Listen, I don’t know what to say about the True Blood finale, so I’m just going to complain about it. In my last post on True Blood I did this whole bit about how absurd it was to call such an overly plotted show “boring,” and yet… okay. Uncle.
The big ending gesture was that Sookie and all of the as-yet-uncharacterized faeries disappear in a burst of golden light. That whole strange Lafayette plotline ended in a ho-hum declaration that his boyfriend is a witch, nothing at all happened with the Arlene-is-carrying-a-devil-baby story, and honestly, the most emotionally moving bit of the whole episode was that Sookie got mad at Bill. Yeah. They didn’t even leave a little “Is Eric going to live?!” cliffhanger action to propel the audience across the season hiatus. I suppose I do have to give some credit for the horrifying appearance of Russell Edgington burned past the point of recognizable humanity, snickering even as his blackened, flakey skin floats enticingly through the air. Even he was a figure meant to gross you out rather than frighten you – his whole appeal has been his insane invincibility, and by the end, he was barely putting up a fight.
So let’s just set this season aside and think about what would need to change for True Blood to return to its former gory appeal. For one, it would be nice to see not quite so many plotlines Maybe we don’t need Nazi werewolves, insane vampire lover, shapeshifter dog fighting, the King of Mississippi, inbred addict werepanthers, an evil fetus, a cute perpetually re-virginizing baby vamp, voodoo gay boyfriends, and long-lost faerie relatives in the same season, mmkay? It would also be appealing to me, from a narrative standpoint, if perhaps the multiplicity of plotlines were to come together in some sort of meaningful relationship with each other by the end of the season. I’m not saying the Nazi werewolves have to kidnap the voodoo gay boyfriends and take them to a long-lost faerie family reunion or anything ridiculous like that, but just maybe, it could appear as though all of these characters actually lived in the same small town and knew each other.
I think that what True Blood needs to learn from this last season is that a small amount of organization and background structure are better support for the crazy aesthetics than a free-for-all in Bon Temps.
Although I haven’t been writing about it, I have continued to watch this season of True Blood, and been interested by some of the often contradictory complaints that it has gotten relativelyboring, that there aretoo many new supernatural characters (were-panthers, fairies, witches), that clearly the plots won’t all be wrapped up by the end of the season, or that it’s obvious the writers are now just vamping (heh) to fill time.
It’s an odd sort of show where all of those things seem like they could be true at the same time, and yet, True Blood is a pretty odd show. It does seem unlikely that something as shapeless and undirected as Lafayette’s strangely mystical new relationship could be tied together neatly by the end of the season, just as it seems clear that the Sam’s An Angry Shapeshifter With Family Issues plotline has been stretched thin and is on repeat until the season ends. I find both of these plotlines boring, which is a shame given that Layfette used to be a highlight of Bon Temps society. Over in Mississippi, though, things have been quite fun this season. Crazed vampire villain Russell Edgington makes a pleasingly unpredictable nemesis, and he has the good grace to find his Nazi werewolf minions just as disgusting as the rest of us. Plus, how can you find a show boring when the villain slaughters a news anchor on live TV and then announces to the world that he plans to enslave all humankind? That’s just solid entertainment.
In truth, True Blood is built to elicit all of those reactions and more, because any show with the sheer number of plotlines it insists on carrying at once is asking to be received with bewilderment, dazed acceptance, or uncharacterized resistance. It’s so strange to read that True Blood is boring, because the only possible explanation must be that there’s so much going on at once that you can’t actually see any of the individual pieces. I know it’s absurd, but these lists are sort of entertaining to try to construct:
Sookie, Bill and Eric are engaged in a battle with King of Mississippi Russell Edgington, a battle which began with Russell’s desire to acquire Bill in order to get information about the Queen of Louisiana, but which now is mostly about Eric’s need to avenge the death of his family over a thousand years ago and Russell’s belief that Sookie’s fairy blood will allow him to walk in the daylight. The Queen of Louisiana was distributing V through Eric’s bar Fangtasia, and in order to get out of trouble with the vampire hierarchy, has agreed to marry King of Mississippi and The Gays, Russell.
Sookie’s a fairy, which is why all the vampires think she’s so tasty. Sookie’s cousin Hadley, the Queen of Louisiana’s plaything because she’s also Queen of The Gays, has a son who is clearly also part fairy.
