HBO's True Blood: Short Skirts, Tight Tank Tops, Cliched Romance, and Two Redeeming Characters

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Last night I devoted four hours to screening True Blood, HBO’s latest original series which pairs up (at 9p.) with Entourage (at 10p.) this coming Sunday, September 7.  True Blood is produced by Alan Ball and the drama is based on Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampires Mysteries series, "Dead Until Dark."

Being a devoted fan of Ball’s quirky and beautifully crafted Six Feet Under, my expectations were high.

While every episode of SFU started with a death, the vampire characters of True Blood can conceivably live forever.  But like their SFU mortician cousins, they drain bodies of blood.  So, True Blood seemed a logical progression for Ball who has handled these themes so masterfully in the past.

This is a series I really wanted to like.  I was, excuse the pun, dying to like it.  I doggedly watched all four hours, hoping for a shift in my thinking.  (There’s one more hour to go, sitting in the DVD player.)  Alas, however, True Blood isn’t up to Ball’s high standards, much less HBO’s.

At TCA, I recall overhearing some television critics familiar with Harris’ books say that True Blood is a faithful rendering of her work.  (Having not read the books, I can’t assess.)

Perhaps because Ball is attempting to hew to someone else’s vision, he’s failed to bring enough of his own good sensibility to the project.  I’m not sure.  (Harris is listed on IMDB credits as a writer on the series.)  But something has definitely been lost in translation.

The problem for HBO, unfortunately, is that expectations are always lofty.  When I think HBO, I think Rome. I think Sex and The City.  And I always think Six Feet Under and the most stunning finale in the history of television, written and directed by Ball.

True Blood doesn’t belong in this list.

As the fourth episode was about to roll (we watched them back-to-back), my daughter intoned in her best announcer voice, "Previously.  On True Blood.  Short skirt.  Tight tank top.  Cliched romance, and two redeeming characters." 

The seed idea of True Blood is certainly interesting.  TruBlood, a synthetic blood substitute developed in Japan, agrees with vampire body chemistry.  With their hunger satiated and the urge to feed on humans under control (sort of), vampires come out of the closet.  They hope to enter the social mainstream but progress is blocked by discrimination and deep, age-old prejudices. Vampires want equal protection and the VRA (Vampire Rights Amendment) is winding its way through the legislature.

True Blood is a thinly-veiled morality tale, natch.  Maybe thinly-veiled is the wrong word, since the writers smack the viewer upside the head with the theme.  

In a little cross-promotional effort, the series premiere launches with a debate about the VRA on Bill Maher’s HBO talk show, Real Time.  Here the series premise is efficiently laid out for the viewer, but the cameo is stilted and devoid of Maher’s crackling wit.

The problem: True Blood is paired with Entourage on Sunday nights.   Entourage also employs the talk show device to jump start the series fifth season and bring the audience up-to-date.  The rousing, exceptionally funny Phillips/Roeper cameo is a near perfect television moment.  By contrast, Maher’s True Blood appearance is contrived and rings false.

Later on, there’s another attempt to replicate a CNN/Fox News-type split screen segment as pundits argue over vampire rights.  But again, the writing is so painfully inept that the pundits are mere caricatures of the religious right, spouting more of those weirdly stilted lines. 

Someone needs to undead the writing on True Blood.  The dialog lacks cadence and character voice.

Also, the characterizations are paper-thin.  The series is set in Bon Temps, Louisiana, a fictional town somewhere near Shreveport where, apparently, the women are flirty sluts, the men are sweaty rednecks, and the gays are flaming, drug dealing prostitutes - and not in a funny, campy way either.

If anything,  best attempts at humor fall flat.  Sookie’s brother consumes too much vampire blood (aka Viagra), leading to an emergency room visit where an extraction takes place.  Rated "a big yawn" by those who watched with me.  My daughter characterized it as "14-year old humor."

Anna Paquin is Sookie, a telepathic barmaid.  She flounces around in exceedingly short dresses and shorts, and tight tank tops.  In four episodes, there is only one instance (I can recall) in which the hem of Sookie’s outfit went much past her fanny.   Correcting their oversight of dressing Ms. Paquin somewhat tastefully (in a halter dress), wardrobe added a push-up bra.  It’s all so excessive, it’s cheesy.

Sookie has snit fits, lots of snit fits.  She snarls and lectures about vampire rights and other matters, and  flounces around indignantly, always in those skimpy outfits.  Flounce, flounce, flounce.  Anna Paquin loads up on so many annoying mannerisms (probably meant to be flirtatious but are teeth-grating) that I didn’t have room to list them on Twitter - lots of batting eyes, lip pursing, hair tossing, and an odd nervous, fleeting smile.

By episode four, it did seem that some of this behavior had been toned down a bit.  Or maybe I just had brain-freeze by that time.  I’m not sure. 

The character of Tara, a smart sassy African-American bartender, definitely showed improvement though.

Sookie’s warm and gracious grandmother, Adele, is one of the redeeming characters.  Lois Smith as Adele, deserves special mention because she’s a terrific actor with impressive range.

Lead vampire and Sookie love interest is Bill Compton (one of the two or three other redeeming characters) played by the genuinely interesting Stephen Moyer.  Bill is believable when he dredges up painful memories of the Civil War, and he’s charming when his gentlemanly, old southern upbringing surfaces.  These moments are few and far between, but it’s enough to make me wonder what he sees in Sookie.

Bill struggles to maintain a semblance of his humanity. The other vampires are one dimensional cliche’s - carnal, possibly serial-killing, blood-thirsty nasties who make me wonder how the VRA ever got out of committee.  If the audience is expected to relate to and/or care about discrimination and oppression, these vampires are entirely unsympathetic.

As the series continues, perhaps the vampire culture will develop more complexity.  But I don’t think I should be four episodes in and still feel that the series lacks dimensionality and color, especially when so much screen time is wasted on overly-long and/or extraneous scenes. 

And then there’s the dirty, porn rough/snuff sex. The series is soaked in graphic and gratuitous sex. That’s a lot for me to say because we’re definitely not a prudish household.  "No one was having normal sex," said my twenty-something daughter.

A rape sequence eventually turned out to be a joke but it wasn’t the least bit funny.  My daughter was offended and called it "snuffy."

At one point, Sookie and Bill travel to a Shreveport, Louisiana to a vampire nightclub called Fangtasia.  This was the lamest excuse for a vampire bar ever.  It was a smallish leather/S&M joint.  When I think vampire bars, I think of the opening sequence in Blade.  But the Fangtasia sequence was a low-budget affair.  And there was nothing at all that made me feel like Sookie and Bill had entered a unique and unusual vampire subculture.

The Fangtasia sequence gives the unfortunate impression of a production that lacks the budgetary means to create a visually interesting world.  But all the money in the world won’t overcome story lines driven by flat charaterization, leather, S/M, B/D, and rough sex with a little UST (uresolved sexual tension) tossed in the mix.

True Blood could have been dark, funny and mysteriously sexy, capturing the slow, hot hum of the South.  Instead, the show is tawdry, and fails to live up to the HBO legacy.

The True Blood trailer:

Truly the best Vampire bar/rave scene eva!  The opening sequence to Blade:

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