True Blood: Season One

Swamp Fang

True Blood
Season One Overview
HBO, Sundays, 9 PM
Creator and Executive Producer: Alan Ball

They’re everywhere. Moonlight, Twilight, Blood Ties and True Blood — it seems as if, as Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries series posits — vampires have actually come out of the coffin for real. 30 Days of Night cleaned up at the box office, and vampires rule in the Underworld series of movies. They’re threatening to send aging shows like Medium and Ghost Whisperer back to the cemetery.

HBO’s series True Blood, based on Harris’ series about Louisiana vampires, debuted at a measly 1.44 million viewers, but by the end of the show’s first twelve episodes last November was racking up more than 7 million viewers per episode. Some of that might be due to a massive marketing campaign, but some of it has to be due to word of mouth. Much as I loved Moonlight, I have to say that True Blood is far more satisfying. For one thing, the restraints are off when it comes to vampire sex (the most appealing facet of the genre) and for another, producer Alan Ball hews more faithfully to the established mythology–no vampires in daylight here.

Only about one third of the storyline for Season One came from Charlaine Harris’ books. Ostensibly based on the first book in the series, it introduces us to Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin (X-Men), a waitress at Merlotte’s Bar in Bon Temps, Louisiana. Sookie has a “disability”: she’s a telepath. All her life she has been fighting not to hear the thoughts of those around her (so why is she a barmaid, not a librarian?). Then one of the newly “out” vampires, Bill Compton (English actor Stephen Moyer, The Starter Wife) walks into the bar seeking the new synthetic “True Blood”, the juice that lets vampires stop preying on humans. To her delight, Sookie discovers that she cannot hear his thoughts. Their mutual attraction draws them together in an unlikely but passionate romance, where her naiveté is nicely balanced against his world-weary cynicism. The 175 year old vampire finds himself drawn to her, slowly re-immersing himself in the small town where he once owned a farm during the Civil War. As he tries to “mainstream”, to live openly among humans, he finds his decision challenged by vampires who prefer their traditional “nests”. Worse, someone is killing women in Bon Temps who are associated with vampires. Bill is one of the suspects–another is Sookie’s own (non-telepathic) brother Jason, (Ryan Kwanten, Don’t Fade Away). Jason may be a horndog who beds anything that will stand still, and may be as “stupid as a box of hair” as one victim calls him, but he’s not a killer. Sookie looks for help among the vampire community, so we meet Eric, a vampire bar owner, and his sidekick Pam.

Yes, these bloodsuckers are named Bill and Eric and Pam. It’s like going to a PTA meeting and discovering all those nice people in polyester are, well, vampires. And that’s the appeal of Harris’ characters–the setting may be Southern Gothic, but the vampires are not. The only vampires who dress in black and wear heavy eyeliner are the poseurs at Eric’s vampire bar, who are dressing up for the tourists. For example, when we first meet Eric’s protégée Pam, she’s dressed like Elvira, greeting guests at the door. But after hours, she changes into pastels and heels, looking every inch the Junior League hostess. Eric, who dresses in black for his bar patrons, prefers Dockers and T-shirts off duty. Bill eschews long capes for a form fitting Henley and jeans. This refreshingly downbeat treatment of supernatural beings is part of the fun of True Blood. Our expectations are confounded at every turn. While Eric may prefer listening to Old Swedish folk tunes, Bill goes for Cambodian pop and Tuvan throat singers. Sookie is all country and western, but vampire Eddie (the wonderful Stephen Root, King of the Hill) likes Lawrence Welk. When Jason hooks up with flower child Amy (Lizzy Caplan, Cloverfield), he finds himself forced to endure Bob Dylan rather than his preferred heavy metal.

Beyond the self-referential teasing, however, there are darker issues. Many have seen in Charlaine Harris’ novels a metaphor for gay or minority rights, with vampires fighting for acceptance and legal standing against rampant prejudice. There’s plenty of support for that metaphor in True Blood. But Alan Ball has taken another slant as well–addiction. The characters in this series all find themselves enslaved to various substances or situations. Sookie desperately seeks silence in Bill’s presence, and all the vampires are addicted to blood. Sookie’s best friend Tara is the adult child of an alcoholic mother (played  uncompromisingly by Adina Porter, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit). Jason and Amy find themselves falling under the addictive spell of vampire blood (“v-juice”), which seems to function as an aphrodisiac cross between crack and LSD. Addiction binds them in a co-dependent relationship even as it separates Tara from the mother she loves but cannot help. Some of these dependencies are resolved, through will power (Tara) or exorcism (Lettie May) or death (Amy), but the repercussions resonate far beyond their original stories.

