionally the show transcends fun and reaches greatness. The episode-closing scene on the roof of the Hotel Carmilla where Sookie stayed with Godric as he died was the emotional high point of the season.
But it's telling that the best full episode of the season was #10, which, not coincidentally, was also the shortest at a mere 45 minutes. With all the characters back in Bon Temps and the storylines finally coming together, this episode was like watching a great second act of a horror movie. There was real tension as Sam and Andy were trapped in the Merlotte's refrigerator as dozens of Maryann-hypnotized townsfolk tried to grab Sam to use as a human sacrifice. Meanwhile, Sookie and Bill did their best to deprogram Tara from Maryann's programming. All together, the episode was a taut and effective build to the season's final two episodes.
But then there was the finale. I can understand having the big climactic showdown end halfway through the episode, if you have enough lingering plotlines to wrap up. But there's that pacing issue again. The final half-hour dragged badly because the producers thought that the various stories were all compelling enough to need their own closures and/or setups for season three. Whether they were or not is debatable, but there were some other dangling threads that were never addressed. Such as, why was Andy largely immune to Maryann's powers until the final episode? To have him suddenly fall under her sway made little sense after the show took great pains to point out that only supernatural people were unaffected by her. And what was the point of the sequence where Tara and Eggs came upon what appeared to be one of Maryann's former sacrifice sites? They made a big deal about Eggs not being able to remember but having the feeling he'd been there before, but never followed up on it. In the end, it made no difference for Eggs (now deceased, so no more backstory needed), or for Maryann, who ended up dead regardless of anything that happened at the other site.
True Blood does so many things well, but it also does just enough poorly to be frequently aggravating. The second season expanded the universe effectively (loved the vampire hotel and the concept of the vampire queen, and I also liked how Barry and Daphne let Sookie and Sam know they weren't alone in their abilities). But it also fell into a whole new set of problems that weren't present in the first season. Maybe season three will be the one where the show really finds its groove and does everything well.