You know they can hypnotize you.
— Tara (Rutina Wesley)
Bill Maher thinks vampires may be overstepping by demanding “basic civil rights just like everyone else.” He asks his guest on Real Time, a representative for the American Vampire League, “Doesn’t your race have a sordid history of exploiting and feeding off innocent people for centuries?” But Nan (Jessica Tuck) has heard this before. After pointing out the lack of “documentation” on such offenses, she notes that exploitation and abuse are hardly unique to vampires, citing slavery and Hiroshima. She completes the case with a zinger: now that the Japanese have invented a profitable way to satisfy vampires’ nutritional needs, mortals can rest easy. “I can assure you,” she smiles, “that every one of our community is now drinking synthetic blood.”
It’s a clever start for True Blood, this play on truth, blood, and the calculations of exploitation politics. Running on a background TV, the spot lays out succinctly the series’ text and context: vampires, like the X-Men before them, are now victims of prejudice and fear (Or, you might argue, they’re like those Republicans who have sucked dry the U.S. economic infrastructure, and seek now to claim victimization and another chance to suck some more.) Campaigning for passage of the Vampires’ Rights Act, they’re good-looking, cynical, adept hucksters.
Inside this broadly drawn national framework lies a local one, partly peculiar and partly generic. The primary vampire in True Blood, Bill (Stephen Moyer), has just moved to his descendents’ big front-porched estate in Bon Temps, Louisiana, as they’ve left no living heirs. Turned in 1865, when he was 30, he retains grim memories of The War, as well as a poetic antipathy toward the general practice (“There is nothing glorious about dying in a war,” he murmurs, “A bunch a starving, freezing boys killing each other so that rich people can stay rich: madness”). Bill’s a mournful sort, per Anne Rice, his face gray and haggard, his voice papery. Yet he’s hardly the most eccentric figure in this Southern Gothic milieu, full of Spanish moss, bloody roadkill, and puny humans who think they’re smarter than their uncanny adversaries. Though Bill wants to fit in, he hasn’t yet mastered the pass like a fellow bloodsucker, glimpsed in his hunting cap as he shops for his Tru Blood in six-packs down at the Grabbit-Qwik.
Such details underscore the series’ essentially mordant sensibility. Based on Charlaine Harris’ murder investigation novels, True Blood follows the model of creator Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under, trucking between life and afterlife, humor and tragedy, fantasy and sensual experience. While the last is embodied most explicitly by pretty boy and “complete horn-dog” Jason (Ryan Kwanten), his sister supplies an intellectual-moral perspective. Wide-faced and wise, Sookie (Anna Paquin) is a waitress — and eventually, a detective. With her, Bill is both out of time (“May I call on you?”) and eternally clueless (“You just shut your nasty mouth mister,” she scolds when he mentions an artery near her groin he’d like to see. “You might be a vampire, but when you talk to me, you talk to me like the lady that I am”). The first couple of episodes sets them up in a too-familiar romance, their attraction mutual and intense, but also bound-to-be-hard. Liked Angel and Buffy, he’s devastated by experience, she’s gifted beyond her years.
Sookie’s gift grants another angle on True Blood‘s thematic interest in truth. Though, she notes dismissively, she was diagnosed with ADD, she is apparently telepathic, able to hear every thought of every person who comes within earshot; this makes for quite the soundtrack cacophony as she carries her tray among tables at work. The condition makes her vaguely wise, somewhat traumatized, and too stereotypically sad about a dead mother who tried to protect her (and who died when Sookie was just eight, but appears in flashback). It also makes her entranced by her first vampire acquaintance, Bill, whose thoughts she can’t hear: “You have no idea how peaceful it is,” she smiles, “After a lifetime of blah, blah, blah.”
Bill knows her gift is not incidental to his own plot: “You’re something more than human,” he says more than once. You know this too, because she’s followed about by a seeming familiar, a local dog who shows up whenever she faces an imminent crisis. You also know this because her romance with Bill is jumpstarted by some back-and-forth life-saving, both gory incidents involving an exceptionally red-necky husband-and-wife team, tediously deserving of all abuse eventually heaped on them. Their connection is sealed when he revives her with a dose of his blood, which leads to her own “keener senses.” No one, and I mean no one, but Paquin could have pulled off the scene in which Sookie describes the newly “complex” taste of her grandmother’s sausage: “It’s like I can close my eyes and see the farm the pig lived on and feel the sun and the rain on my face, and taste the earth that the herbs grew out of!” Thankfully, the cut to Gran (Lois Smith) suggests that she too is appalled by this ridiculous reverie.
The romance is granted another perspective by Tara (Rutina Wesley, excellent here as she was in the Canadian indie How She Move). Despite her lifelong crush on the idiot Jason, Tara looks like a standard Black Best Friend, by definition skeptical of the vampire boyfriend. (Tara also brings with her an equally sharp, if also formulaic, gay cousin, Lafayette [Nelsan Ellis].) Though Sookie — so moral! — chalks Tara’s resistance up to prejudice, the best friend sounds awfully reasonable commenting on the trite romance unfolding before all our eyes.
Aside from the fact that she’s refreshingly aware of a world beyond Bon Temps (putting off a party flirt, she describes her non-existent threat of a husband as a mercenary with Blackwater, “just back from assassinating some guys in Iraq”), Tara is as incisive as Sookie is ethereal. She does her job — providing the show with a sense of Southern history that includes slavery and brutality — but she also brings Wit. When Tara and Sookie speak truth to each other (or seem to), True Blood is almost shrewd.