This blog serves as an outlet for my many views, few so certain as my double dismissal, in years past, of True Blood. As something of a vampire connoisseur (blood and sex and magik), few shows so thoroughly disappointed as the first two seasons of True Blood, where bad southern stereotyping met louche sexuality in the Louisiana Bayou. And that seemed to be that.
But time passes, and True Blood soldiered on, and on, growing a devoted band of fans, and while I lacked HBO, I was not immune to thoughts that perhaps, somehow, there was some element to the story that I'd missed, that further developments had heeded my concerns... or maybe the sex had just gotten better.
And so, blessed with some free time, and free copies found at the local library, I began playing catch up with True Blood on DVD. Perhpas I'm just softening up, or perhaps years of vampires on TV have weakened my resolve... but I think True Blood, mostly, took some of its criticism to heart, or at least to head. A better richer, experience in its latter seasons, True Blood has solved some of its core missteps - but that doesn't mean it has, necessarily, dug its way entirely out of its own self made ditch.
First, the good: most obviously, the writers on True Blood seemed to face up to the fact tat the crude portrayal of smalltown southerners as dumb, oversexed hicks was retrograde, embarrassing and limiting. Season three seems to have launched a careful effort to add depth and complexity to nearly all the major characters, that culminated in an especially rich mix in Season four. In part, the writers jettisoned a few nonworking characters and storylines, and brought in several new, more complex characters, improving the mix. One of the show's better examples of admitting its missteps was resurrecting the ghost of Godrick, Northman's vampire maker, one of the show's most interesting characters, having killed him off too quickly in the middle of Season 2. When Godrick showed up as a ghost, I knew someone had been listening to feedback.
Even more noticeably, the show has worked hard to find a better balance of reality and fantasy. I can only imagine that a wide mix of other shows in the fantasy/supernatural genre (Supernatural, Vampire Diaries, Twilight etc) showed the possibilities, and challenged the writers to think harder about what the audience really wanted to see. Then, to, this may be about the source material - though my sense is the show has strayed substantially, as others have. Regardless, layering in storylines about werewolves and faeries, embellishing the portrait of a vampire culture separate and beyond the humans, offered up a range of story options that had been missing in the narrow presentations of the first two seasons. Finally, in seasons, three and four, there seemed to be a genuine sense of how to develop dramatc tension, and bounce competing storylines off of one another to guve the show a sense of urgency it had sorely lacked (shocking cliffhangers notwithstanding).
Many of the sctors have risen to the challenge of finding fresh layers in their characters - most obviously, the show tapped Alex Skarsgard's versatility playing Eric Northman, the 1000 year old vampire, but seasoned regulars like Ryan Kwanten and Rutina Wesley probably made the biggest leaps in giving thinly drawn characters much needed depth. Having only just been exposed to Joe Mangiello's work as the werewolf Alcide, I finally see the mix of strength and tenderness he's brought to the show as well.
Of course being HBO (it's not porn, it's HBO is never truer than in Bon Temps), there's the limit-pushing use of grpahic sex, nudity and violence to consider as well. One of the show's better developments has been finding a better balance between the raunch and the rest of the show - the show still pants heavily, but the sex seems better placed to enhance and explain the plot, rather than merely to shock and titillate. Mostly. Many of the major actors - especially Kwanten, sadly - seem to have pushed to cut back extraneous nude shots. But generally, the cast is game, and the bodies are, well, impressive.
Still, the show has had its share of plotting missteps - Season three labored mightily to tie up the loose ends of previous seasons, and made good use of a new villain, the King of Mississippi. And Season 4 built well on the foundation, bouncing faerie stories, witchcraft, and amnesia off of one another to create a rich mix. But familiar signs of trouble started near the end, and Season 5 showed a striking drift into aimless plotting, disconnected from the show's real strengths. A meandering, confusing storyline about the main Vampre Council and quasi-religious overtones, veered wildly out of control by the end of that season... and Season six seems to have built on that shaky set of developments. In part, I'd argue that the show's most damaging recent loss was the character of Nan Flanagan, the Vampire world's PR spokesperson, crafting a carecful image of safe, harmless vamps who just wanted to coexist with the human world. Once Nan was brutally killed by Bill Compton and Northman, a key element of the whole premise - that True Blood, the synthesized blood product, combined with mainstreaming created the show's main source of tension between humans and vampires - was broken, perhaps permanently. Without that, there's mostly a tale of crazed killer bloodsuckers, with a little sex thrown in... and the show's balance has struggled as a result.
Even so, what once seemed like Alan Ball's lazy excuse to go sleazy after Six Feet Under has salvaged itself; I'd happily recommend Seasons 3 and 4 to anyone who likes the supernatural monster/fantasy genre as good examples of how it wrks when things go right. If Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer's central roles of Sookie and BIll haven't progressed much (Paquin's too dithery, Moyer's too taciturn), the ensemble has gelled smartly into a well running engine, chock full of interesting characters on their own journies. If the show could have been more, and done better... well, at least they didn't just settle for the low ball expectations of Seasons 1 and 2. Here's hoping the seventh season allows them to finish on a high note.