Among the better changes Alan Ball has made to the characters he inherits are the changes to Sam and Lafayette. Lafayette Reynolds, Tara’s cousin, is a fairly minor character in the books who becomes nearly unrecognizable in the series. Played with verve and a solid, masculine muscularity by Nelsan Ellis (Veronica Mars), he is sassy, self-confident, and flamboyant. This could easily become a cliche performance, but Ellis plays Lafayette as a queen with a steel fist, capable of taking out three belligerent rednecks with four punches and then sashaying on back to his kitchen. He can call another character a “skank” and make it sound affectionate. Always looking out for himself, he’s a complete hustler who is at ease with himself and his world in a way no other character on the show displays. From his first scene onward, he has been a favorite with viewers, who are hoping that producer Alan Ball will depart from canon and allow him a larger (and longer) role on the show.

Sam Trammell (Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem) plays Sam as a warmer, sexier, more lovelorn boss than the books show us. His every longing look tells us his heart belongs to Sookie. He is her stalwart supporter, her defender, his only concern her protection. Despite a sexual liaison with Tara, he remains staunchly Sookie’s, too shy to approach her, too afraid to reveal that he is, in fact, a shapeshifter. At least, until he falls asleep on her bed as a dog and wakes up as a naked man. There’s no hiding what he is now, and the second half of the season gave us a happier, more open,  more appealing Sam. He gives Sookie material help in her quest for the real killer, and when the killer tries to kill Sookie he leaps for the throat of her attacker in reckless disregard for himself. By the end of the series, I was rooting for Sam to win Sookie’s affections.

By contrast, Bill the Vampire is about as colorless as window glass. This is hardly Stephen Moyer’s fault; as written, Bill is about as beige as sand. He wavers in his commitment to Sookie, he gives in when summoned or challenged by any other vampire, and whenever Sookie accosts him over some issue, he shifts his ground. He does, however, successfully seduce her, in a classic fireplace sex scene, so Sookie at least is committed to him. He is quick to defend her even when she  is attacked by another vampire, but then evades her concerns and questions as he must face the consequences. He conceals his protégée from her, he deserts her when called to a tribunal, fails to contact her afterward, and finally attacks Sam when Sam quite reasonably concludes Bill is gone and makes his move on Sookie. Worse, he doesn’t even get to save the heroine; archetypes to the contrary, these days the modern heroine must save herself. Thus Bill’s self-sacrifice in the final episode, where he burns himself to a crisp in daylight trying to get to her rescue, is futile. Though he survives and reunites with Sookie, the truth remains, as he acknowledges, that he wasn’t much use to her in the fight. The more I saw of Bill and Sookie, the more I liked Sam and Sookie as a couple.

Although honors went to Anna Paquin for her portrayal of Sookie (Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series – Drama, Golden Globes 2008), some of the supporting characters bring a richness and depth to their roles not usually found in secondary performances. Standouts include Ryan Kwanten as Jason Stackhouse and Aidan Porter as Lettie May Thornton. Kwanten makes it look easy–Jason is a beautifully fit, hormone-driven airhead. It’s a subtler performance than it looks–at every turn Kwanten is completely believable as the Southern redneck; he never misses a beat. Aidan Porter gives us a raw and gritty portrayal of addiction so believable it’s difficult to watch. Actress Rutina Wesley (Numb3rs) has a harder time finding any subtlety at all in her role as Tara Thornton. Tara is a grossly underwritten character who spends all of her time screaming at someone. The writers try to give her some depth by showing her attempts to connect to Sam, but even that relationship self-destructs in the face of her “demon’. “I’ve got something inside of me that’s scared and pissed-off and fucked-up,” she tells Sam, who agrees wholeheartedly. And there’s no doubt that Wesley shows us that demon. I only wish she’d been given a few softer moments, to show us what Sookie loves in her.

And finally, there’s the sex. Lots and lots of sex. Lots and lots and lots of sex. If you’re going to watch True Blood, be prepared for skin. While the people are pretty and the shots are tastefully done, it’s still a bit much. Even here, however, the show’s wicked and self-aware sense of humor throws us a curve ball, when Jason Stackhouse discovers that vampire blood is more than just a powerful aphrodisiac, it can actually cause priapism. There’s vampire/human sex, human/human sex, gay sex, straight sex, blood sex. There’s biting and sucking and plenty of blood-eroticism. Ball misses no opportunity to link blood and Eros, death and sex. It’s a link as old as the vampire myth, going all the way back to Lord Byron, on whom the first sexy vampire was modeled. Ball is a worthy continuer of this tradition; in almost every episode, someone is accused of “going too far”. Ball is pushing the limits of “too far”, but then, that’s an honorable tradition on HBO. Even among non-traditional vampires.

Season Two of True Blood debuts on HBO on June14. I’ll be there.