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Saturday, October 31, 2015

'True Blood' TV series review

Yes, yes – it’s Halloween in Australia (which should be an oxymoron but: capitalism). I can’t bring myself to read any horror-anthologies let alone review any book to theme. But these past few weeks I have binge-watched all seven seasons of True Blood and have things I need to get off my chest, so I may as well capitalise and blog on the apropos Samhain.

I was moved to re-watch True Blood – and so soon after the last season aired in August 2014 – because it was only this month that I finally read the 13th and final book in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series that True Blood was based on. Dead Ever After was okay, but it really reminded me how amazing that series was in the beginning, and how impressed I was with the early seasons of its HBO adaptation. So I took a little binge-watch down memory-lane …

Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series debuted in 2001 at a time before “urban fantasy” was a recognised genre and Harris’s strange mash-up of vampires, humour, romance and mystery-solving was all but unheard of (though she has credited Laurell K. Hamilton’s early 90’s series Anita Blake in helping to position the Sookie books).

Harris used the Sookie series to explore “otherness”, and that all her books are based in the Deep South of Bible-belt territory added a certain allegory to the explorations of a “disabled” telepath waitress encountering the world of outed vampires and shifters in Louisiana.

Charlaine Harris’s series was extremely popular, even before the HBO adaptation. The first book Dead Until Dark won the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Mystery, not to mention Harris had made a name for herself writing two previous popular and critically-acclaimed mystery series in Aurora Teagarden and Lily Bard.

But I think what really had Alan Ball (of Six Feet Under and American Beauty fame) and HBO sitting up and taking notice of Charlaine Harris’s series was that vampires were back in vogue … Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight hit shelves and made waves in 2005, with the film adaptation due for release in November 2008. But pop-culture was definitely ready for more grown-up explorations into bloodlust-as-regular-lust metaphors. Thus, True Blood premiered on HBO in September 2008 (the CW would release The Vampire Diaries TV series based on LJ Smith’s YA series the following year). And a couple of things happened in 2008 that were note-worthy for the series: one was the Great Financial Crisis, the worst since the Great Depression of 1929, and the 44th United States presidential election was won by Democrat Barack Obama over Republican John McCain.

True Blood definitely revelled in a post-George Bush era, even as the series’ timeline seemed to be set during his Presidency;

Alan Ball took Harris’s “otherness” explorations and more closely aligned them to the fight for marriage equality and gay rights in modern-day America. The series was always praised for this allegory, no matter how over-the-top and fantastical the subversion of using vampires to have the discussion was. This remains a powerful connection in the series, even upon re-watch in 2015 when the Supreme Court has declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 States. I will say that real-life bigots like Kim Davis seem all the more caricature for how well I can imagine them living somewhere like Bon Temps, gossiping with the likes of Maxine Fortenberry at Merlotte’s about those damn “fang-bangers” and “vampire fuckers.” The only time the show’s gay rights allegory became problematic was in the final season, in a storyline about a vampire virus called ‘Hep V’, the spread of which was meant to mirror the AIDS epidemic. I think by the seventh season the show had become so blood-and-gore over-the-top, that it wasn’t the best place to have serious discussions about the devastation of AIDS, and the long unfair moral/social persecution of its sufferers.

But True Blood really was an exploration of general “otherness” as perceived by society too – and didn’t shy away from discussing race relations in America (a topic that is more relevant than ever before, sadly). Re-watching the show with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World and Me ringing in my heart was also really eye-opening, particularly this line: "But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming 'the people' has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy." Thus after watching all seven seasons I decided that Tara Thornton, played by the incomparable Rutina Wesley (next seen on the new season of Arrow as Liza Warner/Lady Cop – OMG!) was one of the show’s best creations.

Tara was a minor character in Charlaine Harris’s book series, but Alan Ball not only gave her a meatier role in the HBO show, he also changed her from white to black – a bold and brilliant move that gifted audiences one of the angriest and most brilliant women on TV. It was just a shame that as the series went on (and indeed, Alan Ball left as showrunner after season five) Tara’s character was left to fall by the wayside in a particularly clumsy vampire-turning arc. I really agree with this Autostraddle article on ‘The Trials, Tribulations & Turning of True Blood’s Tara Thornton’, particularly this assertion: “But as the seasons progressed, and we got to know Tara more and more, a disturbing pattern emerged: the more complex her character became, the more she was punished. As her insecurities were revealed one by one, a supernatural creeper would show up to take advantage of her based on whatever weakness had just been revealed.” That’s very true and was so disheartening that by the end I completely understood why Wesley maybe wanted to leave the series early, or at least have her role drastically reduced.

