7 January 2010 - 2:25 pm

Review: True Blood

I watch a lot of shows, mostly on DVD these days because TV broadcasting tends to suck. It’s not often that I feel moved to talk much about the stuff I watch, let alone do any kind of review, but I occasionally make an exception. I am fussy about my fiction, and things that irk me make me want to pick them apart until I know what it is that irks me so much.

I shall attempt not to spoil anything major, but I make no promises. I will also point out that I have not read the books, only seen the series.

A wonderful friend gave me the first season of True Blood for Christmas. I’ve heard good things about it (and a few not-so-good things, but mostly good) and have been tempted to pick it up myself. It might be part of the recent vampire craze but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s crap. The cast looked pretty good and the premise seemed interesting, and that gave me hope.

I wanted to like True Blood, I really did. But it’s like a sister with an addiction – every time you come around to forgiving past trespasses, she goes and falls on her face again, leaving you with a string of WTFs and FFSs. I kept hoping that the next time would see her right, that she’d find her feet and stand up properly for a change, and dammit, she’s family and you don’t give up on family (it was a gift and I’m stubborn enough to see things through to the end). But when she finally came to an end with promises of more to follow, I was left with an aftertaste of frustration and hair-pulling.

I just spoke with a friend about it, and wound up describing it as: “Cheesy porn. The kind that comes around to fix your dishwasher naked. Lots of filler and disappointing climaxes.”

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, True Blood is about a small Louisanna town in a world where vampires have come ‘out of the coffin’ (their words, not mine) and promise to drink bottled fake blood instead of people. The main characters are: Sookie, the telepathic waitress; Vampire Bill, who has nothing else interesting about him; Jason, Sookie’s brother (hereafter known affectionately as Fuckadoodle); Tara, the black girl who can’t get away from the fact she was named after a plantation, among several other sticks up her ass; and Sam, the huggable, dependable employer of half the cast who, unsurprisingly, takes shit for the whole season. Cue predictable romance between the telepath and the vampire, add a serial murder mystery and a butt-load of sex, shake and spill onto your screen.

Let’s start with the plot of the season (as I’ll probably go on at length about the characters within this section). First of all, the episodes annoyed me for their lack of structure. They seemed to meander all over the place without having much of anything achieved or resolved in an episode, though they made sure to end on a near-audible DUN DUN DUN note. Alias pulled this off well; True Blood did not. Clearly part of a larger story or three (one would hope, though many of the threads that were started didn’t actually go anywhere), each episode still didn’t have a coherent purpose in what it was trying to do.

What looked like the main plot of the season (the murderer killing vampire-fanciers) wound up being a damp squib at the end. I was disappointed with who the murderer turned out to be, and frustrated that Sookie failed to have any kind of clue until it was way too late. She’s a telepath who can barely control her ability to hear what people think, and yet she completely failed to pick up on the murderer’s hostility towards vampires, vampire-fanciers, and fangbangers, despite being around him frequently and even discussing these issues with him. When she did see inside his head, she failed to recognise him. No-one is that careful with their thoughts.

Which leads me on to another point: the writers seemed to forget about Sookie’s telepathy when it was inconvenient. It wound up being a plot point that was used when they felt like it, and then randomly ignored when they didn’t want her to know something. The excuse that ‘she blocks most of it out’ is thin when she clearly fails on frequent basis, enough that it’s common knowledge that she ‘knows stuff’ and she has no caution about responding verbally to people’s thoughts in public. It’s also impossible to tell when she’s actively blocking her telepathy, and the result winds up looking like clumsy writing and careless continuity.

The story I found the most interesting was the shapeshifters. This came along late in the season and didn’t get anywhere near a conclusion, but was left hanging for the next season to address. If I was jaded, I’d say that I have yet to be disappointed by it, but there is a part of me that hopes that won’t be the case.

Tara’s plot with her mother, ‘demons’, and exorcisms is interesting and fairly well done, until it runs headlong into the shapeshifter issue and stumbles into the woods, never to be seen again. What could have been an engaging story is abruptly forgotten and sidelined into something quite different, as if the show had just seen something shiny and run off after it.

