Each episode hits the ground running, taking up the action at the exact point where the previous episode left off. Neither character, nor viewer, is allowed even a moment to orient themself, or to find a safe perch, psychically speaking. Welcome to Bon Temps, Louisiana. Welcome to the world of True Blood.
The opening credits for HBO’s gothic soap opera-on-the-bayou establish the emotional and atmospheric texture of the show as few such sequences ever have, with a mixture of images, both repellent and hypnotic, and a gloomy, menacing title theme by Jace Everett, which promises us bad things to come, yet lures us into sticking around to see just how bad things can get.
I was finally able to catch up with this much talked and written about series when it’s first season was made available on home video two weeks ago. Being myself intensely interested in any new film or television treatment of the vampire theme, I was anxious to see if the show lived up to it’s lofty reputation. I was a bit uneasy about the comparisons that have been made between the True Blood series and the collection of books which inspired it, and the Twilight series of books and films.
I was bored out of my mind with the first Twilight film, and although it shares with True Blood the theme of forbidden mortal/vampire love, the similarities pretty much end there. Twilight represented a glammed-up, guazy, schoolgirl wet-dream that invested so much of its time and effort attempting to be trendy and cool that it forgot to be scary. Every episode of True Blood, on the other hand, wisely avoids the temptations of glamor, rather leaving the viewer feeling as though they were dipped in sorghum, boiled in gumbo, rolled in a bog, and left in desperate need of several hot showers…but in a good way.
The show’s creator, Alan Ball, whose previous series for HBO, Six Feet Under, frequently left us standing at the edge of the grave, now indulges his penchant for the macabre by taking a steep step beyond it. Life in the world of True Blood plays out in a not-to-distant time when vampires live openly among the living and struggle to integrate themselves, or “mainstream,” into human society. For the vampires, the need to feed forcibly on human blood has been eliminated by the development, by the Japanese, of a synthetic blood substitute (marketed as “Tru Blood”), which satisfies all of their nutritional requirements. Available in several “types,” the palatability of Tru Blood is discussed among the vampires, just as we mortals might debate the taste merits of the various brands of diet soda. Free now from having to regard humans as merely a potential food source, most of this world’s vampires seek to live and work among us in harmony (to the extent that their nocturnal habits allow), and even occasionally engage in romantic, or at least sexual, liaisons with the living.
Inevitably, as with any other group of minority immigrants, the vampires grapple with such social ills as prejudice, intolerance, and even their own strain of social disease (Hepatitis V). They also face a more sinister form of exploitation as when, the hunters having become the hunted, the occasional vampire is kidnapped by certain unscrupulous mortals and drained of their blood, which is then sold on the black market to humans for use as a powerful hallucinogen and aphrodisiac.
The impact of this new world order on a moldering little town with the ironic name of Bon Temps, Louisiana – as creaky and dilapidated as the porch of an ancient southern mansion house – is the main focus of the series. Struggling in this suffocating environment is the young, telepathic waitress, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), who spends her days serving burgers and beers to the benighted patrons of Merlotte’s bar and grill, trying vainly to keep their inane and obtrusive thoughts from spilling over into her head. Other burdens in her life include a boss with seemingly ambivilent romantic intentions, a troubled and volcanically tempered best friend, and a rabidly promiscuous brother who has the unlucky habit of sleeping with women on what turns out to be the last night of their life.
Into Sookie’s greasy spoon existence glides the vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) – a brooding Barnabas Collins-like figure, whose birth predates the Civil War – with whom she initiates a romance, as steamy as it is quarrelsome. With Compton’s arrival, Sookie’s world and mind are expanded to include not only the revelations of vampires and psychic phenomena, but of shape-shifters, demonic possession, an underworld of resentful Nosferatu who haven’t fully embraced the concept of mainstreaming, a down-to-Earth series of murders which are eventually, literally, brought home to Sookie, as well as the realization that there are things unseen in this world more terrible than she could ever imagine.
Against all of this Sookie stands up admirably – a capable and self-reliant female character, realized without all of the usual tiresome Neo-Feminist baggage. She also has the good sense to scream her head off whenever she sees anything truly f’d-up. But for all of its Grand Guignol excesses (during one particularly gruesome vampire slaying, Sookie is literally hosed from head to toe with gore), the show is kept credibly grounded within its own lurid reality by the earnest performances of its mostly young, oh-so-fit, and largely unknown cast members. Paquin, the one time childhood prodigy, has at last found an adult role for which she is unquestionably suited. Other notables in the cast include Ryan Kwanten, who plays Sookie’s libidinous and chronically irresponsible brother Jason, and Rutina Wesley as Sookie’s best friend Tara, a black girl resentfully named for the South’s most famous plantation, who carries a chip on her shoulder the size of the Bayou State. Veteran actor William Sanderson (Blade Runner, Deadwood), as Sheriff Dearborne, helps to round out the cast with his familiar face and unique brand of hangdog creepiness.
In addition to the twelve first season episodes, the DVD set also includes a number of tongue-in-cheek extras such as a mockumentary on life in the post-revelation era, advertisements (in English and French) for the beverage Tru Blood, public service announcements (pro-vampire, and con-), as well as a commercial for a dating service for the undead. Perfectly in sync with the show’s morbidly comic sensibilities, these bonus bits also shed a bit more light on it’s premise.
I recommend True Blood unreservedly, particularly to admirers of biting social commentary (no pun intended). My only concern regarding the show is the possibility that it could meet with the same fate as a number of similar shows of the past (Twin Peaks, Dead Like Me, HBO’s own Carnivale) which enjoyed unbridled success in their first year, because of their novelty and uniqueness, only to flounder during (and be cancelled after) their second.
But whatever it’s long-term prospects are, the second season of True Blood begins airing this coming Sunday, June 14 on HBO. After dark, of course.