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September 4, 2008 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | September 4, 2008 |

In getting ready to watch the premiere of “True Blood,” I realized a truth about myself. Like many a boy, I was fascinated with vampires in my youth. And now, a fully grown man-boy, I’ve always thought that I’d remain fascinated with vampires. “Oh man, I’m totally going to watch ‘True Blood,’” I told folks, “because I love me some vampire shit.” But then I tried to think about what vampire shit it was that I really love. And the list turns out to not be that long. Can’t really think of any vampire books I’ve read and loved, although I do know I didn’t make it but 10 pages into Interview with the Vampire. Have only seen a single episode of “Buffy,” and none of “Angel,” so I can’t pull those out of my pocket. “Moonlight” was shite and “Dark Shadows” never did it for me. Most true vampire movies, meanwhile, don’t rank any higher for me than a middling “well it was a’ight.” I mean, I love the hell out of From Dusk ‘til Dawn, but that’s because it’s just a fun flick, not because it’s some type of great vampire flick. And, again, I somewhat ironically love The Lost Boys, but anyone arguing that that’s actually a great movie loves themselves the Coreys a bit too much. Hell, I think that my favorite vampire movie may actually be one I grew up adoring, Once Bitten (Netflix it, post haste), and if I’m going to claim that a Jim Carrey flick is my favorite, can the genre really be one I dig on as much as I think?

So I wound up sitting down to watch “True Blood” with far less anticipation for the show than I’ve actually had since first hearing about it. Sure, I was still psyched about seeing Alan Ball’s return to HBO after “Six Feet Under,” but it was a tempered psych. Which turned out be a good thing, judging from the first episode, because if this show can’t meet even my tempered expectations, there’s no way it would’ve met heightened “bring on the fangs!” expectations.

“True Blood” is based on The Southern Vampire series of books. Written by Charlaine Harris, the books are about, well, southern vampires. The conceit of the show, as in the books, is that vampires now live out among us thanks to “Tru Blood,” a Japanese-manufactured synthetic blood that takes away the need for the undead to feast on the mortals (while they no longer need it, some still want it). The show starts two years after the vamps “came out of the coffin,” and we find that they’re slowly working to gain acceptance in mainstream society. And that’s the first major disappointment of this show. While I have no problem with Ball and company trying to use their story as a metaphor, I do have a problem with it being so openly worn on the show’s sleeves. See, because the vampires are just like the gays (albeit with sharper teeth and a sketchier fashion sense) — they used to have to hide in the shadows but now they’re here, they raise fear, get used to it! Although “True Blood” appears to want to be a campy show — which is a good thing — the entertaining camp begins to skew towards heavy-handed ridiculousness when it’s coupled with all the subtlety of using a sledgehammer to open a vial of blood. And it’s a shame, because I think the metaphor can work and, frankly, I think the most intriguing part of the show is the whole notion of vampires trying to live with us (along with some of the offshoots of that, like humans using vampire blood as an erotic drug), rather than just feasting off of us. But at least with the first episode, it’s all handled quite poorly.

Metaphors aside, the first episode introduces us to a slew of characters living in the New Orleans area. First and foremost there’s the bizarrely named Sookie, a psychic waitress played by Anna Paquin. While I understand that Sookie is the central character in the books, they aren’t stretching her quite as thin here, which is a good thing as Paquin is the second major disappointment of the show. The character of Sookie, herself, is rather interesting, this pious southern waitress who’s trying to raise herself up while dealing with the nightmarish ability to hear the horrible thoughts of her friends, family and customers. But Paquin is … well, she’s terrible. You know her cruddy southern accent in The X-Men flicks? You’ll miss that subtlety here, where her put-upon accent and continuous face contortions drag down almost every one of her line readings. And then the thin nature of most of the dialogue buries those lines in an unmarked grave. So while Sookie’s interactions with Bill, a brooding vampire who’s new to town and hoping to make it his home, are supposed to be the romantic core of the show, I found myself just hoping Bill would have himself a midnight snack. Although I’ve seen one or two other reviews that shone pretty positively on Paquin’s performance, suggesting that it may a case of “to each their own,” I gotta say that her performance just was not my cup of blood.

Beyond that, the show is basically one big pile of meh. Most the rest of the actors fall somewhere on the scale between “yikes” to “yawn,” and most the rest of the dialogue is just as bad as the words poor Paquin is forced to spit out. That being said, there are a few positive things to say about the show. First and foremost, I love the opening song, although the credit sequence itself doesn’t much do it for me — the sequence isn’t terrible, it just doesn’t meet the standards of the great tune accompanying it (and doesn’t it kinda say all you need to know about a show when the best thing I can say about it is “great credits song”?). There are also at least two good actors who manage to raise above the material, namely, Chris Bauer (“The Wire’s” Frank Sabotka) and William Sanderson (“Deadwood’s” E.B. Farnum) — the pair play, respectively, a detective and a sheriff, and I really want to see the two of them in a buddy-cop series. And while he was not in the premiere, I understand that Alex Skarsgard will be showing up as a Nordic vampire, and considering the knockout performance he just gave as Sgt. Brad Colbert in “Generation Kill,” I’m highly intrigued to see him in what will be a substantially different role, to see how good his acting chops are. And I can also get behind the fact that the show has a lot of sex and violence, particularly because it isn’t terribly graphic — mixed properly with the camp tone pervasive in other scenes, the net effect could be really interesting. It just wasn’t in this first episode.

All that being said, I am going to tune back in, albeit with a fair amount of hesitation and a heavy trigger-finger hovering above the remote. I’m willing to give the show a chance both for the few things mentioned in the last paragraph and, more importantly, because this is Alan Ball. I just can’t believe that the guy who wrote and directed this episode, and who’s producing the series, is the same guy who brought us “Six Feet Under” (which, while it had some flaws, was just on a whole other level compared to this show). I can’t reasonably expect this show to be as good as “Six Feet Under” was when it was on its game (hell, I stand firmly behind the position that it had the best series finale ever, and that it’ll never be topped), but I think it’s definitely fair to expect a quality show worth our viewing investment. Whether that’s what we’re going to get is anybody’s guess, but I’m personally willing to give the show a few more hours to see if it can find its way. And if not, well, I can just add this to list of vampire stories that don’t do it for me, and sit down for another viewing of Once Bitten. Seriously, that movie is the bat’s wings.

(“True Blood” premieres on HBO this Sunday night at 9 p.m., and will surely be rerun a half-dozen times throughout the week.)

Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television editor. He recognizes the irony in complaining about subtlety and bad writing only to load his review up with a bunch of vampire puns. But whatever man, he never claimed to be the next Oscar Wilde.

"...A Horrible Feeling of Nausea Came Over Me, Which, Do What I Would, I Could Not Conceal"

True Blood / The TV Whore
Sept. 4, 2008

TV | September 4, 2008 |

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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