Monday, June 14, 2010

True Blood: Fear and Trembling on the Bayou



Last night, HBO’s True Blood returned from its long sleep. In September 2009, the show about vampires in a small Louisiana town ended its second season on a high, firmly establishing itself as HBO’s most watched series since The Sopranos. The series, Alan Ball’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed and much beloved Six Feet Under (also on HBO), certainly owes some of its popular success to the recent pop cultural vampire phenomenon, but make no mistake: these are not your daughter’s vampires. The show is unabashedly sexual and graphically violent, often at the same time. Everything about it is excessive, and as a result, despite its ratings success, it tends to divide audience and critics alike. 

Set in fictional Bon Temps, Louisiana, the series is based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries, a book series by Charlaine Harris. It’s been a couple of years since vampires have “come out of the coffin” so to speak, and they are struggling as a community with issues of bigotry and integration. Though placing it in the South brought to the fore much of the allegorical weight of those themes, the first season played out mainly like a supernatural whodunit, as the town hunts a serial killer in its midst. Along with the growing mystery, we met our main players: Sookie Stackhouse, a mind-reading bar waitress, played by Anna Paquin; Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), a Civil War-era vampire returning to his home town after over a century; Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten), Sookie’s randy but slow-witted brother; and Sam Merlotte, the owner of the bar, with thinly-concealed feelings for Sookie and a secret of his own, played by Sam Trammell.

When the show premiered in 2008, I watched the first several episodes largely as a guilty pleasure. Though invariably fun and playfully shocking, it initially suffered poorly in comparison to both the exquisiteness of Ball’s Six Feet Under and to the more emotionally and narratively ambitious TV vampire fare like Joss Whedon’s Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. But by the end of the first season, the show had successfully found itself on its own terms, and its second season played out with renewed focus.

Its loose adaptation of roughly a novel per 12-episode season is ideally suited to reflect one of the greatest strengths of contemporary TV storytelling: the ability to tell longer stories slower. (In the past decade, HBO’s The Wire perfected this novelistic approach.) Here, the result is a show whose pacing is somehow breakneck and languid at the same time. (Perhaps this is true as well of its damp, Louisiana setting.) Though it has been over two years since the pilot first aired, time is moving far slower in Bon Temps: each season takes place over a period of a couple of weeks, and though it hasn’t been clearly established, it is possible that less than a month has passed since the show begun.

The show’s romantic centerpiece, the burgeoning relationship between Sookie and vampire Bill takes place during that brief but intense timeframe. And it is this pairing which often provides many of the more sweetly satisfying elements of the show. The chemistry of the pair is palpable (Paquin and Moyer have apparently been dating since they met filming the series pilot in 2007, and announced their engagement in 2009), and there is a goofy charm to the two of them which takes their romance from gothic cliché to genuine relationship. (As a result, I confess that I was disappointed to see them separated for the whole of the third season opener.)

As the show progresses (and thankfully we have been promised a fourth season next summer), the tone, setting, and rich tapestry of characters grow more and more into their own. Moreover, setting it in a small town in Louisiana provides us glimpses of an America not often represented on broadcast TV. This isn’t Buffy’s Sunnydale, California. Everyone in the show is Christian one way or another, including the flamboyantly gay Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis). The one exception is his unapologetically atheist cousin Tara (Rutina Wesley). But even her disbelief is embedded in that same Christian world. In so many ways, True Blood is a show centered on the complicated nature of belief: the power of belief and the dangers of it. That was evident in the plot arc of Tara’s mother Lettie Mae (Adina Porter): last season we saw Lettie Mae pull herself out of decades of alcoholism and despair, based solely on an explicitly false belief in a charlatan voodoo priest. In this universe, belief is what matters—for better and for worse.

But one risk that True Blood runs in taking us into this territory has been a broadly-drawn and arguably cartoonish portrayal of the born-again Christian movement, discussed yesterday by Critic At Large Shlomo Schwartzberg. While admittedly those characterizations are often one-dimensional, especially that of the Fellowship of the Sun leader, Rev. Steve Newlin (Michael McMillian), they are by no means the only Christians in the show, and certainly not Christianity’s best representatives! The Fellowship, as we learn through Season 2, is not an organization founded on principles of faith, but instead on a desire for vengeance and on fear.

Which brings to me to what I think the show is genuinely about, underneath its raunchy humour and playful jabs at Southern rednecks: this is Alan Ball’s first truly post-9/11 show. For many, Six Feet Under, which premiered in June 2001 and ran until 2005, was the show which caught the tenor of that time, with its themes of death, mourning, and the threat of loss that permeated our daily existence. And though no doubt that series evolved in new directions after its first September, the themes, structure, and tone of the series were conceived long before that moment. Though Six Feet Under’s themes were clearly enriched by its association with that moment of American history, it was not a show originally conceived to contend with those times.

True Blood, which was conceived entirely after 9/11, can finally address our times more directly. In short, it is fear, our fear, which is the true subject matter of the series. The show dramatizes the obsessions of fear, its destructiveness, along with the racism, ignorance and single-minded perversions of our principles that come with it. A lot has been said about the show as an analogy for gay rights, but I think it is a mistake to turn the entire narrative into a one-note allegory. In the end, the vampires aren’t Muslims, or gays, or African-Americans, but they aren’t not them either. However, the single-mindedness and inflexibility characterized by the opponents of 'vampire integration’ are mirrored in the ‘bad’ vampires themselves, those who can’t or won’t adapt to the new world being created around them.

And what better theme for our time than fear of difference and fear of change? It is here, once again, that another of Ball’s shows finds itself overtaken by history. In the years since the first True Blood episode, the United States has seen dramatic shift in its political culture, the rise of militias and grassroots anti-governmental groups, as well as the longing for a 'new', more generous America in light of the Obama presidency. I’m hoping to see some of these realties make their way into the current season, the first one conceived fully during the current administration.

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on June 14, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so there.