Tuesday, January 24, 2012

True Blood Shakes, Underwhelms, But Comes Out Swinging With Season Four!

The Good: Some truly amazing performances, Moments of character
The Bad: Villain is hardly as engaging as prior years, Surprisingly predictable at many points
The Basics: With less nudity, more drugs and a bit more gore, True Blood Season Four becomes strangely predictable after an immediate reversal.

As a reviewer and a fan of genre television, it always interests me how a show evolves. This might be why I prefer serialized television to episodic television. So, while Star Trek: The Next Generation (reviewed here!) differs mostly only in style points between its first and final seasons, on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (reviewed here!), the characters are in an entirely different place in the seventh season than they are in the first. In fact, it is virtually impossible to sit down and watch the pilot and finale episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and expect a newbie to follow what is going on, whereas one can easily sit and watch the pilot and series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation and understand everything in both episodes perfectly. All of this vamping (pun intended) at the outset of my review of True Blood - The Complete Fourth Season is not without purpose. True Blood is a heavily serialized show and Season Four reminds us of that in the way the opening portion of the first episode sets up season five, six or seven and then goes in an entirely different direction.

Unfortunately, the direction it goes in is a less exciting or engaging one than any of the prior seasons. In fact, while there are some interesting moments in the fourth season, it is one that is so plot intensive that it offers little to those who are actually watching because they are interested in the actual characters. For sure, there is the fact that Sookie becomes emotionally attached to Eric, who has been her enemy or reluctant ally up until this point. But the “conflict” in her is much more stated than emoted as she leaps into a relationship with Eric and leaves Bill behind. Similarly, Tara reappears in Bon Temps after more than a year on her own for no clear reason. She acknowledges that within minutes of returning to the place she ran away from, she has a vampire’s hand around her throat. But why she stays is not explored in any compelling way. This weakens her character as running away clearly worked wonders for her the last time; coming back was a stupid move, yet she sticks with that supposedly temporary decision.

And Lafayette learns he is a medium. That’s cool, but again, the impact of it is not satisfactorily explored, so it feels more like a plot device than a chance for real character development. As does Arlene’s fear that her son is Rene’s reincarnation . . . and on and on.

The reason this is so disappointing is that the first scenes of the season set up a potentially incredible season. Sookie awakens in the fairy world where time moves differently. And when the queen of the fairies goes ape shit on Sookie, it looks like there might be an all-out war between the fairies and the mortal world. But, after establishing this compelling idea, it is essentially dropped for the remainder of the season. My hopes, of course, are that with the fifth or sixth season, the fairies will have regrouped, planned a strategy and make the apparent set-up at the beginning of the fourth season pay off. I can wait, especially given how the fourth season ends with some set-ups that appear to take the fifth season in more of a direction that might be closer to season three.

But season four is a long way to go to get back to something that good. The other irony for me with season four of True Blood is this: before my wife and I started watching it, we recalled one of her friends saying that he couldn’t wait for the fourth season to be over already. When my wife responded with a pretty benign “So, it’s not that good?” her friend hedged his bets and emphatically stated, “I didn’t say that!” Well, I will. True Blood Season Four is not as good as the other seasons of the series.

Because the show is exceptionally plot-centered in the fourth season, this is what you can expect in the fourth season (without any truly revealing spoilers of any kind):

“She’s Not There” opens the season in the moments the prior season left off. Sookie is wandering in a glade full of fairies who are eating a magical lightfruit and seem content. Meeting her grandfather, Sookie becomes suspicious and refuses to eat the fruit. This enrages the fairy queen and Sookie flees back to the mortal world. Once there, she discovers that she has been absent from Earth for just over a year. Shocked, she spends time exploring how things have changed. Arlene has had her child and is deathly afraid of him, Lafayette and Jesus are still together with Jesus getting Lafayette more and more into magic and Nan Flanagan is trying to get Pam and Eric to help fix the public relations problems left in the wake of Russell murdering a human on live television. But the biggest shocks come from the fact that Sookie’s house has been sold and Jason is now a sheriff. While Jason is effectively running the Bon Temps sheriff’s office while Andy suffers withdrawal pains from getting off vampire blood, Jessica and Hoyt continue to muddle through their relationship. Sam is part of a support group for shapeshifters and Tara is living in New Orleans under a new name, as a kickboxer. As Sookie adjusts to the changes around her, she is shocked to learn who bought her house and that Bill Compton has become the vampire king of Louisiana!

When “You Smell Like Dinner” begins, Sookie is confronting Eric Northman about his ownership of her house. When she is reunited with Tara, she learns that Eric has made a few disturbing changes to the home. Tara attends a coven meeting with Lafayette and Jesus, one where the circle’s leader reveals herself to be a more powerful necromancer than previously thought. So, while Jason is being tormented by the panther family in the middle of nowhere, Eric tries to break up the Coven with unpleasant (for him) results.

The third episode of the season is “If You Love Me, Why Am I Dyin’?” and is finds Eric without his memory. Disturbed by this, Sookie asks Pam for help. Pam soon gets answers on her own, from Lafayette and Tara, who are eager to distance themselves from the coven. Jason, mutilated to become a werepanther, awaits the women of the community he has been caring for for the past year. And when Sookie’s fairy godmother arrives, it has disastrous consequences.

“I’m Alive And On Fire” has Bill and Pam hunting for Marnie and the coven. Pam succeeds in finding Marnie, but the result is not at all what she hoped for. Jason, meanwhile, manages to escape his torment and after a protracted chase, kills his captor. Despite that, he wants nothing to do with Crystal, the woman he fell in love with to begin the whole mess. Sookie brings Alcide in to keep watch over Eric, whom they find outside in the sunlight and Sam learns more about Luna and her family.