I was bewildered by Tara’s sudden grab of the bottle, and more confused by her inability to recognise the person who caused her to crash her car (she was drunk, but that’s no excuse for forgetting the sudden naked woman – or at least, its a very lame one). Her storyline was so hijacked that she almost disappeared entirely from the story and the show – I was surprised to see her around Sam’s bar towards the end, and annoyed that she seemed so ‘fine’ after all of her previous struggles.

I loved Fuckadoodle’s storyline, right until the end. He’s a fairly well-constructed character: an unashamed horndog, which I appreciate for its honesty, yet he manages to be lovable as well. Through the season, he grows beyond where he started in a believable way and actually has something of an arc; something few, if any, of the other characters achieve. It’s unfortunate that it crashes down into a weird, religious puddle at the end – I didn’t buy his abrupt conversion and it left me with a ‘FFS’ aftertaste.

It’s a shame that he didn’t get a chance to find out who Amy really was. Fuckadoodle’s story would have been so much more involved and compelling if he had had to face just how nuts she was, and she would have been less two-dimensional had her character been explored further. But sadly, that was cut off. I wish they had spent more time there, before poor little Fuckadoodle was sent on a spiral which he (the actor) successfully made sympathetic.

I love his spiral; it was one of the highlights of the season for me, because it worked and felt realistic and understandable. That’s why what followed in his storyline annoyed me so much – it felt cheap after the wonderful, painful arc he had just been through.

The story that I found least interesting was the vampire/romance one. This is especially sad as it seems to be the mainstay of the series. Sookie had ‘please fuck me’ stamped on her virginal forehead from the moment she laid eyes and a blank brain on Bill. Bill found her interesting because of her telepathy and her persistent interest. I won’t go into all the detail of it, but I felt that the relationship was clumsy at best, with a lot of missed opportunities to make it feel ‘real’ or at least believable. They see each other and then they’re fighting off this irresistable passion between them. It feels forced and unconvincing, though it seems to be trying to grow into something more solid.

Once they’re screwing, it turns very strange, as Sookie is apparently in the mood for sex even if the vampire has just crawled out of the cemetery’s ground and is covered in dirt. I have no problem with sex, but I do expect it to at least be explainable beyond ‘he was there and she was there and then they fell on each other’ with no regard for anything else that’s going on. See my earlier comment about the porn coming to fix the dishwasher naked – that’s what it felt like.

We don’t get very much about Bill’s character. We see when he was turned and how sad he is about his family, but little to explain who he is now. I wanted to know why he came to the small town to live (beyond ‘I wanted my old house back’) and why he kept trying to separate himself from his fellow undead suckers. There is a lot he left unsaid, and a lot of questions that Sookie should have asked him but never did. I kept wanting to know more about him, to have an idea about who he is as a person. What I wound up with was a blank, broody vampire with a chip on his shoulder hot for a little blonde bloodbag, but in a less interesting way than Angel and Buffy.

I liked Sookie in the pilot. She’s not quite in charge of her telepathy, she’s runs off into dangerous situations without hesitation, and she’s fearless. She’s also a little bit telekinetic. Unfortunately, the more the series goes on, the more these things are forgotten. The telekinesis is the first to go – it could have been a mistake in the effects, but there’s definitely a hint of something there (see the chain in the pilot), and after the first two or three episodes, it stops happening. She’s obviously not aware of it, but the writers should be.

As the season goes on, she turns into a whiny teenager, and seems more like a foot-stamping adolescent than a woman heedlessly running into things. She keeps having to say that she’s old enough to make her own decisions, which only reinforces the fact that she really doesn’t seem or act like it. She’s erratic in ways that defy explanation and is confounded by problems she could solve if only she remembered that she was a telepath. She’s often ‘wet’ in the way that Twilight‘s Bella is, and that’s always going to annoy me in a heroine. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to give Sookie a clue or a spine. I don’t mind weakness, but I do mind being asked to sympathise with characters with few redeeming features to balance out the uselessness.

