Monday, June 15, 2009

A Few Thoughts on True Blood

I'm back from vacation and just in time to catch the season premiere of HBO's True Blood, a series based on the Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris. I read the first book in the series, Dead Until Dark, and thought it was OK (the book slumped mightily in the middle, where, chapter after chapter, Sookie pined for Bill and constantly thought about how much she loved him . . . *yawn*) The first season of the series was an improvement over the book but still flawed. I have a hard time buying the premise: Artificial blood (a substance known as True Blood) allows vampires to "come out of the closet" so that they can live openly with humans. And yet throughout the series only Bill seems to have any desire to live peacefully with mankind. All other vampires are portrayed as bloodthirsty monsters that flaunt their superiority and treat humans as playthings. And still the premise of the show hinges on the idea that vampires want to be accepted into society.

Clearly the show is trying to have their vampires both friendly and malevolent. Most vampires are an obvious threat--a dark force holding their power in check, perhaps only temporarily. (This way, Bill is a sympathetic outcast from his own kind and both he and his mortal friends have much to fear from Bill's kin.) But at the same time there is an apparent vampire movement regularly depicted on TV debate shows (with a heavy dose of satire) actively trying to secure vampire rights in society. Their opponents, of course, are stereotypical Christian fundamentalists who see the vampires as the spawn of Satan. Here, then, is one of my main disappointments with True Blood. It is easy to make religious zealots villains. And it's equally easy to draw an analogy between vampires "coming out" and gay rights. It so easy, in fact, that the show takes a potentially serious subtext and makes it rather silly. (I know, I know--True Blood plays for dark laughs much of the time; the humor is part its charm and leavens the violence and brutality on the show. Still, I have a hard time caring about vampire rights when said vampires are killing innocent people left and right.)

It seems to me that the show is ignoring a far more interesting and rich conflict: the probable internal debate inside the vampire community. Surely (if the premise of the show is to be believed) the vampires must fall into opposing camps--those who want live with humans (like Bill) and those who prefer their traditional role as predator (like Eric and the other vampire "officials" we've seen). I'd like to see more of the struggle between these two groups.

Unfortunately the focus of the show is on the somewhat-boring character of Sookie and her love affair with Bill. Like the novel, the show is clearly a mix of genres, most notably horror and mystery but with an equal part romance in there as well. And that's where I lose interest. The Sookie/Bill relationship seems like it's already played itself out and I don't know how much more drama can be found in it. The producers of True Blood seem to know this and have smartly altered and expanded the universe of the Harris books; but as long as the Sookie/Bill relationship is the core of the show I'm afraid True Blood will never be more than a middling HBO series.

True Blood is something of a hit for HBO. I'm happy to see genre TV on the cable network and True Blood is better (so far) than Carnivale (which had the potential to be great before it wandered off into the dreaded wasteland of "make-it-up-as-you-go-along") and I'm glad HBO is looking at genre books for series ideas (they just showed the wonderful No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency based on the mysteries by Alexander McCall Smith and are planning a series based on the high fantasy Song of Ice and Fire books by George R. R. Martin). This is a good thing. But I also want to see some new original programming back on the network. As good as the shows based on books are, nothing so far has been as good as The Sopranos or The Wire or Deadwood.

True Blood will get me through the summer. But I can hardly wait for Mad Men to return to AMC.

1 comment:

  1. Just found this now. So I'm guessing you didn't like Season 2.