A visit to Red's just isn't complete without catching up on my foolish obsession: charting the course of HBO's True Blood, possibly the dopiest, most offensive combination of vampires and southern cornpone ever conceived.
Even after panning the initial season partway through, I still found myself fascinated by the bizarre mix of louche sexuality, vampiric gore, and explorations of ugly stereotypes. In the hands of a pure hack, it might be understandable... but True Blood has "class project" written all over it, sporting show runner Alan Ball (of Six Feet Under), a handsome cast, and high quality production values.
Usually dopey grade Z trash this dumb doesn't seem to try so hard. Or at least... shouldn't have to.
Watching the second season, I was again struck by the heavy lifting involved - the heavy, unsubtle scripting has become, if anything, less nuanced; the sex and sexuality on display has become more sensationalistic, and at the same time, less fun. But True Blood seems to have learned some things along the way: one being that broadening the canvas is essential to finding new life in a storyline fast approaching boredom.. and that, done right, the vampire story can be pretty compelling.
All of which means True Blood, Season 2 is... more of a mess. And a notch dumber.
The wisest move the show's made, 9 episodes in, is to expand the vampire presence - bringing in a batch of Dallas-based vampires, and filling in key details about the history of the older vampiric characters. These make for welcome, if silly, diversions - some norse/goth nonsense to explain vamp leader Eric's long history, or a prohibition-era bloody romp to give some insight into lead vampire Bill Compton's soulless past. We've been treated more of the show's vampire mythology, and filled in details around how vampire culture works, all of which lends a heretofore missing richness that gives the proceedings more of sense of purpose. The vampire politics, rivalries, and flawed personalities were only hinted at in Season 1, and layering them in gives the series an unexpected sense, somewhat late in the game, of purpose and motion.
If only that were enough. True Blood's conceit - that artificial blood has made it possible for vamps to live openly among humans- is ultimately kind of thin, even with the ripe moral quandaries that come from hunters living amongst their prey, and using vampirism as a metaphor for every discriminated minority in America. Though the canvas has expanded and the conflicts between intolerant humans and warrior vamps has deepened, there's still a sense of a lot of labor for fairly small payoffs. That's not helped by the fact that one of the more interesting older vamps - the childlike Godric - serves only as a fairly weak Christ metaphor.
The central romance - between telepath Sookie and (now) soulful vamp Bill Compton - treads water competently, but without much real heat or fire behind it. It's no help that the passionate, forbidden nature of their coupling sets them off to the side from most of the prevailing action on the show, mostly alone in shaded bedrooms, lavishly photographed in increasingly kink filled couplings (it's ecstasy when you bite my neck with me...). For two key characters, they seem terribly trivial to much of the season's running stories.
As for the supporting characters, and the Louisiana bayou town where things take place, the same problem exists as before: Ball and his writers can't seem to think of ways not to condescend or ridicule southerners as simple, backwoods rednecks and hicks. A supporting storyline centered around Sookie's childhood best friend and a Dionysian priestess (oh, don't ask... it's not worth explaining) just about sinks the entire proceedings with laughably excessive behavior all around, and a fascination with degradation and violence that remains off-putting and deeply disturbing.
Of all the performers, only Ryan Kwanten, as Sookie's amiably dense brother, manages to hold onto nearly any dignity... and he's basically (still) a stereotyped of cartoon of a sex driven hick. Kwanten does seem to have been able to reduce his onscreen nudity (that's okay, because the costumer has tightened up his shirts and pants to leave almost nothing to the imagination), but that's not going to make him a serious actor, just a whole lot of beauty largely going to waste. Anna Paquin still seems to have bleached away her acting talent with her hair color. Stephen Moyer's not really getting much better as Bill, just surlier. The grace note in this may be Sam Trammell as the shape-shifting local tavern owner, who has managed to combine just enough sly seriousness with some foxy older guy presence to fill in some badly missing actual thinking sex appeal.
But at heart, True Blood remains all panting and leering (look, boobies! and more boobies!) without the intelligence to be deep or the nerve to just let loose and be a truly enjoyable guilty pleasure. In its unpleasant middle ground, Season two opened with a black man chained in menial servitude and served up blaxploitative sex nearly worthy of Mandingo, and the dicey mixed messages just piled on from there. Still the series that wants to do it hard and fast but can't quite get it up... True Blood is a puzzling misfire that shouldn't have to try so hard for so little payoff. And if it were smarter... you wouldn't have to tell it that.