Sam is a shapeshifter, and so are his mother and brother, who have been forced by Sam’s mother’s husband to participate in dog fights. Sam is now really, really angry.
Tara had this whole crazy thing with a creepy disturbed vampire who kept her locked in a Scarlett O’Hara fantasy until Jason staked him, and now she’s back to mourning Eggs, who died when he was killed by Jason.
Speaking of Jason, he’s dating a were-panther who lives in the Crystal Meth Capital of Louisiana and whose father wants her to breed with her half brother.
How about a little Arlene? She’s pregnant with her serial killer ex-boyfriend’s baby and can’t seem to get rid of it, which she really wants to do even though her current boyfriend and dreamboat Terry is supportive.
Lafayette has a hot new boyfriend, his mother’s nurse from the mental hospital, and together they do V and rediscover their crazy voodoo pasts.
Also, Jessica’s back together with Hoyt, who lets her drink his blood even after she admits she accidentally killed a trucker that way.
Let’s see, what have I forgotten? Oh yes, the Nazi werewolves. And the friendly witch in Sam’s bar. Oh, and that whole thing with Bill’s creator Lorena. And something about the high school quarterback?
Right, so how can a show that looks like that be boring? There are enough head-twisty sex scenes and serial killer demon babies to fuel twelve seasons of The Vampire Diaries (if it were allowed to have head-twisty sex scenes, that is). I think the answer to that question is much the same as the answer to one of the common criticisms I mentioned above, which is that there are now too many supernatural characters. In the Sookie Stackhouse book series, there are just as many magical beings as in True Blood, but through Sookie’s narration, you get a perpetual reminder of how that could be true. If there are vampires, she continually says, just think of how many other creatures are hiding in the woodwork, of how little of the world you must actually understand. The effect is to continue to push the point of blasé familiarity farther into the distance – yep, there are werewolves and witches and fairies. Think of what else must still be out there.
True Blood is not that interested in extending that sense of mystery, or of keeping things hidden away. Its operating aesthetic, in fact, is exactly the opposite of that technique. Think of the most disgusting, bestial sex act you can imagine, it says. Now watch as we show you something even weirder, plus way more blood and moaning sound effects. Russell Edgington isn’t just going to mourn his dead lover. He’s going to carry his partially-dissolved, goopy corpse around in a clear glass urn, and chat with it about favorite paintings. It may just be possible that one reaction to True Blood is boredom, not because nothing happens, but because a complete, panoptical view eventually gets boring, even if what you’re looking at are seventeen different but equally orgiastic plotlines.
Our mothers and the team over at What Not To Wear were probably right, True Blood. Sometimes what you don’t see is much sexier than what you do.
Watching this first episode of the third season of True Blood was different for me than it has been in the past, because between last season and this, I’ve actually read the books that the series is based on, Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries. I’m fascinated by the connections and divergences between the books and the show, in part because I think the multi-episode, multi-season show is most closely related to the novel series form. Even serialized novels, which can look a lot like a television show broken down into individual episodes, have no strong corollary for the role of the television season. The novel series provides the clearest parallel because each book follows several different plot arcs but always makes some attempt to tie them up at the end, and while characters, themes and major conflicts carry over from one book to another, we see the book as a single, complete unit. The same can often be said for the television season, particularly the consecutive thirteen-episode season on cable networks like AMC, HBO or FX.
And yet, while books are often made into blockbuster movies or movie series (Harry Potter, Twilight, The Godfather, Silence of the Lambs, ahem, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), there have been fewer examples of the book series-TV series crossover until Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and True Blood started to appear in the last few years. So I’ve been interested in how True Blood compares with the originals, especially because the plot of the show is so ridiculously esoteric. (And also, I will be honest. Those books are seriously addictive, completely empty brain candy, and reading them is like stuffing your face with caramel corn and then falling into a sugar coma for the next three hours. Plus, my Kindle enables me to purchase them for pretty cheap without also having to stare at the physical reminders that I’ve just bought eight books with titles like Definitely Dead, Dead as a Doornail, All Together Dead, Club Dead, Death Comes for the Archbishop –wait.)
