Monday, October 18, 2010

Vampires, Drug Use, And Anna Paquin Naked All Sell True Blood The Complete First Season.

The Good: Good stories, Decent character development, Some great acting, DVD bonus features
The Bad: VERY typical for an HBO show.
The Basics: True Blood The Complete First Season is a twelve-episode murder mystery that takes its time developing when it isn't being a melodramatic, typical HBO soap opera.

Earlier this year, when I first wrote this review, there were servers in the world continually crashing because people were getting their rocks off to the idea that Anna Paquin is bisexual. Hooray for her strength of character for helping a whole generation of young bisexuals realize there is nothing to fear in being open about their sexual orientation. The positive-thinking portion of myself is encouraged that a celebrity like Anna Paquin, whose works I have enthusiastically followed since she appeared in The X-Men Trilogy was coming out to help make a positive influence in the current battles over gay, lesbian and bisexual human rights. The jaded portion of myself wonders if this has something to do with boosting preorders for True Blood Season Two on DVD and promoting HBO's third season of the show. Today I'm leaning toward the positive. Regardless, my wife and I finished True Blood - The Complete First Season on DVD the day before the announcement and I was happy to be writing about the series.

I've never read any of the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris, so this is a very true review of True Blood only. I was initially drawn to the series because of Anna Paquin and the involvement of Alan Ball. Ball was one of the co-creators of Six Feet Under and for those who have seen that series, there is surprisingly little that is different with True Blood. Sure, True Blood involves supernatural elements like vampires, werewolves (implicitly) and shapeshifters, as opposed to Six Feet Under's stark realism with mortality, but the two shows are remarkably similar. In fact, Six Feet Under is an HBO series which was almost unable to be put into syndication for the male and female nudity, drug use and gore that was in it. True Blood will similarly be difficult to syndicate (should HBO ever reach a number of episodes high enough to make it possible) because of the female nudity, drug use, gore and violence in it. The fundamental difference: no shots of the penis, more shots of people getting violently eviscerated.

That said, True Blood is engaging and enjoyable, a nice addition to season-long mystery series which have graced less-traditional television. In the complete first season of True Blood, a five-disc set with only twelve episodes of the drama, the show introduces a clever concept and establishes a very different world from that which most people live in. In True Blood, the supernatural - vampires, werewolves, demons, shapeshifters, magicusers, and the like - are real and vampires are out in the open about their existence thanks to a synthetic blood substitute - Tru Blood - which makes it possible for them to survive without actually feeding on humans. And in Bon Temps (with the cajun accent, pronounced Bon Tom), Louisiana, the first known vampire is about to visit and take up residence.

"Strange Love," the pilot episode, introduces Bon Temps and the concept of vampires living out in the open. Working in Bon Temps, at a little family restaurant called Merlotte's is Sookie Stackhouse, a waitress who is plagued by an ability to read the thoughts of those around her. Waiting on the locals drains her and leaves her on edge, but she finds unlikely refuge in the appearance of Bill Compton, a vampire who takes up residence near the Stackhouse home, whose thoughts she is unable to read. But while Sookie is open-minded to vampires moving in near her grandmother and her, others are not and after Jason, Sookie's brother, spends the night with a woman who has been with a vampire up in Shreveport, Maudette Pickens is found dead and Jason seems the most likely suspect!

"The First Taste" finds the politics of vampire rights complicated when a prominent anti-vampire preacher is killed, as are two mercenaries that Sookie rescued Bill from. Jason is exonerated for killing Pickens.

"Mine" puts Sookie in the middle of a vampire nest when Bill's associates come to visit him. Bill claims Sookie to protect her, which leaves Sookie unsettled. But no one is more unsettled than Jason, whose latest conquest, one of Sookie's friends from Merlotte's turns up strangled in much the same fashion as Maudette Pickens was.

In "Escape From Dragon House," Sookie decides to go proactive and she and Bill go to a vampire club, Fangtasia, to try to find who might be committing the murders. In the process, Sookie inadvertently reveals her gift to Eric, the vampire sheriff. Jason, meanwhile, takes "v" (blood extracted from a vampire) and suffers from a painful erection as a result.

"Sparks Fly Out" has tension between Sookie and Bill as Bill illustrates his ability to glamour mortals and she becomes suspicious of him. While Jason undergoes withdrawal from "v," Bill gives a talk for Gran's Descendants Of The Glorious Dead meeting.

"Cold Ground" finds Sookie traumatized when Gran turns up as the latest victim of the serial killer in Bon Temps. After an unpleasant memorial service and funeral, Sookie returns to Bill.