Ball also chose to veer from the book series by not killing off a minor character by the name of Lafayette (played by Nelsan Ellis – one of the best talent finds of the whole series) by instead giving him a much bigger role and making him Tara’s cousin. Lafeyette would go on to not only explore race relations, but seriously subvert clichés about gay men. Lafayette also had a seriously interesting arc and one of the best, most tragic romances with Jesus Velasquez (Kevin Alejandro) not to mention slowly discovering he was a spirit-medium … but, again, by the last season his character was seriously reduced and his sole arc came down to being part of a love triangle between vampire Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) and her lover, James (Nathan Parsons) – after being such an interesting and subversive presence, Lafayette was left in the last season to be defined by his sexuality and a half-baked romance. Ugh.

Another minor book character who was given a more integral role in the TV show was Terry Bellefleur (played by Todd Lowe) – as in the books, Terry was a war veteran ravaged by PTSD. He was always an interesting character for Sookie’s being able to see the kindness in his heavy heart. That he also got to play most of his role opposite Carrie Preston’s Arlene, was nothing short of spectacular. She was evil in the book series, but turned into a surprisingly well-developed character in the show, eventually coming full-circle by the finale. Preston was another real great talent find of this series, and she’d go on to make impacting guest appearances in shows like The Good Wife (as the brilliant lawyer Elsbeth Tascioni … and I’m not alone in hoping for a spin-off show with Elsbeth and Kyle MacLachlan’s Josh Perotti happens one day!)

The other characters to tip my hat to in the show are all the villains – the best of which had to be Steve and Sarah Newlin, played with gospel-goodwill enthusiasm by Michael McMillian and Anna Camp as religious anti-vamp campaigners. Denis O'Hare’s Russell Edgington was also a theatrical treat as a thousands-year-old anti-mainstreaming vampire with werewolf flunkies. And James Frain’s turn as the seriously creepy and lonely vampire Franklin Mott was inspired casting. And perhaps one of the downfalls of the finale season was the lack of real bad guys to give the season direction – especially after we’d been so spoiled for core baddies in all other seasons, right from season one’s human serial killer, René Lenier (Michael Raymond-James).

So now I’ve come this far and have yet to mention the “core” characters of book and TV series. *Sigh*. Okay, let’s do this – Sookie Stackouse, played by Anna Paquin.

It’s always the case that the main character of a series inevitably becomes the most annoying, right? Like, there’s an algorithm that proves this I’m pretty sure. They’re the person we spend the most time with, and every new season-arc depends on them doing repeatedly stupid shit to keep finding themselves in perilous situations. The one good thing about Sookie Stackhouse in True Blood though, was that the show seemed painfully self-aware of how annoying she was. I mean, they gifted audiences with this line from Pam De Beaufort (played by the goddamn glorious, Kristin Bauer van Straten): “I am so over Sookie and her precious fairy vagina and her unbelievably stupid name. Fuck Sookie!” She was speaking for all of us then.

Basically Sookie was as problematic in the TV series as she became in the books – and it’s important to note that ‘Dead Ever After’ was released in 2013, while True Blood finished in August 2014 – so by that time the TV audience were as frustrated with Sookie’s trajectory as the book audience were and perhaps fed one another’s displeasure.

Certainly Sookie started out as a bit of a contradiction – she was at once a busty blonde Southern belle, but also a serious outsider in her own community for her telepathic powers. A 20-something virgin wise beyond her years, partly for having a window into the minds of those around her, she was outwardly the archetypal (even quite boring) heroine, but below the surface there was a lot more going on which was a recurring theme of the series as a whole, which also featured shifter characters who were so far from what they seemed.

But Anna Paquin’s Sookie did suffer just as book-Sookie did when her genealogy was revealed to be fairy. This was a confusing storyline, not exactly helped by the conflicting-Disney connotations of faeries that audiences (and Sookie) had to contend with, so different from the Gothicism of vamps and werewolves.

And just as in Charlaine Harris’s books, the faerie storyline rarely worked – but where it was convoluted and just plain lame in the books, in the HBO show it became tacky and laughable;

Sookie’s love-life also became a sore point for book fans, who were all rooting for tall, blonde and Viking Eric Northman (played – deliciously – by Alexander Skarsgård in True Blood) to somehow win Sookie’s heart … even though that was never, ever going to happen with the Sookie Charlaine Harris had consistently presented.

The show found a real winner in Alexander Skarsgård as Eric, not least because he is of Swedish descent and Alan Ball struck gold with the actors’ chemistry opposite Kristin Bauer van Straten’s Pam (Eric and Pam were, in my mind, the ultimate power couple of True Blood, the one true love story of seven seasons).