The first thing that strikes you when thinking about how to translate a book into a television series is that although a season may be roughly equivalent to a book, a book is not similarly equivalent to thirteen episodes. Television has a much more demanding, far more structured internal organization, because each episode has individual requirements that a chapter just does not have. The books are full of sex and excitement and fangs and blood-sucking, but there’s no way it could be enough to fill out thirteen balanced, satisfying, exciting, complete episodes. It’s easy to see why True Blood is so overloaded on subplots, because rather than try to divvy out Bill and Sookie’s romance into unimpressively small chunks, it’s much easier to just add on a whole Lafayette storyline, and then make a bigger deal out of Tara, and also give Terry Bellefleur and Hoyt more to do. At least up through these first two seasons, True Blood has left out very little of the basic material from the first two Harris novels, Dead Until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas, but it has added a whole lot more.
Which is why season three is going to be so interesting in terms of how True Blood continues to negotiate this relationship with the original novels. While Sookie’s relationship with Bill peters out quite quickly during the third novel, True Blood’s Sookie and Bill seem to be on much steadier ground, fueled in part by the well-publicized relationship between the actors who play them (Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer). Indeed, Bill largely disappears from the novels after the third book, and Sookie’s healthy sex drive get sparked by several other lucky supernatural beings. I’m curious as to whether the show will continue Bill and Sookie’s lusty relationship, and in doing so, effectively divorce itself from anything other than a very loose connection to the novels, or whether TV-Sookie will end up dumping Bill’s unfaithful rear-end and turning to greener pastures.
Let’s just say this – after reading the books, I’d love to see the show explore Sookie’s subsequent relationships, and was therefore quite heartened to see the show give us a good long glance at Eric’s naked body. And it was completely because I’m interested in the show’s future relationship with the books, and not at all because I enjoyed the view. (Oh, True Blood. At least you objectify both sexes.)
I think the experience of watching True Blood primarily boils down to two somewhat opposing features. The dominant and most obvious aspect of the show is its outright pulpiness – it is an unusually self-aware and delightfully sincere soup of bloody viscera and sexual fluids. Violence and sex are so intertwined on the show that one is often confused for the other, and both are so overwhelmingly present that at times True Blood feels an un-plotted excuse for bloody, erotic vignettes. It would feel un-plotted, that is, except for the other primary feature of the show, the one most apparent to David as he watched Sunday’s premiere. He’d seen the first few episodes of the first season, and was sure that he could understand everything that had happened in the remainder of season one and the whole of season two by just watching the ninety-second “Previously on” clip reel. So I fired it up, and after ninety seconds of Maryann being gored by a bull, Lafayette in Eric’s basement, Jason at the Fellowship of the Sun, Godric’s self-immolation, baby vamp Jessica, the Bon Temps orgy, Sam’s search for his family, and finally Bill’s proposal to Sookie and subsequent kidnapping, David was left sitting there with his mouth agape and one index finger raised. “I was wrong,” he said.
And now it'll be all that... PLUS WEREWOLVES!
True Blood is one of the most crazily plotted shows on TV right now, and it’s so strangely convoluted and overcomplicated that the sex and violence feel like excuses to take a breath from the forty-seven characters who all require mental juggling. As I tried to explain a basic plot outline after the unhelpful “Previously on” reel, I found myself again and again concluding with “well, I forget how that actually went down, but then he died,” or “I don’t know, it was something to do with this arrangement between Eric and Pam and the Queen of Louisiana?” or even, “actually, I don’t remember whether she died or if she just… left?” Snort.
Somehow, I find all of this firmly rooted in the “forgivable” column, even though I have nearly identical problems with Big Love, a show I continue to watch despite its probably permanent “unforgivable” status. True Blood’s saving grace in respect to this over-the-top plot silliness is its compellingly consistent atmosphere, which lends everything a surreal, sly, knowing quality. Where Big Love reaches for melodrama and emotional realism in the same moment, True Blood recasts everything in its immense breadth of material (gory murder, evangelical ministry, sex, small-town politics) in the same garish light, placing it all on the same level. It’s hard to believe that Barb’s grief over losing the Mormon church exists in the same world as J.J.’s villainous eugenics program, but Tara’s alcoholic mother and Bill’s werewolf showdown feel like pieces of the same puzzle.
So those are my general feelings about True Blood. Tomorrow – some specificity about why I’m so pleased to see Vampire Eric naked.
