In the current vampire boomlet, True Blood (HBO, Sundays and elsewhere, and On Demand) serves as the erotic dark side of Twilight’s romantic intentions. Twilight made me tired; True Blood just makes me feel dirty.
Meant, I think, as a way for HBO to challenge the dominance of Showtime After Dark and Cinemax’s More Max softcore late night programming, True Blood tries for a kind of arty high camp… and, largely, misses. Though it’s a fascinating watch in a train wreck sort of way, True Blood unpacks classist, sexist, regionalist (and not to be outdone, racial) stereotypes and basks in the superiority of being better than the people it depicts. You don’t just need a shower after it to wash off the oversexed goings on, but to wash away the vicarious thrill of feeling superior to the lower class.
From the get go (a lusty handjob in a car between two characters we’ll never see again), True Blood’s
intentions are clear. We are down in the Louisiana Bayou, centered on
the town of Bon Temps (heh), in a post Vampiric America where Vampires
have been able to “come out of hiding” after the development (in Japan,
natch) of a synthetic blood drink. And naturally… all hell breaks loose.
True Blood centers on the Stackhouse family, primarily Sookie, a young woman with telepathic powers, and her dumb, ne’er do well brother Jason. Sookie works at a local bar (apparently the Bayou version of Hooters), where the owner is in love with her, and she can read the patrons minds. Until one night, a vampire arives, and she discovers a mind she can’t read.
Mostly, though the series is Tennessee Williams rewritten for Penthouse: every old Southern trope rehashed as predicatbly as possible, and all in service to lusty sex. See, it’s hot in the Bayou, and who can be expected to wear clothes, talk with any intelligence, or focus on anything more than satisfying their most basic needs?
All of this is rolled up not so much in Sookie, but in Jason, possibly the most two dimensional representation of dumb white trash ever thought up. Jason’s mostly an amiable dunce (”dumb as a box of hair” as one character puts it), with no real job prospects and interested in little more than getting laid as energetically as possible. And what a boon for us, we get to see his conquests in lusty detail. Characters on the gay witchfest Dante’s Cove - another probable inspiration for this show - have more depth while wearing less and sleeping around more (more sad proof that this show, done with more nerve, and possibly less thought, could achieve better results). Though Ryan Kwanten (previously best known as part of the ab-fest on Summerland) goes at it with gusto, it’s really a role that’s pretty much an offensive cartoon, which if it were about anyone other than a white man would probably have people up in arms.
When creator Alan Ball rouses himself to anything approaching depth, True Blood makes a stab at developing Vampirism as a metaphor for gayness; the Vampires are trying to get a Civil Rights Bill passed in Congress and their main opponents on the show are conservative right religious types. Like everything else, the metaphor is heavy handed and unsubtle (”God Hates Fangs” says a lit sign in the credits, which is a witty perversion of a far more hateful slogan in real life), but there’s something to it… I’m just not sure it’s what Ball intends.
Indeed what Ball is going for is a bit of a mystery, but the creator of Six Feet Under seems mostly trying to avoid the previous series high toned seriousness, to have a chance, I think to cut loose and lighten up. That might make for a welcome diversion, but Ball can’t find the tone he’s aiming for - alternately salacious and buttoned up, humorous and serious, True Blood lurches from high melodrama to high camp, often in the same scene, and one literally can’t tell whether to laugh or cry. Given almost no character worth caring about, it’s hard to be moved. And harder still to take any of this remotely seriously, even as horror fantasy. Indeed, the lack of suspense elements may be Ball’s biggest deficit.
Anna Paquin has certainly matured into quite the blonde bombshell, but her performance of Sookie is all over the place. She’s not especially helped by Kwanten, either, or by Stephen Moyer as the vampire, Bill Compton. Moyer is certainly no Robert Pattinson, but Compton basically serves the same function: a Bronte-an dark hunk whose twisted desires keep the heroine guessing and off balance, all courtly manners and dark lusts. Like the rest of the cast, the main stars are attractive enough but stuck mostly selling ancient stereotypes about the south, the working class, with no particular new depth or insights; which makes the presentation of its black and gay characters especially cruel and thoughtless.
If Ball means to suggest that the problem with our oversexed culture comes from the lower classes, he’s doing an admirable job; I’m not sure that helps the case that every perverse desire is as normal as the next, or whatever is meant to be conveyed in the Vampire-as-gay metaphor he’s working out. It hardly matters in the deep fried Southern cornpone he’s serving up, anyway - the real problems with True Blood come in the casual superiority of the upperclass audience its aimed at finding nothing of themselves - or nothing worth cheering on, anyway - in these characters. Overheated, oversexed, and yet fully undercooked, True Blood pants heavily, but just can’t quite get it up. And that’s a metaphor, too… just not the one I think they had in mind.