Season Premiere: True Blood – “Nothing But the Blood”

TrueBloodTitle

“Nothing But the Blood”

June 14th, 2009

I may not be a “real” critic, but there are times when I feel pressure to cover a particular show based on my position as a reviewer of television. There are shows that I don’t watch that don’t bother me in the least if I don’t discuss them, but there are others that present a particular challenge. When the entire internet, and many of my twitter followers/followees, became entranced by HBO’s True Blood, which was unexpected considering that I had watched the show’s pilot and had seen little reason to continue watching, I felt like I should at least be willing to give the show another shot. The first time around, I just wasn’t on board: the show was not living up to its admittedly intriguing concept, and that was enough during a busy fall for me to give up on the show.

But then some things changed: the show added a number of guest stars of interest (Alexander Skarsgaard (Generation Kill), Michelle Forbes (Battlestar Galactica), Lizzy Caplan (Party Down), amongst others), the ratings grew, and the hype for Season Two seemed to be legitimately beyond “It’s about vampires, so it’s awesome!” As a result, I spent part of this evening reading some recaps (although considering they were from Television Without Pity they weren’t so much about plot), and then watching the repeat of last season’s finale – yes, just earlier today I said I wasn’t going to blog about the show, but I grew bored and had some time to kill this evening.

The result is that I went into “Nothing But the Blood” still somewhat confused about what people are seeing, a lot confused at just how whacked out this universe is, but intrigued enough to be willing to see how this premiere would turn out. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, I leave just as confused about everything, and just as disappointed that this isn’t the show I wanted it to be when it first premiered.

What fascinates me about this show is that it does have a legitimately interesting premise: the idea of vampires being a minority amongst the population, with lobby groups and bars and their own products and culture, is something that really captures some interesting dynamics. Shows like this which are set in the realm of fantasy often work best when they’re based on reality, and in this case the experience of African Americans, homosexual populations, and really any minority help to give the series a resonance with modern audiences. Combine with HBO’s usual brand of sex, violence and foul language, and you have a show that could legitimately capture the experience of your average American living in this new world.

Unfortunately, the show has done two things (as far as I can tell) that keep this from working. First and foremost is that they’ve managed to create the dullest set of non-vampires imaginable to inhabit this world, making their observations about as worthless as they could be. The second is that they’ve also managed to make the world of vampires something so fantastical that it has lost focus on the dichotomy and instead has turned it into an outright war dating back hundreds of years. While this is certainly more interesting than the human side of things, I think it’s too much more interesting – it kind of makes the stupidity of Sookie and Jason, in particular, that much more frustrating as their side of things will never be as interesting.

The second season continues to tease with promise that will likely never be reached. I’m intrigued, at first, by the expansion of the Fellowship of the Sun into a Scientology-like church with a definite goal of eradicating vampires hidden within a message of cult-like power. It’s an interesting storyline that questions the role of religion in these kinds of conflicts, and adds to the human narrative involved. The problem, however, is that the human we’re seeing this through is Jason, who by and large is the most ridiculous of all of them. Any chance of this proving to be a nuanced storyline went out the window when you realize it’s through a character who is just a patsy, not even realizing that he’s being brainwashed or that there is very little beyond the facade of this organization. For all of the potential that the show’s setup offers, the character we’re forced to follow into those setups just aren’t capturing my attention.

Where they are capturing my attention, of course, is in the direction that doesn’t interest me as much on a thematic level. I don’t dislike fantasy, and I am not against vampire stories (I’ve never touched Twilight in any capacity, but that’s out of disinterest not some sort of vendetta), but there’s something about the vampire/crazy dog shapeshifter side of things that just isn’t catching me despite the cast members involved. I loved Skarsgaard in Generation Kill, and Michelle Forbes was great in her role as part of Battlestar Galactica, and by all account they’re wonderfully campy and perfect in these roles as well. The problem is that, outside of being mysterious for the sake of being mysterious in Forbes’ case, nothing they’re doing is really why I would be interested in watching this show.

Take, for example, Forbes’ MaryAnn, who is really the show’s most interesting lead at the moment. We know that she has some sort of ridiculous magic power, we know that she slept with a 17-year old Sam who broke into her house through the doggie door in search of food, and that she’s now trying to bring Tara into her flock of sorts through the power of weed, lust and I don’t even know what else. Her motivations are completely unclear: Sam thinks she’s after him but she seems to refuse this notion, while Tara has no idea that she’s even remotely evil. It’s a storyline where we as the audience know more than pretty well any characters, and yet we still know absolutely nothing – however, since I don’t care about either Sam or Tara, and I can’t really foresee a situation where I would care about them, my ability to sit around waiting for a solution is limited.

That’s pretty well my reaction to the show as a whole, especially as it relates to Sookie Stackhouse. Sure, Anna Paquin got extremely naked, and the bits of banter about recycling bins was clever, but I just can’t “get” her character. Outside of the need to fulfill the romance quotient for the series, their storyline feels like it lacks a connection to just about anything. While I think that Bill’s place within the vampire world, where his ability to understand the value of human life is questioned, is actually kind of interesting, but only when it stands on its own – when it just becomes a more complex substitute for “you don’t understand me” in the middle of a fight just like every other relationship, the show reveals itself to be just another soap opera, just with the fantasy element placed over it.

