Wednesday, May 27, 2009

True Blood Season 1 Review


The HBO Original series True Blood’s opening credits play an overtly sexual song, proclaiming “I wanna do bad things with you,” over a montage that mixes images of sensually undulating nudes with those of rotting animals, wild predators, blood, and religious ecstasies to the point that it can, and should, make you uncomfortable. It’s predatory and scary, but also primally inviting. It wants to do bad, fun things with you, not to you.

The show is compelling because it is about that which is forbidden, but at the same time crucially important to us: sex, blood, pleasure, life, and death. The things we aren’t supposed to talk about, yet find ourselves thinking about constantly.

So it is fitting that the main character, a pretty young woman curiously named Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin, best known as Rogue in the X-men films), is inexplicably able to read minds. While the residents of her small and almost parodically southern town, Bon Temps, Louisiana, put up a façade of respectability and politeness, Sookie is constantly exposed to their darkest and most private thoughts: who they love, who they hate, and who they’d like to screw. Working as a waitress in the town’s singular bar & grill, Sookie must try to ignore the patron’s suspicious thoughts about her, her boss’s crush on her, and the snide thoughts of her coworkers. Like us, as much as she’d like to ignore this darker side of life, it finds her anyway.

And it finds her quite literally when one man (Bill Compton, played by Stephen Moyer) enters the bar whose mind she can’t read. Who also just so happens to be a vampire.


True Blood is set in a version of the present day where, after centuries of hiding, vampires have revealed themselves to humanity and are attempting to become true members of society. This is made possible by the creation of a mass-produced beverage called “True Blood”, which, though unpleasant even to vampires, can mimic human blood’s quality of providing sustenance for them. They claim to no longer need to feed on humans, and can therefore abide by our laws and integrate into our society.

Thus the vampires, who look like humans except for retractable fangs they can pop out at will, make a tidy metaphor for a persecuted minority, while offering an extreme degree of danger and mystery. Humans don’t know much at all about vampire culture, and have little idea of what they are capable of. Over the course of the show, it is revealed that though sunlight, silver, and stakes through the heart are extremely hazardous to vampires, many of the traditional signifiers - such as lack of reflection and aversion to churches – were actually confected and spread by the vampires to make themselves harder to detect. True Blood’s vamps are incredibly dangerous, possessing almost imperceptible speed, massive strength, and the ability to use a “glamour” on humans that acts as a sort of hypnosis, implanting thoughts and even controlling their actions. They are also rumored to be quite good in bed, given the recent rise of the cultural phenomenon of “fang bangers”: humans who go out of their way to have sex with vampires. Which, as you might guess, really pisses off people who feel the need to control the sexuality of others. The reaction of the human community is massive, ranging from curiosity and acceptance to raging hatred, taking the vitriol that is reserved by bigots in the real America for immigrants, Muslims, and homosexuals, and rolling that all into one.

In this setting, Sookie’s burgeoning love affair with vampire Bill, who recently took up residence in Bon Temps, acts as a focusing rod for the issues surrounding vampire/human relations. This is further complicated by a series of murders that hit Sookie and her carefree, womanizing brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten) chillingly close to home. The main story thread of the season follows the evolution of Bill and Sookie’s mutual love along with the murder mystery.

Perhaps fittingly, the “A story” of the season is much less interesting than the “B stories” going on under it. The murder mystery is a bit scattershot, lacks urgency, is hard to follow, and is too easily tied up at the end. Some of this may rest on the shoulders of Charlaine Harris, the author of the successful Dead Until Dark series of novels on which True Blood is based, but I haven’t read the books so I couldn’t tell you how close they are to the show. I find it hard to believe that the books harnessed the same primal energy as the show (though I could be wrong!), so I prefer to judge it on its own merits. Either way, Alan Ball (creator of Six Feet Under) masterminded a strong adaptation.

Sookie and Bill exhibit sufficient chemistry, but there is little of interest in their affair. This is exacerbated by the fact that both characters make themselves hard to like (much like Jack and Kate on Lost) by constantly making foolish decisions. The pair barely has any witty or interesting dialogue, basically playing it straight-up soap opera style. Yawn.

Maybe this wouldn’t seem so bad if the supporting cast wasn’t such a treat. Not only is their acting superb all around, but the characterizations are spot on, from the angry, bumbling sheriff to the noble, loyal bar owner to the perfect comic timing of the PTSD-haunted Iraq war vet. It is a dark comedy goldmine that defies description.

The true stars of the show are Sookie’s best friend Tara and her cousin LaFayette. Tara is a smart-mouth in every sense of the word: fast-talking, startlingly clever, and hilariously sarcastic. I can’t imagine this character played by any other woman. Someone give the casting director a bonus for taking a chance on the mostly untested Rutina Wesley for this part. She just brings to life any scene she’s in with a machine-gun wit and a sly smile.

Her cousin Lafayette, being deeply sensual in just about every way, best embodies what the show is really about. He’s simultaneously super-gay and super-masculine, the kind of guy who will call you “girlfriend” while punching you out with his massive muscles. He’s outspoken, brutally honest, and doesn’t hide his opinions. He’s also a man of many trades, simultaneously employed as a short order cook, drug dealer, gigolo, road worker, webcam stripper, and go-go dancer, just to name a few. As such, he’s constantly entertaining, and played deliciously by Nelson Ellis. Watching the show is worth it just to witness Lafayette and Tara go to town.

With a weak primary storyline and cast (but a strong premise), the secondary stories are what make the show’s blood pump. This season, they ranged from strange to stranger, but were always memorable. Jason deals with the effects of a powerful new drug called V (real vampire blood!), leading to zany erectile overfunction. Tara cares for her alcoholic mother, has a confusing and unconventional affair, and eventually gets an $800 exorcism from a shifty voodoo witch in the middle of the woods. And Lafayette - well, I don’t want to spoil it for you.

The show has pretty decent productions values, but the cinematography doesn’t stand out. The presentation is mostly utilitarian: nothing special, but also doesn’t get in the way. Visually, the show’s major success is the representation of the characters, with excellent casting, make-up, costumes, hair, and lighting. It’s effective at immersing you in this simmering southern environment and culture. The ambience really works, with the lighting and music lending the show a dark feel without getting gritty or over-serious. It manages to be pretty to look at even when it’s showing you something gross, let alone when the screen is full of hot, young people doing hot, sweaty things.

Despite my criticisms here, the main story is at least as good as most things out there, and the supporting cast just blows away 90% of what’s on TV. The show is very strong thematically and aesthetically, and honest-to-goodness fun to watch while still provoking thought on the themes inherent in all the things we try to keep under our skin instead of gushing out like they seem to so desperately want to.

Give True Blood a try. I bet you’ll want to let it do bad things with you.

3 comments:

Ixobelle said...

will grab a few for tonight.

Lost wrapped up, and BSG is over... been stagnant in my boob-tubage. Just saw Wall-E which really didn't look interesting at all, but turned out to be 'actually kinda cool', and Be Kind Rewind, which I had high hopes for (Mos Def, Jack Black), but was 'actually kinda whatever'.

Hatch said...

I have been meaning to catch Wall-E, I'll check it out soon on your recommendation. :)

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