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Let the Good Times Roll

By Sarah Carlson | TV | June 18, 2009 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | June 18, 2009 |

Halfway through “True Blood’s” first season, somewhere in between jarringly graphic sex scenes and dopey lines delivered by dopey Southern caricatures, the show found its balance — sort of. The characters in Alan Ball’s HBO series, based on the Southern Vampire novels of Charlaine Harris, were given important backstories and obstacles to confront. The main vampire, Bill, recalled his Civil War-era past and how he was turned into his current undead self. The heroine, Sookie Stackhouse, came upon yet another dead body in her small Louisiana town of Bon Temps, where a serial killer was loose, and this time it was her beloved grandmother. With this her character began to evolve, Anna Paquin’s take on Sookie began to be less strained, and it was finally made clear to the show’s viewers what until then had only been known to the books’ readers: Sookie really isn’t that annoying. Really. Her world is just crashing down around her, and it doesn’t help that her telepathy skills get in the way of her chance at a peaceful life. And Bill (Stephen Moyer) isn’t an Edward or an Angel; sure, he can’t go out in daylight (way to cheat, Stephenie Meyer), but he also isn’t pure monster. But coming to this balance took several uneven episodes, hours of wasted time when Ball couldn’t quite pick a direction to take his horror-comedy. Now, “True Blood” is a love-it-or-hate-it genre series, airing at a time when tweens and their “Twilight” fantasies make me afraid to tell people I’ve read books about vampires for fear of being associated with Meyer’s lame, misogynistic creation. The Season Two premiere, though, which drew the show’s highest ratings yet Sunday, and previews of the season to come provide hope that Ball has found his stride and that, hopefully, it can stand on its own and not as part of the latest vampire cultural craze.

The show is still crazy — completely crazy. Season Two opens with the discovery of a rigor mortis-staged body with its heart cut out, an expression of shock and pain still plastered on its face. The episode ends with a vampire, Eric (Alexander Skarsgård), ripping apart a man who, after being chained in Eric’s basement, tried to escape. Cut to credits, and cue Randy Travis singing the hymn “Nothing But the Blood.” You only see the shadow of the severed arm being waved in the air, as blood that looks almost like paint splashes on another prisoner’s face — the show isn’t that gory. But it’s strange enough to keep you coming back for more, which explains the quickly growing fanbase. It’s quirky, and dark, and tongue-in-cheek, and bloody, and sexy and weird, an interesting update on Southern Gothic. I had to applaud the over-the-top antics of the premiere, as well as the fact they let the character Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) live as the blood-spattered other prisoner (unlike in the books). “True Blood” is like nothing else on TV, and that should be reason alone to tune in Sundays.

Sookie, a barmaid, is furthering her relationship with Bill, the only man she’s ever been with thanks to her telepathy. She can’t read vampires’ minds, so Bill is her calm, a peaceful and clear head that can’t tell her what she shouldn’t know. Lately, Bill has to deal with Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll), the vampire he sired in Season One as punishment for his killing of another vampire to save Sookie’s life. And as Bill’s boss, Eric can order him around and get Sookie to help solve problems for him using her telepathy, which she’ll do when they all head to Dallas this season to find a friend of Eric’s who is missing. Other characters include Sookie’s boss, Sam Merlotte, owner of the bar Merlotte’s, who happens to be a shape-shifter and prefers turning into a dog, and Sookie’s friend Tara, the screwed-up bartender who had a fake exorcism performed on her in Season One, not too long before she met Maryann (Michelle Forbes), a mysterious she’s-actually-human woman who bailed Tara out of jail and provided her with a home.

