Fall 2008 Pilot Preview
[As per pilot screener regulations, this is a preview and not a review. The content of the series may change between now and the show’s official airing, so all thoughts are of a preliminary nature pending said changes. For a full review, tune in for the show’s September premiere.]
Having recently made my way into Six Feet Under’s fifth season, I’ve started to better understand the work of Alan Ball. That HBO series was known for its dramatic performances, its death-riddled plot points (Seriously, a lot of people die), and also its inability (for better or worse) to keep a consistent tone. One moment you’re laughing at two characters, and the next you’re getting punched in the face by a cold reality. It’s a visceral television experience, and one that I’m still kind of torn on. I’m capable of appreciating the work I’m seeing, but there’s something that keeps me from really engaging with it, likely out of fear of “getting hurt” in the process.
That left me at least mildly tentative heading into Ball’s latest project, an adaptation of the Southern Vampire novels by Charlaine Harris. HBO’s True Blood is the story of Sookie Stackhouse, a young waitress with a special power who is making a living in an exciting time for America. Vampires have “come out” as it were, emerging as real citizens with their own lobbyists after the Japanese were able to manufacture synthetic blood that “suits their dietary needs.” It’s a strong setup that seems like it’s got a lot of broad potential, but it’s intriguing to see that its trajectory is far more fantastical than I had imagined.
And that, I think, is a good thing considering Ball’s history in television.
Now, I don’t put it this way to say that Ball has made poor television (that’s not the term for Six Feet Under in any scenario), but rather that the dour atmosphere was overwhelming at points. With its elements of fantasy blended into the story, the same doesn’t seem to be the case with True Blood – this might not extend far beyond the pilot, but the joy of discovery seems to be the most important part of the proceedings even if things certainly do get serious by the end of the pilot.
The story’s central relationship, between young Sookie (Anna Paquin putting on a southern accent) and her very first vampire acquaintance Bill, is your traditional love story in the vein of all “monster” movie conventions: Girl meets boy, boy wants blood, girl and boy fall intricately intertwined through various circumstances. On that front, the pilot never quite elevates itself, seemingly falling through a lot of the paces that any pilot would.
And, as if the pilot is looking to dip into every cliche before even exiting the pilot phase, the show also surrounds this relationship with every other trick in the book: the supportive and kooky old Grandmother, the loyal boss of unrequited love for Sookie, and the sassy black friend (Which is being recast from the version sent to critics). On that front, Sookie’s character just isn’t doing much to catch my attention: while surely that can change with time, there isn’t a storyline for her that seems like it’s really building in a unique fashion outside of her ability.
That ability is, in a show filled with vampires, rather plain; her ability to read minds is established early, and throughout the episodes there are multiple scenes where people seem to at least be slightly aware of her power if not wholly understanding it (Some people presume she’s psychic, others see the look in her eyes and react accordingly). It does, however, prove a bridge to her understanding of vampires; the show is smart to not allow us directly into the narrative of these new Americans, and Sookie is a nice point of introduction as she herself is different and feels a connection to these people.
The rest of the episode, though, is there a lot of those connections become more interesting; rather than based in love triangles or anything like that, Sookie’s brother Jason and a series of local redneck-types are able to send us into more intriguing territory. They’re the darker side of things, but their actions bring forth a lot of intriguing glimpses into the series’ potential. In particular, Jason’s side of the story is very dark but also forges a strong connection to the potential impacts of vampires on the psychological and physical well being of humans.
There’s also something going on more supernatural than we realize, as Sookie’s heroic efforts mid-episode are aided by a mysterious woman with some sort of telekenetic abilities, and we get a sense that there are a lot of elements left over to reveal. I think that the promise of those secrets is what drives the pilot forward, a sense that our introduction to this world is more brief than we realize.
All in all, I’m intrigued to see where the show heads from here, so I’m sticking around (also to see how the finished pilot, with some recasting and probably some retooling, turns out). It seems possible that there are dark roads ahead for this drama, but much of that darkness may be better suited to an atmosphere with a bit more fantasy than one that keeps reminding us how cold reality really is.
- I’ve heard a few complaints about a tonal shift in the episode, but I don’t necessarily see it; there are certainly humorous moments mixed in with darker tones, but it’s all part of elaborating on the various reactions to the Vampire movement. Since the narrative isn’t about them, it’s about the people experiencing them, and there’s a variety of different ways this boils down as the pilot progresses.
- I’m really curious to see how far Ball is deviating from the source material here – the novels are mystery stories, or so it seems, and I wonder how Ball-esque they are without his interpretation.