Every show with vague nostalgic appeal these days seems primed to receive an episodic recap podcast, typically involving one or more of the series’ regular stars. Scrubs has one. The Office has a mega-popular one. For some reason, Ariana Grande’s brother is doing one on Spongebob Squarepants. Now, joining the fold is True Blood, the HBO vampire series that ran from 2008 to 2014.
Created by Oscar-winning screenwriter Alan Ball, based on the Southern Vampire Mysteries by beloved paranormal romance author Charlaine Harris, True Blood told the story of a world where vampires have ‘come out of the coffin’ and live alongside humans thanks to the development of synthetic blood that allows them to live freely without killing. Amidst this political and religious fallout, with the world split between pro- and anti-vampire camps, a telepathic waitress named Sookie Stackhouse is trying to live a normal life. Of course, a vampire named Bill rolls into town, and suddenly she finds herself embroiled in the paranormal underworld that includes werewolves, faeries, witches, and sex. Lots and lots of sex.
The series had its critical supporters but often inspired cynical responses and the dubious label to ‘trash TV.’ By the show’s conclusion, True Blood had seriously run out of steam. What the show was, however, was wildly popular. It was HBO’s most-watched series since The Sopranos and would only be toppled by a minor cultural phenomenon known as Game of Thrones. Last year, HBO and Ball announced plans to reboot the series, which seems somewhat premature but possibly justified for Ball given that he left the show before it ended, and he may want another stake at it.
True Blood left behind a fascinatingly messy legacy, one that has long fascinated me as a lover of vampire stories and connoisseur of slow-motion train wrecks. I abandoned the show about five seasons in because it seemed obvious to me that they had no idea how to conclude things and any semblance of thematic heft it once had was long gone. Sure, I liked seeing Alexander Skarsgård sucking blood and in various states of undress because I’m only human but even he wasn’t enough to sustain my interest. It didn’t help that Charlaine Harris seemed so chagrined by her own creation, with the books taking very different plot turns and wrapping up in a way that made it seem as though she hated the entire endeavor. Sure, the show went flying off the rails, but damn if it didn’t make an impact.
In its first season, True Blood had lofty intentions. Alan Ball talked about turning the vampire metaphor into an exploration of LGBTQ+ rights, something that wasn’t present in the source material. The basic idea of vampires moving en masse to demand equal rights isn’t new to the genre but True Blood made the allegory explicit in a way it hadn’t been seen before. Vampires ‘came out of the coffin’ while the religious right campaigned against undead equality with the slogan ‘God Hates Fangs.’ You sense more of this heft in the first few episodes as an entire ecosystem develops around the sudden arrival of a whole new species. The overriding narrative of the first season is a murder mystery with heavy ties to this wider issue. There are laws that conflict with one another, a centuries’ old hierarchy that struggles to survive amid human meddling, and the very real threat of extermination from extremists who utilize the language of faith to justify their violence. That first season is genuinely great: a wildly bloody and sexy erotic thriller with real ideas at its heart, part Southern Gothic, part romance, part high camp. It made for a highly addictive viewing experience, taking itself just seriously enough while being aware of its intrinsic silliness (I mean, those accents? Bless the actors for trying.)
Soon, however, things went a touch haywire. The mysteries of the Southern vampires were all but ignored in favor of inter-personal drama and the increasingly tedious love triangle involving Sookie, Bill, and the ever-so-handsome Eric, played by Skarsgård. This was a key part of the novels too, but when you can actually see the f**king, one’s creative priorities cannot help but change. This was in many ways the only sturdy direction the show could take in the long-term since that central queer allegory never worked. I cannot speak for the entire community, of course, but there’s never been a real threat of your queer neighbors breaking into your homes and slaughtering your children, no matter what Pat Robertson may say. With vampires, that’s a very real possibility! The show wanted to delve into this extremely relevant topic with empathy while simultaneously revelling in the luridness of murderous sex symbols with no regard for human life. Some critics noted the potential homophobia of these portrayals, particularly given how the show often had no damn idea how to handle bisexual characters. Vampires are just like you and I, except for the whole mass killing thing.
As the seasons passed, more and more characters were introduced, with some of the most interesting ones either quickly disposed of or run into the ground. Standout performances like Denis O’Hare as Russell Edgington or Fiona Shaw as Marnie Stonebrook weren’t supported by the material, which dragged and waned and struggled to maintain a sense of cohesion. Other characters, like poor Tara, were completely screwed around (for a show set in Louisiana, they really did not deal with their Black characters in a creative or dignified manner.) The protagonist, Sookie, became overpowered but lacked any true sense of character, as much as actress Anna Paquin tried to give her some spark. Both Harris’s novels and the HBO series end with Sookie having a normal human life, complete with a picket fence home and mundane domestic future, something that most fans rejected. It’s not just that the show slid into straight-up ineptitude at times: it’s that these decisions proved wildly frustrating. True Blood should have been a slam dunk. It still was in terms of viewers, because blood and sex will always prove to be a potent combination, but even the most ardent fans had to admit that the lost potential was extremely disheartening.
But the show’s delights are still plentiful. It was raunchy in a way that television often shies away from, happy to center the gaze of women and queerness without much concern for straight men. This was refreshing at a time when the era of Prestige TV was on the rise and primarily defined by the Difficult Men of HBO like Tony Soprano. Everyone in the vast ensemble seemed to be having the time of their life with these lavish roles that blended soap opera dramatics with the grimy lasciviousness of urban fantasy. Vampire stories tend to be big on the aristocracy so it was cool to see a show more interested in the lives of working-class creatures without the safety net of generational wealth. If you’re a romance reader like me then True Blood felt like a sad rarity in the TV landscape, one that there was a dire need for more of, even in its messy and not entirely successful form. It was nice, for a while to have one’s supposedly niche and non-prestige interests be taken seriously on such a big-budget and mainstream scale.
Perhaps a True Blood reboot will return to the more small-scale mysteries and paranormal romance of the source material rather than weighing itself down with progressive notions that it could never possibly hope to pay off. All I’m hoping for is something that retains at least a smidgen of the first series’ everything-but-the-kitchen-sink verve. True Blood probably can’t be described as a total success but surely we can celebrate its manic energy and refusal to accept the grimness of realism. But they are contractually obliged to give us at least one Skarsgård.
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