HBO’s new Band of Brothers-inspired miniseries The Pacific premiered last night, and although I will be watching it, I probably won’t be blogging about it until the end. (This, by the way, is one of the biggest differences between the miniseries and standard American television productions: miniseries are written with an end in mind, and usually, the whole thing is produced at once. Writing about it without seeing the whole thing is like writing a paper about the first half of a novel. In contrast, television series are a piecemeal business, and the final episode mostly likely isn’t even written by the time the first episode is filmed. They’re built over a very long period of time, often with no definite end in sight, so writing about them while in progress makes much more sense.)
Phew, where did that come from? In any event, although I’m pretty sure The Pacific is going to be amazing and make me weep and cover my eyes, I don’t want to think about it critically until the end. I do want to talk a little about its opening credits, though. (Note: this is the director’s cut version, so it is slightly longer than the one on the air. Only slightly, though.)
They’re gorgeous. The dominating images are super close-up sequences of someone drawing with charcoal – so zoomed in that the dust from the charcoal piles up like dirt, and the textures of the pencil, the paper, and the charcoal lines resemble a rocky, uneven landscape. The lines are stark, but occasionally zoom out into soft, shaded images of soldiers’ pensive faces, and restrained red tinting illustrates violence with more emotional nuance than actual gore. As the pencil moves across paper, fragmenting pieces of dust and charcoal are visually linked to images of battle, so that debris from a drawing looks much like shrapnel. It’s a lovely, persuasive sequence.
There’ve been two diverging trends in opening title sequences. For many network shows, they’ve all but disappeared, led no doubt by the influence of shows like Lost, with its minimalist, two second long, slowly spinning black and white title. The once longer version of the Grey’s Anatomy title sequence has been reduced to a clean, brief appearance of the title, and newer shows like The Good Wife , FlashForward, and Castle never even had a longer versions of their very short opening sequences. 24 has always had its succinct timer BEEP….BEEP… title, and even some sitcoms, once the bastion of the TV theme song, have abandoned traditional opening credits for an abbreviated animation and a creator credit (How I Met Your Mother, Community).
The reverse has also been true, largely for high-brow cable and premium cable programming. Over the past decade, it’s become the norm for HBO shows to come stamped with trademark artsy title sequences, sometimes nearly two minutes long. The best of these are completely gorgeous little films that tap into the show’s thematic content and organizing aesthetics – Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Rome and True Blood all have powerful opening sequences that go a long way toward establishing the shows’ tone. True Blood in particular has an opening sequence that does an immense amount of atmospheric work. Those ninety seconds build an entire fantasy world, connect it with the politics, racial history, and cultural battles of our real world, and then anchor it all in a detailed, distinct American South. (The best embedded version I could find has an HBO watermark on it.) Showtime’s Dexter also must go on this list: never, ever have I seen creepier footage of food, and a jaunty, devil-may-care music that accompanies images of coffee beans being pulverized, a knife cutting into a runny egg yolk, and fingers clenched to pull shoelaces tight sells the show’s juxtaposition of quotidian horror as effectively as Michael C. Hall’s performance.
Oddly, these opposing methods of building framing devices for television shows are seeking to address the same realities of TV viewership. The supershort title credit builds a show’s brand while also making it far too short to skip – there’s no point in reaching for the fast-forward button on the TiVo if you know it’ll only be five seconds long. You may not get a whole lot of establishing information about the cast, characters, or tone, but at least you can’t skip over what little there is. On Community, for example, the thirty second sequence often gets clipped into a pithy title bit that blasts you with a brief melodic phrase, one line of a song, and a nice animation of a cootie catcher with funny doodles in it. The word “Community” appears in block, collegiate text, annnnnnd we’re done. You get a hefty dose of COLLEGE, a whiff of snark, and you’re launched into the episode. Conversely, the ultralong HBO-style credits open themselves up to skipping because they are so long, but if you do sit through them, you’re rewarded with a surprisingly rich little meditation on what you’re about to watch.