And that’s not the show I want it to be, and checking in on the series confirms that it’s never going to be anything different. For those who just want a normal soap opera with a supernatural element and plenty of vampire sex, this is without question a well executed version of that show. However, for those who want it to be something bigger than that, something that feels more like an Alan Ball show and less like a romance novel, then it’s definitely clear on second viewing that this isn’t the right fit.

Cultural Observations

  • Ignoring for a second my general thoughts about the show’s quality, I think it was actually a really bizarre way to set up a season. To be honest, it didn’t really advance the storyline much further than last season’s epilogue did. LaFayette being in the hands of the vampires wasn’t exactly what you’d call a big shocker, the ticking time bomb of Bill’s “daughter” went just as you’d expect, and the episode’s filling in of the gaps for Sam and MaryAnn really didn’t change their position in the storyline. Placing the murder and much of the wrangling at the end of last season meant that this seemed like a bit of an anti-climax, and really requires more patience than I expected from a show into quite this much spectacle – why, it was absolutely tame until Royce got himself eaten to death by Iceman.
  • Very proud that I finally got to have my first “I remember him from Deadwood” moment after having always been forced to miss out since I hadn’t seen the (great) HBO series. This show has a lot of elements from Deadwood (the different closing songs being one of them, plus a few executive producers if my credit memory is solid), but most importantly it has William Sanderson. Most awkward thing about the episode was seeing E.B. Farnum as the voice of the straight and narrow.
  • Second most awkward thing: Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer, who plays the drunken detective here) playing the role of Jimmy McNulty and drunkenly insisting on being part of an investigation for personal reasons. Oh, The Wire, how you’ve ruined so many other TV shows.
  • I find it fascinating that everyone now knows about Sookie reading people’s minds, and yet they’re all okay with it – it seemed like it was going to be a really important piece of a puzzle early on, but now it’s just like a limp she has to ignore all the time.
  • My one substantial observation: notice that MaryAnn’s position mimics that of the statue that Sam picks up when he goes in the house.
  • On that note, more generally, Michelle Forbes is pretty damn fun here – slapping around her butler was particular enjoyable, and was one of the elements of the pilot that I truly enjoyed as opposed to being caught pondering how much more interesting the show could be.
  • As you can tell, chances are I won’t keep watching and that I won’t keep blogging, if only because I’d be saying the same thing every week – still, if you want to try to convince me otherwise, you know where the comment box is!
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5 Comments

Filed under True Blood

5 responses to “Season Premiere: True Blood – “Nothing But the Blood”

  1. sandi

    just one correction, Alexander Skarsgard is not a guest star

  2. PTD

    The first episode of this second season was a poor representation of the series as a whole. I’m a fan of the show, and even I found myself dozing off at times. There just wasn’t much THERE there.

    Also, if I’m understanding you right, you only saw the first and last episodes last season. Well, you can’t really expect to care about any of the characters at that rate, now can you? 🙂

  3. Awww, well if you don’t like it don’t cover it – that is what I alway say.

    “I can’t really foresee a situation where I would care about them,” Dang. That made me really think. Although I really enjoy the show, I certainly don’t care for all the characters. I’m a little bored with Sookie (I hate you, I love you , I hate you, how could you… ) and Bill is interesting but feels rather simple in a way. I do care about Sam and LaFayette though. Very curious to where the Michelle Forbes (isn’t she awesome?) character is going. I find the Scientology analogy a little boring so far, but nothing else was boring so they’ll likely do something with it.

    LaFayette being at the hands of vampires wasn’t a shocker, something else was the shocker there that was from S1.

    I find it fun and a total guilty pleasure.

  4. Pingback: Weekend Watchers » Blog Archive » Summer TV: ‘True Blood’ ratings up, but is the show really good?

  5. Ancient post, but I’ve been revisiting True Blood and the sense of disappointment at its missed opportunities was mounting. I think you rather accurately captured how problematic it is in its inability to capitalise on its intriguing premise. I had had enough of lurking vampires at the edges of human society and the idea of making them a minority was, I thought, a stroke of genius that nicely shook up the dynamic and the possible stories you can tell. But perhaps due to the books (or the writers adapting from the books) there’s just nothing there.

    The vampires-as-minorities thing goes nowhere and it’s actually rather annoying whenever people bring it up to defend the series since if vampires are indeed thematically supposed to represent minorities, are we supposed to extrapolate that homosexuality is infectious (like vampirism) or that black people are all psychotic killers (again, like vampirism) – and so on and so forth. If anything, the emergent subtext is re-enforcing the idea that the minorities should be feared because of their really very violent and unpleasant nature/culture (which, incidentally, is rather horrible as subtexts go). The only “normal” vampire was glimpsed in season one (captured by Amy and Jason) and then it’s sex, drugs and murderlust all the way.

    I can only say that Season Three, now that it’s out, really hasn’t improved my opinion of “True Blood”. Given the synopses I’ve read of the books, it’s not going to really get better. Ever more fantastical creatures will creep in and not much else.

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