Bon Temps is a Southern Sunnydale, a place that attracts the supernatural. Once Sookie learns vampires are real, it’s only a matter of time before she learns that other beings exist, too. But the more she learns, the more in danger her life becomes. Sookie is constantly being beaten, shot at, stabbed, kidnapped, tortured, even staked in the series. Season One’s serial killer was picking off women who slept with vampires, and Sookie’s grandmother was killed by the man who had actually come looking for Sookie. But she survives everything because she’s special. Her plight is similar to “Harry Potter,” really, in that an outcast finds she has a gift and that there’s a parallel world full of people similar to her that appreciate that gift, as well as people who want to harm her. There’s always an overlying mystery she’s trying to solve, there’s always a climactic battle, and important characters always die. The “Potter” series is so simple in its construction, in its addictiveness, that following the same pattern, Sookie’s tales can’t help but be the same. It’s a unique world Harris has created and Ball has brought to life, but the more Ball strays from Harris’s world, the less grounded the material becomes. Ball has amped up the sex, for instance, and while Harris’s material may trend toward Harlequin fare occasionally, it nowhere nears the hedonism of Ball’s Bon Temps. Perhaps the graphic content helps represent an individual’s hypocrisy, i.e. Sookie’s brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten), thinks having sex with a vampire is wrong, yet he has sex with any woman who is physically able, anywhere he can. The show tries to show the line between cheap and meaningful interaction, flipping the expected outcome by having the most romantic relationship be between a 25-year-old waitress and a 170+ vampire. I get that, but I had to think too hard on it. Ball’s excessiveness and additional commentary is where his tone is shaky, and he unfortunately started preaching and laying down thick messages in Season One’s first episodes, messages that don’t need to be spelled out to adults.

One of the main themes of the series, and especially this season, is society’s struggle to accept the now out-in-the-open vampires who went public after a synthetic form of blood was created for their sustenance. The prejudice theme made for some clunky, after-school-special worthy lines delivered in the first several episodes of Season One from Sookie, who adamantly defended vampires as being equal to humans and worthy of acceptance. Ball toned it down after awhile, but this season aims to amp the tension back up now that Jason has decided to change his sex-on-a-stick ways after having found the Lord via the Fellowship of the Sun, an organized religion best known for hating those unholy vampires and believing that enacting violence against them in the name of God is justified. Jason doesn’t join the church in the books, so choosing this route for him is a concerted decision on the writers’ part to take the us v. them battle to a new level by mirroring America’s culture wars. Harris admits that much of her discrimination plotlines about vampires are symbolic of the litany of gay rights struggles — and the store sign “God Hates Fangs” in the show’s opening credits isn’t subtle — but our post-Prop 8 society is even more ripe for the provocation of questions of churches meddling in state affairs. I admit to cringing a bit when the Fellowship’s snake-oil pastor, the Rev. Steve Newlin (Michael McMillian), speaks, hoping he doesn’t remain two-dimensional, but I can’t say the show is being unfair to his ilk; the Religious Right makes itself an easy target. Having Jason, the simplest character, be the one to join the church is the least fair, which could be seen as a blanket representation of the lack of depth and open-mindedness the followers have. Pondering life’s meaning after discovering mythical creatures such as vampires are real would cause quite the existential dilemma. But somehow, one feels the characters aren’t arguing about vampires, but equal rights in general, which lacks the same punch. And really, do gays even like this analogy? They’re just gay, not undead, which is actually creepy. Being undead, that is. Either way, Ball has an interesting setup on his hands, especially pitting brother against sister and sister’s boyfriend, and hopefully he doesn’t lay it on too thick.

That’s likely what turned a lot of viewers off from “True Blood” — being hit over the head with a message they likely already agreed with — but they should give the series a chance for its unpredictable twists, engaging characters and excellent craftsmanship. Beautifully filmed and styled, the series perfectly captures the desperation of a small Southern town, from the worn houses to the worn clothes and the use of everything from classic country songs to church hymns to recent alt-country as a soundtrack. Supporting characters do wonders for fleshing out the story, especially Tara’s mother, Lettie Mae (Adina Porter), who is brilliant as a redeemed alcoholic who believes an exorcism is what saved her. The residents of Bon Temps speak in drawls and twangs, leaving chunks of silence in conversations, chunks that on first hearing seem like bad pacing but are actually great representations of how Southerners talk. “True Blood” is still in many ways ridiculous, but it’s also real — an imperfect coming-of-age story set in the backwoods middle of nowhere with vampires and lots of fake blood. It’s funny and silly, yet oddly moving, and Season Two appears to be on track to overcome Season One’s early flaws, providing more absurdity that keeps one thrilled, not confused. Harris has provided the right ingredients; now it’s up to Ball to make them work.

Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Welsh Corgi.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.