"Burning House Of Love" deals unpleasantly with the ramifications of Sookie and Bill coming together when the twisted vampires from "Mine" return to town. Jason meets Amy, a free-spirit who is also a "v" addict.

"The Fourth Man In The Fire" opens with Sookie believing Bill has been killed when the vampire nest was burned down by local rednecks. While Sookie wrestles with the possibility of losing Bill, Jason and Amy abduct Lafayette's v-source, a kindly shut-in vampire named Eddie.

In "Plaisir d'amour," Sookie's attempt to help Eric find a thief at Fangtasia causes Bill to defend her, inadvertently killing a vampire. Amy begins working at Merlotte's, which leaves Jason with Eddie to develop a strange sense of camaraderie. Having killed a vampire, Bill is forced to return with Eric to face a tribunal, leaving Sookie in the care of Sam.

"I Don't Wanna Know" has Sam's secret revealed and Merlotte's used for an engagement party. During that party, Sookie is attacked by the killer and Jason and Eddie realize Amy might not be entirely stable.

"To Love Is To Bury" has the killer claiming another victim, which again puts Jason in the law's sights. Unwilling to let him go down for the crime, Sookie and Sam go to try to find the first victim of the killer, a woman from another town whose story Sookie saw in her encounter with the killer. Bill is sentenced and in saving his life for Sookie, he encounters a very annoying new problem.

In the season finale, "You'll Be The Death Of Me," the killer is revealed to Sookie, Tara encounters a woman from Sam's past who offers to change her life and Bill and Sookie are reunited. And everything changes as Jason finds god and Sam realizes he can no longer run from his past.

True Blood is a mix of a murder mystery which spans the entire season and a soap opera and while it is certainly more adult-oriented than Buffy The Vampire Slayer, it lacks some of the spark and distinctiveness of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Buffy The Vampire Slayer worked because there was a metaphorical level to almost every episode in addition to the teenage melodrama. But while True Blood has overt plotlines about vampire civil rights (which are thinly veiled arguments for equal rights for all humans), it also has a lot of over-the-top emotionalism common to teen-oriented soap operas. As my partner threw up her hands in exasperation during one episode (insert falsetto valley girl mocking tone here) "Oh no, I'm not having sex! Oh no, I AM getting some! Oh no, I don't know if I want this hunky guy! Oh no, this other hunky guy wants me! Oh no, I've kissed two people within the same fifteen minutes!" (strong, feminist voice resumes) "This is why we need to sterilize idiots." The show has some ridiculous twists in the relationships and Bill and Sookie are not the power couple fans want to believe them to be, no more than Sookie and Sam could be, as Sam and Tara and Tara and Jason all have relationship connections. One supposes without the melodrama, True Blood would actually have a stronger sense of realism that might lack the emotional rollercoaster fans seem to want.

That said, True Blood may not have witty dialogue and tongue-in-cheek humor, but it does have likable characters. The first season makes a vivid impression on viewers because the characters are engaging and intriguing. In the first season, the principle characters are:

Sookie Stackhouse - A waitress at Merlotte's, she is Tara's best friend and sister to Jason. She is able to read the minds of anyone around her and has worked hard to not listen in on the thoughts of those she cares for. She takes solace in Bill Compton, a vampire whose thoughts she cannot read, but soon discovers that knowing him is fraught with dangerous consequences,

Bill Compton - A vampire who lived in Bon Temps during the civil war, he quickly befriends Sookie and her grandmother, but is met with suspicion by most of the other residents of the town. Still, he works to keep Sookie safe, even going so far as to leave protection for her when he must leave town or be away from her during the day,

Sam Merlotte - A mysterious man who has long held a torch for Sookie, whose feelings are forced to the surface when Bill comes to town and is obviously attracted to Sookie. He has a secret ability and a mysterious past and in trying to get over Sookie, he finds himself interested in finding something real with Tara,

Jason Stackhouse - A dumb former-jock, he now works as part of the Department of Public Works. He manages to find multiple women who like his easygoing style and loose ways, though the promiscuous lifestyle soon puts him on the police radar and in the path of danger. He is friends with Rene and Lafayette and soon believes he might have something real with Amy,

Tara Thornton - An abrasive young woman who has had a hard life, she is Sookie's best friend, unlikely as it may seem. She takes a job at Merlotte's as a bartender and she soon finds herself in a relationship with Sam, despite still wanting to satisfy a lifelong crush on Jason,