However; a lot of Eric’s brilliance was a little undone by seventh season showrunner Brian Buckner – right down to a 1980s flashback that suggested for all of Eric’s wonder and astonishment at having developed feelings for the human Sookie, he’d actually had a similar relationship with another human woman called Sylvie. Ugh. The nicest thing I can say about season seven is that it gave us 80’s Eric (plus 80’s Eric and Pam running a videostore). But that’s it … well, and possibly his throne-romp with Fangtasia staffer, Ginger (Tara Buck).

The other vampire vying for Sookie’s heart was Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer, who would go on to become Anna Paquin’s husband in 2010). Look, Bill was always going to be a hard character to portray … he was a dubious first boyfriend in the books, and when his true motivations in loving Sookie were revealed fans pretty much wrote him off. Moyer was given a lot more material to work with in True Blood but as with so many characters in the show, his role became ever more ridiculous – to go from a genuinely interesting Civil War soldier with a tragic turning (and a brilliant evil maker in Lorena, played by Mariana Klaveno – who should be in more, better things) to a vampire-God reincarnation of Lilith (leading to endless Bilith jokes) just covered in fake goo blood. Ugh. It’s weird that his end on True Blood was so tragic, when in the books (according to Harri’s coda) Bill actually became … cool? – a successful video-game developer and King of Louisiana.

Speaking of Lilith … contrary to popular belief, I don’t think the show started going seriously downhill after Alan Ball left. Rather, I think it was Alan Ball’s fifth season Swan Song that left the writers with a heaping mess. This season went seriously off the rails, and probably partly because the show completely diverted from Sookie’s storyline in the book series. As such, Sookie was taken out of vampire politics, just as the vampire politics was bought to the fore by letting viewers see behind the Vampire Authority. Fifth season also seriously dropped the ball by not having more of a focus on Tara’s turning into a vampire, at Sookie’s bequest. That should have been the whole pivot-point for Sookie, but instead became a footnote in the wider political arc.

But back to Sookie’s “precious fairy vagina” … season six saw her paired with a vampire/faerie hybrid who killed her parents, called Warlow. Now, when I first watched this season I remember thinking Warlow was kinda the perfect solution for Sookie – she could become a vampire who walks in the daylight and still gets to eat food, plus Rob Kazinsky is fairly easy on the eyes. But upon re-watch it’s hard not to resent Warlow for taking up a lot of Sookie’s time (that probably should have been spent repairing her relationship with Tara, tbh) and also Warlow’s belief that he somehow owns Sookie is a serious exploration of intimate partner violence, and men who think that what they’re doing is somehow a sick form of love. I really thought Sookie’s parting line to Warlow – “I do not complete you!” – was spot-on too.

Alcide Herveaux was always a step out of time with Sookie in the books, but True Blood became the show that launched Joe Manganiello’s thousand abs and finally saw this fictional pairing happen. But it was pretty “meh” by the time Alcide and Sookie got round to hooking up (and it was so brief). Overwhelmingly what I’m left thinking about the whole shifter storyline (and this goes for Sam, played by the oh-so-loveable Sam Trammell too) was something that Kelly Link and Holly Black mused on at Brisbane Writers Festival this year … that vampires have traditionally read as “aristocracy”, while werewolf/shapeshifters have always been interpreted as “blue collar/working class”. That was so painfully true throughout True Blood – and how all the freakin’ werewolf scenes took place in either a barn or a dive-bar … both True Blood and Twilight (the whole Team Edwards VS. Team Jacob can totally be read as class-warfare) have succeeded in imbedding this unspoken “rule” further into the supernatural lexicon … which is kinda boring. Especially for a show that used vampires to discuss gay rights, they didn’t think to subvert discussions around class divide with these characters who have always been lumped into the same role?

Which brings me to some final thoughts on True Blood … while Charlaine Harris’ book series went a long way to helping create the urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre, there really wasn’t a whole lot of new ground trod in True Blood, though the series started out with the potential to do so much. I still maintain that it was a good show, and the first three or four seasons bought injections of fun back into the horror/slasher TV genre. But in the end it was more the sum of its parts that stand out in memory – characters like Tara and Lafeyette who were more unique and special than the show itself. Even the finale episode, which sees heroine Sookie stake and kill her first true love, Bill – you can’t say that was original either (since Buffy had once done the same to her true love, Angel – though nowhere near as gory).

I’ve heard Alan Ball summarise the show as “the horrors of intimacy”, and that is true. Admittedly, sometimes that intimacy was so ludicrous that it (literally) turned heads, and towards the end it did feel like the show was trying to out-do itself in the extreme-sex stakes … but at the end of the day it was a show about love, and getting your heart ripped out. Sometimes literally. And that’s kinda awesome.

... did I forget to mention Jason Stackhouse? (played by Vinnie Patterson ... I mean Ryan Kwanten!). Look, loveable fool Jason was pretty one-note, but by-golly did Ryan Kwanten play that note exceptionally well! 

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