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True Blood, season one cover

True Blood, season one cover

HBO’s Golden Globe winning new series True Blood is Sexy Vampire Southern Gothic Lite. Series 2 is about to air in the States; Series 1 is released on DVD this month, and will air in the UK (Channel 4) in June. It’s worth watching, and it’s easy to see why it has done as well Stateside as it has. Indeed, it sometimes feels like something assembled by a zeitgeist-mainlining committee, rather than adapted from Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire novels: one part lighthearted fun, two parts gruesome gore, seven parts sexy naked vampire sex.

Such, then, is the world of Bon Temps, Louisiana, a town populated, after the logic of this sort of show, by two sorts of people. I don’t mean Vampires and Mortals, although that is the premise of the series—the invention, by a Japanese company, of the artificial blood product from which the show takes its title has enabled Vampires to come out of hiding; no longer needing to feed on humans (although many, as you might expect, still indulge), they now enjoy a sort of semi-legal status. No. The two sorts of people I am talking about are The Beautiful Young People and Everybody Else. The BYPs hog all the major roles, and most of the screen time; and Everybody Else, the people who look a bit like you and me, have to make do with minor characters, walk-on parts, and the occasional comic relief. So, as the phrase is, it goes.

At the heart of things is Sookie Stackhouse, played by umlaut-eyed Anna Paquin, who goes through the entire series wearing either tight hot pants and a tight T, or else a billowing white dress, all the better for running barefoot over the midnight lawns of her vampire lover’s stately home. Or, on occasion, wearing nothing at all (there really is a lot of nudity in the show, and some of the simulated sex is gosh-provokingly explicit). Although Paquin herself is in her late twenties Sookie looks about thirteen, which is a little unnerving given how relentlessly sexualized the character is.

It’s a series liable to appeal particularly to the Twilight crowd which, given the world-conquering success of both book and film, I take to be: pretty much everybody now. Of course, Harris’s Dead Until Dark was published five years before Stephenie Meyers’s Twilight; and of course “nice young human girl falls for dangerous, sexy, but true-hearted vampire” is an older meme than that, as fans of Buffy—or indeed, of Wuthering Heights—know full well. But viewers not bothered by precedent will find here an agreeably post film-of-Twilight experience: an American vampire (Bill) played by a fantastically good looking English actor (Stephen Moyer) falling in love with young, nice, but modishly alienated young girl. The path to their love doesn’t run entirely smooth, but it runs nevertheless, through human obstacles, past different tribes of vampires, and werewolves and the like. There’s also (less Twilight, this) a little telepathy thrown in for good measure—for it so happens that Sookie can read people’s thoughts. And “people’s thoughts” turn out to be the sound of people laboriously voice-over-ing their desires and memories inside their own heads; which struck me as rather deadeningly literal-minded. Sookie can’t read Bill’s thoughts (because, we’re told, he’s dead; how he orchestrates his mentition isn’t explained) which is part of his appeal to her.

On the other hand, as with Twilight, I wasn’t necessarily sure I saw why the vampire falls so completely for the girl. Her pertness aside, the character seemed to me to confuse annoyingness and occasional snarkiness for assertiveness and independence. But there you go. Vampire Bill does indeed fall in love with Sookie. He’s been around since the American Civil War, so there’s something of an age gap, but he’s excessively polite and well-mannered, so maybe that makes up for it. Meanwhile a serial killer is bloodily disposing of the town’s women. Bill comes under police suspicion, as does Sookie’s gormless, randy younger brother Jason. The actual culprit is revealed at the end of the series, with a slightly anticlimactic flourish—anticlimactic in part because the deaths are actually there only to punctuate the twelve episodes with gory cliffhangers, so as to insert metaphorical poles into the saggy sprawling tent of the actual storyline—Bill and Sookie’s on-again, off-again, on-a-rug-before-the-fire relationship.