The ultralong title sequence also serves an important purpose for weekly viewing – certainly this is not always the case, but over the past decade, the cable shows with super long credits have often also been narratively complex, multi-plotted shows. Sitting down to a new episode of The Sopranos a week later, a minute and a half of Tony driving through the Holland tunnel may not remind you of precisely what was happening in the episode last week, but it helps pull your mind back into the show’s aesthetic, its tone, its atmosphere. It also establishes the episode as an event, something that requires some introduction and unpacking. It’s cinematic – this hour of your life is a separate experience, encapsulated from whatever you were just doing, and you need this title sequence as a bridge between the two spaces. Conversely, the long credits have the opposite effect in DVD viewing. I am much more likely to skip one of those long title sequences when watching several episodes at a time (which, ahem, happens not infrequently), because they interrupt the rhythm and immersion of the storytelling. I don’t need a ninety second reminder of what the show’s like if the thing I was doing two minutes ago was watching the show.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good title sequence. But I wonder if their presence at the beginning of every episode in the DVD format makes the rhythms of the show a little too pat, and the endings and beginnings of each segment super conscious reminders of time passing. A title song that’s familiar quickly becomes canned, and then annoying, and then it breaks you out of the duration of the show when you hit fast forward – the equivalent of skipping that one paragraph that’s repeated in every Nancy Drew novel (oh Bess, you always were a little plump). If nothing else, the title sequences are enduring markers of one way television will always be different than a novel, even when it’s at its most literary. The methods of production are much closer to the surface.
I was going to write about Better Off Ted today, but I can’t. I can’t write about what I haven’t watched, and I haven’t watched it because I can’t stop barreling through this season of True Blood. For the uninitiated, True Blood is another entry in the current cultural obsession with creepy supernatural monsters, particularly vampires. The show’s premise is that vampires have lived secretly for centuries, but the recent Japanese creation of a synthetic blood product (True Blood) has allowed them to “come out of the coffin” and exist openly. One especially genteel and tortured vampire, Bill Compton, falls in love with a mindreading waitress named Sookie Stackhouse, and things go from there.
On True Blood, everything is literally and metaphorically fluid – death and life, male and female, human and monster, youth and age, all of these rigid binaries break down and death slips into life as easily as the drag queen/short order chef Lafayette straddles the gender line. The slippery, liquid flexibility that defines True Blood’s thematic content permeates the landscape as well, and Sookie’s Louisiana hometown perpetually oozes moisture. True Blood is wet, from the lakes, creeks and swamps in the surrounding forest, to the sweat glistening on every un-air-conditioned body, to the blood streaming from puncture wounds, smeared on bed sheets, and dripping from vampire fangs.
The show’s full embrace of this sodden aesthetic allows it to also slip across seemingly impenetrable binary lines: True Blood is as high-concept and politically conscious as it is completely, utterly, and shamelessly trashy. The opening credits carefully cut together images of religious zealotry and toothy monstrosities to establish vampire-hatred as a form of bigotry, most concisely expressed in a road sign that reads, “God hates fangs.” Particularly in the second season, as Sookie’s brother Jason joins the anti-vampire Light of Day Institute, the dangerous, corrupt forms of Christian extremism come under intense scrutiny. It’s a reasonably sophisticated examination of the changing American debate on homosexuality.
God hates fangs, an anti-vampire board game, and Steve Newlin of the Light of Day Institute appearing on cable news
At the same time, it’s no wonder the most recent episodes have had record-breaking audiences, because True Blood is about as explicitly, gleefully sexual as you can get without actually requiring a
Um, this was the safest orgy screenshot I could find
government ID to buy it. Every character spends an implausible amount of time without clothes on, and the whole premise of vampire feeding has been essentially a mask for sexual activity going all the way back to Dracula. The second season manages to push the limits of reason even further by building an entire plotline around a character who entrances everyone into a nightly, county-wide orgy. To accuse True Blood of sexual obscenity is like accusing the earth of being a little roundish looking. And it’s not just sexy – it’s really, unremittingly trashy. Blood and gore spray the set like a classic drive in horror movie and Sookie, with her Barbie body and curly blonde hair, cheerfully bounces through the worst of it, naïve and smitten with Bill the Vampire.
The whole project is also pretty damn fun. The second season has done a great job of expanding the supernatural world beyond just vampirism, and now the whole American South seems to be teeming with shapeshifters, demigods and mindreaders. It is ridiculous, and campy, and sometimes as sharply pointed as a well-made wooden stake.
EDITED TO ADD:
Okay, so I wrote this before I had finished the most recent episode, and I’d like to throw out a few public service announcements, just in case they would be useful for anyone. If someone serves you something called “Hunter’s Souffle,” and it looks like this, a few notes:
First, clearly what you have here is some form of shepherd’s pie. Rather than a fluffy custard all the way through, the crust on this dish is lying on top of a stew-like substance – definitely not a souffle. So that’s your first red flag. Second, THAT IS BLOOD YOU IDIOTS, STOP EATING IT.