Lafayette Reynolds - The short order chef at Merlotte's, he works with Jason and is also the local drug connection in Bon Temps. Openly gay, he seems mostly motivated by money and he becomes most upset when Jason ruins his "v" connection and an emerging politician takes a strong anti-gay and anti-vampire stance,

Detective Andy Bellefleur - The local detective, he is respected by no one, but when he and Terry see Sam running naked through the woods, he begins some serious detective work which causes him to be suspicious of the restaurant owner,

Bud Dearborne - The local sheriff, he errs on the side of the law and is not as quick as Bellefleur to convict Jason,

Arlene - One of Sam's waitresses as Merlotte's, she's a single mother who is involved with Rene. She is suspicious of vampires,

Rene - One of Jason's best friends, he works with Jason and is in love with Rene. He seems pretty open-minded about vampires,

Terry - An Iraq War veteran, he is twitchy and works at Merlotte's, slowly rehabilitating himself to postwar life. He and Andy are friends and he is generally a nice guy,

Eric - The vampire Sheriff in nearby Shreveport, he is an honored elder to Bill. He quickly realizes Sookie has a gift and he seeks to use it for the vampire community, in exchange for respecting Bill's claim to her,

Lettie Mae - Tara's drunk mother, she believes she has a demon inside her and begs Tara for the money for an exorcism,

Amy - Initially kooky, she soon shows the traits of being a genuine psychopath after she and Jason get romantically involved. Her desire to experience the heightened world that comes with doing "v" puts her on a dangerous path,

Eddie - Captured by Jason and Amy, he is in love with Lafayette and is a quiet vampire who was outed right around the time he was turned. He is quiet and lonely and lives in fear of Amy,

and Adele Stackhouse - Sookie and Jason's Grandmother, she raised the pair after the death of their parents. She is open-minded and kind and she tries to integrate Bill into the Bon Temps community.

True Blood is superlative in that the acting is downright extraordinary. Todd Lowe gives a riveting performance as the relatively minor character of Terry Bellefleur, completely surprising anyone and everyone who knew him from his role on Gilmore Girls. He has an intensity that negates his Gilmore Girls character's goofiness and he makes such an impression one only hopes he gets a better role in subsequent seasons. As well, because the show is on HBO, True Blood was able to get Lizzy Caplan for the recurring role of Amy. And because it is HBO, she gets naked.

Moviestar Anna Paquin leads the cast as Sookie Stackhouse and while the role seems initially familiar - Sookie's lack of desire to be around people is played with a similar angst to the way Paquin played Rogue's desire to be touched in X-Men, she soon makes it distinct. This is not simply because Paquin gets naked for the role of Sookie to progress the more adult themes of the show, but because Paquin has a strong dramatic sensibility which she is able to play from. When Adele meets her fate, Paquin gives a starkly realistic performance for a young woman in shock and the result is riveting.

The male leads in True Blood are not quite as memorable, though Stephen Moyer (Bill) has a plausible resonance to make viewers believe that his character is hundreds of years old. Sam Trammell is given unfortunately little to work with as Sam Merlotte until late in the season and viewers are likely to be left feeling he is a viable romantic option for Sookie simply because he is Hollywood good looking. As for Ryan Kwanten (Jason Stackhouse), Kwanten will be forever employable as a George W. Bush impersonator when True Blood ends; he has the same goofy smirk and eyes and watching him the first few episodes made me instantly dislike his character.

Finally, True Blood earns my respect in its first season for its attention to detail. There is a deeper psychological level to most of the show and the attention to details in that is wonderful. So, for example, when Bill becomes fearful that Sam might be the killer - more a result of jealousy as he figures out Sam is romantically interested in Sookie - Bill has a nightmare and when he "sees" the killer in his dream. The viewer is never shown his face, but the wrists of the "killer" are framed by Sam's trademark denim shirt! That level of detail and not making the fear of the other man explicit is a nice way in which True Blood does not insult its audience.

On DVD, key episodes are given a commentary track and the commentary tracks are informative with behind-the-scenes information from the casting on. As well, there are previews and reviews of each episode and there are featurettes including a mock-documentary segment on vampires being out in society. There are also advertisements for Tru Blood in English and French and pro- and anti-vampire public service announcements. The extra footage is entertaining at the very least and makes it worth getting on DVD or Blu-Ray as opposed to waiting and hoping this might arrive on television in syndication some day.

True Blood may be an overblown soap opera with supernatural elements, but it is adult enough to impress viewers of television who are tired of the normal, pedestrian television that fails to engage or only engages when the brain is turned off. This is a DVD season well above average.

For other works involving vampires and the supernatural, please check out my reviews of:
The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
Let The Right One In


For other television season and episode reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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