Nevertheless, despite or, who knows, because of its various sillinesses, True Blood makes for very watchable telly. Some of the dialogue is snappy and witty. After overdosing on “V,” vampire blood, which some humans drink as an aphrodisiac, Jason complains of his priapism: “my uncle had gout in his big toe and he said he couldn’t even bear the weight of a silk sheet on it—well I feel like I’ve got,” wild eyed pause, “gout of the dick.” I liked the way some of the vampires are Central Casting decadent hissers and snarlers, but some are tubby nerdy types, whose idea of a good night is to stay in and watch Heroes. That said, the dialogue isn’t so snappy: or more precisely occasional moments of snappiness make you realize that most of the time the dialogue is expanded polystyrene. Most of the supporting characters are 2D, and a certain amount of plotting goes in non-directions, or traces out strange little vortices around fascinations only tangentially relevant: American patriotism—Bill reverentially undraping Old Glory before addressing a civil war historical society, say—or that old bildungsroman chestnut, the revelation of hidden child abuse in the main character’s past. This last feels particularly sketchily handled.

With one solitary exception the entire cast comes from Nowhere Near Louisiana—from Canada, Australia, England, Sweden, California, Texas, and places even more exotic than that. What this means is that they all get to deploy those richly overplayed Southern accents actors love so much (“arv owlways dupaindead upon the kardness urv strainjers”) and which are, on screen, the vocal equivalent of enormous false moustaches.

I don’t mean to say the acting is bad, mind. Several characters are played by actors who can really act. Lafayette the short-order cook (Nelsan Ellis) and the chip-on-shoulder Police Detective Andy Lefleur (played by bobble-faced Chris Bauer, who ran the docker’s union in season two of the incomparable The Wire) are both excellent. As Tara (Sookie’s best friend), Rutina Wesley also does good work, although she is much much too beautiful for the part. She needs, according to the logic of the narrative, to be a regular girl, and to fit neatly into the background spread of players surrounding Sookie; instead of which every scene in which she appears naturally to arrange itself around her, in the way that inevitably happens with unusually beautiful people. Adina Porter makes the best fist she can of the role of Tara’s mother, a part that feels like it was written in about 1924—drunk black woman who rolls her eyes and talks about Jaysus and who has her alcoholism cured by a weird voodoo ceremony that casts out the demon of drink within her. That she retains some pathos, and even believability, as a character says a lot about Porter’s actorly chops.

Paquin, although she has won awards for this role (and of course won an Oscar for her little-girl part in The Piano) didn’t seem to me to do very much with Sookie. After the logic of this kind of show all the men are supposed to be in love with her, on account of her allegedly absolute irresistibility. But I failed to fall in love, and resisted her just fine; in part perhaps because her narrow little face only seems to have two expressions: stare-eyed defiance, and stare-eyed passionate yearning. Plus she has to shoulder one of the most stupid and annoying names in all TV, a fact reinforced by Vampire Bill’s habit of sprinting across the lawn and up the stairs like he’s in a Benny Hill sped-up sequence, calling “Sookie! Sookie! Sookie! Sookie! . . . Sookie! Sookie! . . . Sookie! Sookie! Sookie! Sookie! Sookie!” There’s only so much of that a viewer of a sensitive disposition can take. The bottom line is that there’s more sex appeal in the little toe of Lisa Turtle’s Amy Burlin (bohemian V-addict, later Jason’s girlfriend) than in Paquin’s whole body.

Is there a more serious point, here? By the end I found myself thinking that the show just doesn’t handle its symbolic overtext very well: for the “vampire rights movement” stands, in some obvious way, for the civil rights movement. Vampires get the verbal abuse and day to day hassle—being pulled over by the police, being refused service in bars and so on—that in the real world of the US Southern States are the preserve of blacks. The show, in other words, is attempting something of the same trick that gave Planet of the Apes the resonance to make it a culturally significant text, rather than just a bunch of actors in simian makeup: the apes in that film (and TV series) worked both in terms of the logic of their particular worldbuilding (as cool, talking apes) and as symbolic signifiers articulating the racial anxieties of 1960/70s America. I’d go further and say that Planet of the Apes managed that articulation with a winning degree of sophistication and penetration.