The stakes are raised in “Me And The Devil” when Bill captures Marnie in order to try to find out how to reverse her spell on Pam. But Pam accidentally lets slip the location of Eric, which infuriates Bill. Jason slowly begins to recover from his experience as a captive and subsequently with Jessica. Terry and Arlene attempt an exorcism from an unlikely pair. Sam and his brother, Tommy, get closer when Tommy finally kills their parents.

The heroism and best moments of “I Wish I Was The Moon” all come from characters running away. Fleeing danger are Lafayette and Jesus, who take off for Mexico and Tara who flees from Eric. But as Tara’s life becomes more complicated when her partner shows up, Eric’s unlife comes to a near end when Bill is authorized to use the true death on his vampire sheriff. Unfortunately for Bill, Marnie is possessed by Antonia, a witch violated and killed by vampires four hundred years prior. Marnie escapes and Pam is set free. When Sam’s rental properties burn down, he is preoccupied with dealing with that crisis, leaving Tommy to open the bar. Tommy unexpectedly shapeshifts into Sam and the result leads to dramatic consequences. And while Sookie and Eric connect, Jason works to survive the night, convinced he will become a werepanther . . . and he is aided by Jessica.

Marnie is free and, as Antonia, on a rampage in “Cold Grey Light Of Dawn.” Building her army, she prepares to force the vampire population out into the sunlight using magic. While Bill evacuates the local vampires, he orders those who plan to stay to silver themselves to prevent their own deaths during Antonia’s day-long spell. This brings Sookie and Eric closer and puts Tara in touch with her new direction. And, in Mexico, Lafayette learns the truth about his own nature as Sam learns the truth about what happened the day before.

"Spellbound" finds Jason saving Jessica from the sunlight, which has predictable consequences on her relationship with Hoyt. As Bill runs a p.r. campaign following the death of Maxine's neighbor, Sookie and Eric get even closer. As they come out of their dream state, Bill plans a meeting with Antonia. With Alcide and Debbie working to avoid the vampire and witch showdown, Sam meets the ex-husband of his new girlfriend. The episode climaxes with the showdown between Bill and Antonia that threatens to shift the balance of power in Bon Temps.

In "Let's Get Out Of Here," Lafayette – possessed – kidnaps Terry and Arlene’s son, which leads Jesus to spend the day with Jason, Andy and the Bellefleurs exorcising the possessed man. Tommy decides to take Sam’s fight for him when Marcus has a problem with Sam hanging around his estranged wife and daughter. And Sookie has a fantasy about Bill and Eric together with her, while Marnie asserts her dominance over the coven.

Things go very badly at the “Festival Of Tolerance” in “Burning Down The House.” While Terry gets Andy off V, Sookie saves Bill from Eric at the Festival. While the vampires regroup, Antonia tries to free herself from Marnie, only to end up as much of a prisoner as the rest of the coven. When Sookie, Jesus and Lafayette end up inside the Moon Goddess Emporium, even Jason cannot save them. Bill, Pam, Jessica and Eric take the fight to Moon Goddess.

Events come to a head in one night, which defines “Soul Of Fire.” As Andy walks home and is seduced by a mysterious magical woman, Jesus channels all of his powers to unbind Marnie and Antonia, which has a big effect on the vampire assault of Moon Goddess.

The season ends with “And When I Die,” which has a pretty tremendous body count and cannot truly be discussed without all sorts of spoilers.

The fourth season of True Blood is not bad, but it is very plot centered, so writing up character descriptions of who the characters are this season seems pretty pointless. In fact, in this season, the regulars are all back with the additions of Jesus (Lafayette’s magical boyfriend), Marnie (the Wiccan leader of the coven, purveyor of Moon Goddess Emporium and the primary antagonist for the season) and Holly, the waitress who is also a witch from the prior season.

This leaves the acting for consideration and here is something of a mixed blessing. The primary actors are pretty phenomenal, but they offer nothing truly new. Alexander Skarsgard is the obvious exception as Eric Northman. Because Eric is brainwashed into being a nice guy, Skarsgard has the chance to play the character as very mild, cool and calm, which is not like the vicious sheriff he has played prior to this. But his co-stars, notably Anna Paquin (Sookie), Stephen Moyer (Bill) and Kristin Bauer (Pam) give nothing we haven’t seen before. Instead, they show up and embody exactly who they have for the prior seasons.

Ryan Kwanten’s Jason impressed me only because at the Golden Globes pre-show interview, I realized that he is not a George W. Bush-sounding Texan, but rather an Australian, which makes his immersion as Jason a pretty incredible feat. Nelsan Ellis continues to perform strong as LaFayette, though much of his strength in season four comes from playing well off Kevin Alejandro’s Jesus. Because LaFayette has not truly had a relationship before, Ellis has a little chance to shine here.

On DVD and Blu-Ray, True Blood Season Four comes with the usual bevy of deleted or extended scenes, the episode reviews and previews and a handful of featurettes on the making of the season and the True Blood phenomenon.

Ultimately, what lessened the season most for me was that in its fourth season, True Blood became far more predictable. The predictability came from both the direction, which telegraphed most of the dream sequences (only one actually caught me the whole season and it involved Jessica and Hoyt) and the story elements. Outside the bloodbath in the final episode where there appears to be a pretty significant body count, much of the season moves in predictable arcs where it is possible to predict accurately what will happen in the next scene (and which way the threat is coming from!). While this lessened the excitement of this season for me, there was still just enough to recommend and enough for a fan to enjoy. That said, it is not the season to for a newbie to start on and it is one that could be pretty safely skipped if you had to.

For other works in the True Blood franchise, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
True Blood - Season 1
True Blood All Together Now
True Blood - Season 2
True Blood - Season 3


For other television reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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