Also, her reactions to events are often missing. When she loses a family member, she barely blinks. She gets flashbacks to cleaning up blood on her kitchen floor, but at the time, she acted as if it was nothing unusual. If there was a feeling of her covering up her emotions, putting on a brave face, I would accept that, but that’s not the impression I get. Reactions just seem to be missing from her. I don’t know if it’s some weird character quirk they didn’t bother to explain or a failure of the actress (though I would expect more from Anna Paquin).

Unfortunately, it is difficult not to think of Twilight when looking at True Blood. This series is an adult version of the limp, teenage-fantasy Twilight, with added balls and sex. It seems to want to do other things but it doesn’t quite know how to pull it off. I feel like there are societal issues that want to be brought to the fore (the ‘out of the coffin’ politics make nice background noise but could have been more), which would make it a more interesting series.

In all, True Blood is a series with a lot of potential but full of ‘if only’s. This poor, drunken sister likes the gutter and getting dirty. Her hands are clumsy and prone to fumbling. She seems to want to make the right moves, but never quite finds her footing and slips frequently. Best to put her to bed and hope she’s better once the hangover has cleared.

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  1. Jai Lee says:

    In my personal opinion, I find this fairly well in the ball park as far as True Blood is concerned. Having only seen the Pilot (with you as it were) I found the whole thing weak and very 2D.

    How those nut job’s manage to over power the vampires and drain their blood leave me with huge question marks hanging over my head. It’s the only instance where I see Twilight’s vampires having actual balls (and I refer to the non-vegetarian types ie. The Volturi)

    Tara’s blatent desire to bounce all over Jason was annoying, as was Sam’s to bounce all over Sookie. I am not saying that every day people don’t walk around wanting to dig their fingernails into someone elses back, but I don’t thing there is any need to make it two thirds of a plot line and I use the term ‘Plot Line’ loosely.

    I very much enjoyed your likeness of True Blood to a drunken sister, kudos on that one. Comparing the show’s sexual aspect to “Porn coming to fix the dishwasher naked” also deserves high praise.

    All in all, I feel that just watching the Pilot has ruined reading the book(s) for me. However, I will probably attempt to at least start the first, no promises on finishing it though.

    I just wan to know how on Earth this show ended up becoming so popular… Obviously it wasn’t the witty dialogue or thrilling adventures… must have been the sex, especially since the most thrilling thing I could see was the opening credits.



    January 7th, 2010 at 2:53 pm

  2. Mel says:

    I completely agree about the issue of overpowering a vampire and draining their blood. Bill must be a useless vampire if those two twats in the pilot could overpower him so easily. It makes no sense, especially considering their next encounter. And why did he go outside with them in the first place?

    Too often, the big invisible hand of the plot-driving writers fails to be invisible. Events and characters feel forced and illogical. Inconvenient facts are forgotten so they don’t get in the way. Sorry dudes, your viewers will notice.

    As for Tara’s mooning over Jason – I didn’t mind that (though you’re right, Sam’s was very annoying) because it showed how broken she was. What did annoy me was that it never went anywhere. Where was her reaction when he was claiming to be actually in love with someone (Amy)? When it looked like he was growing out of Fuckadoodle into someone who might be attainable (as a boyfriend)?

    I was just pondering the comparison to Twilight, and it makes me wonder something. If Twilight is a teenage girl’s fantasy, is True Blood for the boys?

    January 7th, 2010 at 4:13 pm

  3. Jai Lee says:

    I don’t feel comfortable drawing further comparisons to Twilight without reading the books and watching the rest of the series. I do feel that it would be worth suffering the pain of both just to find them though.

    Having grown up with the likes of Buffy & Angel as well as Rice, Stoker and (more recently) Harrison, Hamilton and Evanovich, I was lead to believe that Vampires are (often) evil, soulless killers. Perhaps this new culture of fluffy bunny vampires is something that needs to be stomped all over.
    To be honest, I find myself wanting to walk away from vampire related things because of how ridiculous they have become over the last five years.