I’m not sure the same can be said of True Blood. Because it symbolizes what it also represents directly—race relations in the deep South—there’s a kind of semiotic feedback howl audible to anybody who tries to parse beyond the nudity and gore.

Tara, driven by her unrequited love for Jason (something which, incidentally, I never believed for a moment) at one point pretends to be his girlfriend so as to give him an alibi. “You think that since the Vampires came there’s no racism anymore,” she tells the police. “But you don’t know the sorts of looks a mixed-race couple get in this town.” But the problem here is that, despite occasional assertions like this, the show itself dramatizes no black-white racism at all. It could do, of course; it just doesn’t. Black characters and white characters are friends; they work together; they date and socialize entirely without tension (in one scene the—black—short order cook responds assertively to abuse from a group of rednecks; but the abuse is on account of his homosexuality, rather pointedly not about his skin colour. Because, you know—rednecks are famously scrupulous about their bigotry like that). This leads to a rather peculiar set of representational logics. Racism is—clearly—a problem. But in Bon Temps, racism is only a problem for vampires. Two difficulties here. One is the recursive awkwardness that the vampires are standing in, symbolically, for something that could perfectly easily be represented without recourse to allegorical symbolization. Tara’s occasional flashes of indignation touch on this, but only to inoculate the world of the show against charges of racism—for, yes, we discover that her anger is not the result of actual racism but is caused by a demon of anger living within her. I shit you not. So, the lack of actual racial problems suggests that the problem to which the vampires are the necessary symbolic representative doesn’t actually exist. Although we all know there is a problem. So they are symbolically representative. Except that . . . you see what I mean.

The second problem is the Maus issue. That comic book famously adopted a particular representational logic—Nazis played by cats, Jews by mice—to tell the story of the Holocaust. But the unintended consequence of this representational logic was to suggest that Nazis killing Jews was something as “natural” as cats killing mice; to suggest that Jews were “naturally” timid victim prey-animals, and Nazis “naturally” sleek slinking predators. Which, by the way, isn’t true.

There’s a parallel problem with True Blood. The show can’t quite decide whether vampires are noble, wronged beings who happen to be a little different from ordinary folk (Bill is like that)—or irremediably wicked decadent bloodsuckers who literally would rather murder a baby in the cradle (the tastiest blood is baby blood, we’re told) than nurse unacted desires. And this is the crux. Prejudice against vampires is unavoidably grounded in the fact that—you know—vampires kill people and suck their blood. Prejudice against black people (or Jews) has no such basis in reality, no matter how hysterically racist discourse might insist otherwise. That fact gets in the way of the larger cultural resonances after which the show is grasping.

Of course, this might simply be to take the show too seriously. Maybe it’s no more than sexy vampire fun. Nude-scene blood-spattered sexy vampire fun. And maybe that’s all that’s wanted.

Adam Roberts is a writer and critic of SF. He lives a little way west of London.

