30 Day Television Challenge: Day Ten

A show you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving: True Blood

“Love” is a strong word, but I do really like True Blood though I was very resistant initially. And can you blame me? The current vampire phenomenon is nauseating. Twilight and its brood of copy cats are flooding the market. Unfairly, I banished True Blood to the stockpile of derivative pop-paranormals.

My reluctance came down to this: Either the show was going to be just another corny vampire vehicle for HBO to capitalize on the latest trend, or it was going to be excessively meta and self-referential. It seemed to be like the latter was the more likely option. This was a turn off because camp is actually a lot harder to pull off than people think. There’s often a sincerity that’s lost on a lot of creators of these types of shows. For me, Supernatural falls into this category.

(Please spare me your butthurt defenses of Supernatural. I’ve watched it and I’m not interested.)

So, one day I’m sitting around bored in my apartment and I see that my roommate has the first three seasons of True Blood on DVD. I’m not sure what possessed me to give it a whirl but I popped it into my player and decided I’d give at least the first disc a chance.

After the opening credits, I knew I was going to love this show.

The opening credits for True Blood has to rank as one of the best.

True Blood‘s frontispiece brilliantly introduces the viewer to its main themes: transformation, redemption, sex/love, corporeality, and fear of the Other. It includes nothing from the show itself yet manages to encapsulate the spirit brilliantly. When the opening riff from Jace Everett’s raunchy “Bad Things” starts playing you sink right into True Blood‘s universe. We see a collage of swamps, lingerie, metamorphosing insects, alligators, decomposing animals, maggots, KKK, bigoted propaganda, baptismals, church choirs, fangs, and, of course, blood.

Most importantly, it establishes the mood and setting of the series. We are in the deep south with all its connotations of conservatism, religiosity, and hot swampy stickiness. But there’s a southern Gothic element mixed in as well. It’s Cormac McCarthy watching Debbie Does Dallas with Lynyrd Skynyrd playing in the background – and vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, witches, and fairies thrown in for good measure.

(source)

What I like most about True Blood is the sincerity that I referenced earlier. Of course, True Blood‘s reputation for campiness is justified, but there is a respect and love for the material on behalf of the creators that rings true. And the show is much more intelligent than it seems to give itself credit for. Themes of transformation and personal expressiveness in the face of repressive social norms is often deftly handled. The first season is a wonderful example of this.

The show is set in the small town of Bon Temps, Louisiana. Vampires have “come out of the closet” and are now living amongst people, demanding equal rights. Vampires insist that they no longer need human blood to survive because of a synthetic formula known as Trublood. However, co-existence between humans and vampires is tense.

The protagonist, Sookie, is attracted to Bill, a 170 year-old vampire who has just moved into the neighborhood. Sookie and Bill are trying to start a relationship but there is pressure from her friends and family. The people of Bon Temps don’t take kindly to vampires, or “fangers”, and ostracize humans who associate with them, “fang-bangers”. The situation is exacerbated when fang-bangers start turning up dead, victims of a serial murderer.

As the season, and show, develops, more characters are introduced and the universe expands to include more supernatural archetypes. The show also explores the political regimes and social norms of each supernatural order. For the most part, we see that all regimes condemn commingling of orders. In each we see how this “us vs. them” ideology is often a veil for the elite to maintain an easily controllable homogeneity that legitimizes their hierarchies. To embrace heterogeneity is to invite difference and difference threatens the established order.

To build this theme of a system repressing its constituents True Blood often employs an abduction motif. Through out the series, various characters are abducted and held captive by some antagonist. This antagonist’s agenda is often to enforce a social order/norm. This motif is sometimes more successful than others. My favorites are the serial killer in season 1 and Reverend Newlin’s Fellowship of the Sun in season 2.

I also like how True Blood explores the theme of corporeality. More specifically, True Blood often explores the relationship between the physicality of attraction and the emotions of love. We see this most clearly in Bill’s love for Sookie. Early in the series, we learn that Sookie is some kind of supernatural, and her blood is particularly delicious to vampires. Does this mean that Bill is attracted to Sookie solely for her blood or does he love her spirit, so to speak? Is love just a epiphenomenon that accompanies an attraction that is nothing more than physical attraction? This tension is expressed in interesting ways through out the series.

Unfortunately, the first season creates a standard that is never again reached in the other seasons. It seems to me that season 1 walks a fine line between campy exploitation and sophisticated narrative. But, after the public reception, the creators swung the pendulum and bit too far in the direction of the former.

Once Maryann is introduced in season 2, the show kind of jumps the shark. However, to say True Blood jumps the shark is moot because it is always raising the bar for how far it can push the limits of credibility, and I respect that. The characters still mature enough so that the show doesn’t descend into self-parody. Still, it seems like the creators are more interested in dazzling audiences with spectacle than constructing a thoughtful narrative. Nevertheless, by the end of the fourth season, I still think the show is worth watching.

However, I’ve yet to see the fifth season and I’m told it has gone off the rails. Perhaps I’ll write a review of the newest season once I get around to watching it.

cheers,

-B

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~ by braddunne on September 20, 2012.

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