    Reviews on True Blood have been in the shows favour from what I have seen as far as media and on Facebook, which begs the question: How is the writing team getting away with this garbage? Or perhaps the viewers expectations have dropped since the days of Whedon???


    January 7th, 2010 at 7:43 pm

  4. Svenja says:

    I’ll admit to having seen all of this show… meaning the first two seasons, I think that’s all that’s out so far. Your review is pretty on the mark, though. It kind of felt like they wanted it to be gritty and a bit dark, but they had to overdo the blood and gore because they under-did it on the character front. Bill annoys me, Sookie frustrates me because she moons over him and she could be interesting but isn’t, Sam could be awesome if he just got over Sookie, Jason – well, I like Jason as a character, except yeah, the sudden attack of religion is really random and kind of spoiled his arc.

    That said, I do like Eric. I don’t think he’s much of a character in the first season, and he has his shortcomings as well, but he’s interesting.

    And totally, totally agreed on the porn thing. You could cut half of the sex out and not lose anything. A lot of it just seems gratuitous, kind of like the overabundance of gore. If they’d focused more on the characters and their struggles, maybe made some of them be less NICE, it’d work better. And yeah, Sookie accepts all the terrible things that happen far too easily, I think… and stays nice and lovely and concerned about everyone despite it. It annoys me. And Bill… don’t get me started. Could he get any more bland and boring? 😀

    Sookie’s telekinesis, though… I don’t think that was her. I read somewhere that they’d initially written someone else to be in the scene, hiding in the bushes or whatever, but they cut that out because it would’ve got too confusing.

    Nice review. I think you’ve pretty much covered it all here. I’ll probably be watching the next season, though, once it’s online… I kind of want to know what happens next. What is it about some shows or stories that sucks you in even if they’re badly done, and other well-done ones just fail to hold your interest? At least, that seems to happen to me sometimes…

    January 8th, 2010 at 1:29 am

  5. Mel says:

    So I didn’t imagine the vanishing telekinesis? Good to know. 😉 Way to fail to account for things, writers.

    I know whwat you mean about the crappy shows we love, Svenja. I watch much crappy TV and love it to bits. Good characters are what tend to hold me, I think, and interesting stories.

    I wish True Blood was better. It’s a show of missed chances and fumbled balls. I’d be curious to see the second season, just to see if they manage to suck less, but I don’t know if I’d actually want to spend money on it. Sad.

    January 8th, 2010 at 9:21 am

  6. Svenja says:

    I don’t watch much TV at all… I think that shows do suck you in, though, whether they’re crap or good. I call it the Soap Opera Syndrome, you just want to know what happens next! It’s a shame about this one though. The whole concept does have a lot of potential, as do some of the characters, it’s just somehow not realised. Which is a pity, given that vampires really DO need a better portrayal again one of these days.

    Psst, there are ways of seeing the second season without paying for it… ahem.

    January 9th, 2010 at 5:26 am

  7. Rissa Watkins says:

    What telekinesis? Which episode was that- she doesn’t have it.

    Have you read the books by Charlaine Harris? The books are awesome and explain more about why Bill moved there. They also didn’t have the brother doing the religious stuff – that was added by the TV show. Ditto with Tara, heck I don’t think she was even mentioned much in the first few books, and she is never very central.

    I brought a prejudice about Bill from the books. I can’t stand him. So I am not found of him in the TV show. I think their relationship has no chemistry, which is funny since they are a couple in real life.

    January 14th, 2010 at 8:35 am

  8. Mel says:

    In the pilot, there’s a moment with the chain she picks up that is… either TK or badly done effects. There’s also a moment in the following episode that suggests TK. As Svenja said, they seem to have decided not to go that way with it, and chose to never explain it. It’s just… weird. And badly done.

    I haven’t read that books! Not sure I ever will, after seeing that season.

    January 14th, 2010 at 6:02 pm