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Adam Roberts is a writer and critic of SF. He lives a little way west of London.
11 comments comments on “True Blood, season one”
AP Jansen
An interesting review. I think I enjoyed the show more than the reviewer did, but I found Mr Roberts' insights into it thought-provoking. I was intrigued though that he identified telepathy as being unTwilight as one of the strong parallels that has always jumped out at me is the premise of a telepath that is attracted to the first person whose thoughts they can't hear. In Twilight, Edward is a telepath and Bella is the first person (I use the term loosely because it includes vampires) he meets whose thoughts are inaccessible to him.
APJ: I stand corrected. My ignorance about the details of the Twilight books is only one of many alarming bodies of ignorance to which I must 'fess up. I did enjoy the show, especially as I was watching it. It's only when I came to think about it afterwards that problems arose in my head. Also: 'that's Dr Evil, I didn't seven years at evil medical college to be called Mister.'
I think you're missing the point with racism. Vampires are a standin for homosexuals, not blacks, and the problem the show dramatizes is one shared by the whole culture, not the South in any particular way. The pointed absence of racism is a conscious decision on the part of the writers - in part to make that point, in part to make other points - one of which, I don't mind saying, is how quickly people such as yourself stereotype the South for being racist and complain when TV fails to pander to these stereotypes. The South is no longer noticeably more racist than the rest of the country, and in fact ha probably become less so as a result of having dealt with its race problems head-on over the last 40 years, unlike, say, Boston or Detroit.
I do want to watch this, but I find it interesting that the lead actor also played a vampire in Channel 4's ULTRAVIOLET eleven years ago, which seemed unusually focused in its depiction of what it wanted its vampires to be. The only problem is that I am likely to compare TRUE BLOOD to that show or George RR Martin's FEVRE DREAM (also featuring vampires doing their thing in the South, this time involving large steamboats), which may be unfair to it. As the review says, it may just want to be 'sexy vampire fun' and nothing more.
Joshua; 'how quickly people such as yourself stereotype the South for being racist and complain when TV fails to pander to these stereotypes. The South is no longer noticeably more racist than the rest of the country, and in fact ha probably become less so ...' Well I must say this is good to hear. Good to discover that blacks didn't disproportionately suffer in Hurricaine Katrina, for instance; that Kanye West's comments on that disaster were groundless; that Southern Poverty Law Centre is no longer needed and can shut up its shop; that the KKK and other white supremacist groups no longer have a presence in the South; and that black men and women earn as much on average, live as long in as good health, and as are widely represented in positions of authority as whites. Very good news indeed.
Adam W.: I hadn't twigged that Moyer was in Ultraviolet. Now that was good vampire telly.
Chris Thomas
When I found out that HBO was going to be airing a genre series my heart fluttered (quality? genre? series?), then I watched one or two episodes off my DVR and deleted the timer. My general take was "What a piece of crap" for the reasons mentioned by Mr. Roberts (without hitting all points eloquently spelled out above, I think I can summarize my disappointment by adding one word to Mr. Roberts': sexy vacuous vampire fun). Having only recently discovered Mr. Roberts work (Yellow Blue Tibia is deliciously originally and brilliantly executed) I was anxious to see his take. Specifically, I was interested in his take because it seems Mr. Roberts stands amongst a minority of writers in SFF today who represent both a drive towards literary SF and a preservation of a literature of ideas (i.e. not to be impolitic but, screw Henry James; fiction based on or dealing with big ideas Can be great literature, oh and incidentally, can also have deep character development which reveals the characters' psychology). Thus I thought the irony of such an author who chose (or was chosen) to review a piece of TV schlock was too disturbing to pass by. Every time I hear about another golden age novel being picked up for production in Hollywood (whether they are filmed or not) tears my heart in two. While I'm always anxious to cheer the development of any genre work to a big or small screen adaptation, recently I am more saddened than delighted. Because: 1)more golden age stuff reinforces to the general public that SF consists only of spaceships and ray guns, 2)increasingly, the volume of genre stuff on the big and small screen has grows while the quality (of the stories, not EFX) continues to lag, and most importantly 3)all the brilliant contemporary work that is being ignored to make room for one more comic book/urban fantasy/TV SciFi adaptation. Whether or not Mr. Roberts enjoyed the series (or writing this review) is irrelevant to the generalized agita caused by the juxtaposition. It is difficult to think about all the writers of quality within the genre community who have to struggle side by side with Sookie Stackhouse for sales, and then turn around and be forced (in essence) to defend such stuff to the reviewers at the Grey Lady when they insist that Fantasy and Science Fiction have literary merit. Mr. Roberts, thanks for the witty and amusing review, and special thanks for your dogged adherence to your own high standards. Kudos.
