True Blood, season one
Reviewed by Adam Roberts
15 May 2009
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.