Charming bit of snark in response to my comment -but you seem to have missed the comparative in "The South is no longer noticeably more racist than the rest of the country." What is being asserted is that the South is no more or less racist than anywhere else, not that there is no racism to be found there. 40 years ago it was quite a racist place. It has improved considerably in the meantime - to the point where the depiction in True Blood is realistic. Take a Hurricane Katrina-sized disaster, plunk it in any American (or UK or Canadian, for that matter) city, and the minorities will fare worse than the majority. The KKK exists in the South, yes, but also outside it - as do numerous other such groups. Kanye West is a pop star, not a serious authority on anything - you may take his comments as informed oommentary as you wish, but most thinking people find better sources to cite. The Southern Poverty Law Center doesn't need to shut its doors, but it might want to drop the "Southern" bit from its name, yes. I doubt whether you know much about the American South - certainly you seem to know little from firsthand experience. SOMETHING caused you to miss the obvious in your review of True Blood (that the social commentary is about homosexuals, not so much about race), and I cannot help but think it has something to do with the fact that everything you know about the South you learned on television.
No offense, but it seems to me you are missing the point on a LOT of levels here. First of all, the prejudice against vampires is likened far more closely to homophobia in the show than to racism (the church sign in the credits reads "God hates Fangs" which is clearly a play on "God hates fags.") Second of all, The core message of this show is really emphasizing how complicated and fucked up EVERYONE is because we are all afraid of differences --our own especially, but other people's differences, too. The more heroic characters are trying to be brave about accepting differences and the less heroic ones struggle more with that issue. Only the stone-cold morons or amoral killers walk around in this show thinking they've got it all figured out. This show about vampires is about being human, and it is a big, beautiful, messy, violent old story because that's what the human story IS: Sex, dirt, blood, doubt, faith, love, fear, not-knowing, and trying to find your way in the dark. And thirdly, the show can't decide whether vampires are noble or evil? They are clearly BOTH . . .just like the humans in the show. Just like humans in real life. Also, Sooky looks thirteen to you and the sex scenes make you uncomfortable? Wow. She looks every bit in her twenties to me. You need to get out and see more twenty-somethings.
Joshua: your repeated valorisation of firsthand experience, taken together with your detailed knowledge of me, what I know and where I have been, leads me to believe that you must know me personally. Maybe you live on my street? "Take a Hurricane Katrina-sized disaster, plunk it in any American (or UK or Canadian, for that matter) city, and the minorities will fare worse than the majority." The minorities? Blacks make up 67.25% of the population of New Orleans. A strange definition of minorities. I can only assume from your comment that you have no personal experience of the city. Of course, despite being the majority, blacks suffered disproportionately. Katrina revealed staggering, appalling institutional, societal racism, from the very top down. To say, as you appear to be doing 'it's just bad luck that it happened in the South ... it could have happened anywhere and it would have revealed racism just as endemic' looks like the worst kind of wishful thinking. Because it did happen in New Orleans. Natural disasters happen all over the country, but none of them reveal the mass degradation of ordinary African American existence as Katrina did. "Kanye West is a pop star, not a serious authority on anything - you may take his comments as informed oommentary as you wish, but most thinking people find better sources to cite." Well, it's not his profession but the colour of his skin that's salient here, surely. Of course, 'Kanye West is a black man, not a serious authority on anything [to do with the African American experience] - you may take his comments as informed commentary as you wish, but most thinking people find better sources to cite' doesn't look like the sort of thing anybody ought to be writing in a public comments box. As for the rest of your comment ... that (by implication) the KKK is as prevalent in North Dakota as Mississipi, that the Southern Poverty Law Center has no business impugning the South with its name ... well: I can't say I agree.
Mark C
First of all, the prejudice against vampires is likened far more closely to homophobia in the show than to racism because gays clearly do want to murder and feast on straight people, so the analogy works brilliantly

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