True Blood: The Complete First Season Review

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This review contains spoilers for the whole of Season One, so if you're watching on Channel 4, be warned...

Things are getting hot down South. Vampires have emerged from the shadows of myth and moved next door, as real as you or I. They claim they want nothing more but to live in peaceful harmony with their living neighbours. Government lobbyists campaign on their behalf. But deep down, everyone knows, they ain’t right. They tempt the weak down the path of sin. They want to commit ungodly acts with you and feed on your soul. Everyone knows that God hates fangs. It’s time to hit back. One of His faithful walks the streets. Three women lie dead, swimming in pools of their own blood. It’s their own fault. They fucked the undead. They asked for it. A pharmacy assistant sits in a caravan, claiming she can exorcise demons. There’s a waitress who can hear your thoughts, and a dog who knows more than he should, and a cook who knows just what it’s like to walk on the wild side. He’ll show you too. If you’re willing to pay for it. And all the time they walk amongst us, watching. Waiting. Laughing. Welcome to Bon Temps. Welcome to the world of True Blood.

Arriving on our shores with a reputation for explicit sex and lusty bloodletting, Alan Ball's follow-up to Six Feet under is a hot, steamy, writhing mixture of ripe Southern melodrama and vampire lore, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof meets Ann Rice, unashamedly debauched and provocative. Its portrait of a Deep South still, forty years on, simmering with racial and religious tension is of a society built on a foundation of dissimulation and hypocrisy. As the clever opening sequence makes clear, this is a world in which people say one thing and do another, their outward Puritanism being slowly eaten away from the inside by the maggots of the dark side of their soul, one which even they can refuse to see by hiding away behind a shield of alcohol or casual sex or whatever else helps them to keep running. Ball’s take on the vampire myth is utterly traditional, the bloodsuckers representing the seductive Other who will expose our own deepest desires, but lends his take an extra, unsettling dimension in simultaneously drawing a racial allegory, making for a series which on the surface looks like well produced trailer-trash TV but bubbles under with a far more challenging portrait of modern America.

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At the centre of it all is waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Paquin), the white-clad virginial figure whose journey to womanhood forms the core of the show. One of the central paradoxes of the first few episodes is that even though, as a telepath, she is the one character who can truly see into the dark souls of others she is still an innocent, naive if not ignorant. Although in her mid 20s, she has yet to have a proper boyfriend, understandably finding it difficult to form relationships with the horn dogs who make up most of the town’s population given that she can hear at all times exactly what they really want to be doing to her, even as they pretend to whisper sweet nothings into her ear. The first episode follows her during a night shift at Merlotte's, the bar in which she works, on the night everything changes. Working tables as usual, she is suddenly struck that there is one man she cannot read, a gaunt brooding figure of whom the other patrons feel wary. This is Bill Compton (Moyer), a vamp who has moved into the town to claim his long-abandoned ancestral home in a bid to “mainstream,” the accepted term among his kind for living with humans. From the moment they first lock eyes you can accurately predict the course of their twelve-episode love story; by the midpoint of the season Sookie’s white baptismal dress has turned red, both literally and figuratively, and by the close of the last episode Bill has made a massive sacrifice to remain with her.

If this sounds stereotypical then that's because it is; what's one of the most interesting things about the show is that its characters are completely, and unapologetically, archetypal. Sookie's best friend Tara (Wesley) is a sassy black chick, full of "Oh hell nos," her brother Jason (Kwanten) a jock whose sole aim in life is to find new places to stick his dick, she has a wise old Grandmother, a kind hearted admirer who can’t admit his true feelings for her, and so on and so forth. To a certain extent, the show can come across as a glorified soap opera, with its constant fluxing relationships, the odd outrageous plot, frequent histrionics and the small town atmosphere in which everyone knows everyone else. But, even leaving aside the multiple subtexts which essentially define the show’s raison d’etre, what elevates it above the likes of Days of Our Lives (or perhaps, in this context, more appropriately Dark Shadows,_ is the sincerity and heart with which each character is portrayed, fleshing out stereotypes and making them real, breathing people we care about. In other hands Jason would be a wholly uninteresting character, but here the dumb jock draws our sympathies as we begin to perceive the confusion and loneliness that lie beneath his dozy, horny persona; similarly we’ve seen hundreds of Taras before now, but Wesley’s committed performance of her, which crucially exposes her vulnerable side at just the right moments without overegging the pudding, mean we can feel for her as though we had never seen her like before. These people might be types, but they also feel real.

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And if superficially the characters are fairly straightforward, the issues facing them are anything but. There might finally be a black man in the White House, but True Blood makes the point that there are sections of US society in which divisions run as deep as ever. In the show’s background the reality that vampires exists has only been known for a couple of years, so that to a certain extent people are still coming to terms with the idea, but the overwhelming impression we get from all but a few is that neither side really wishes to integrate with the other. Everyone is very polite and goes through the motions, but humans don’t trust vamps and vamps... well, they see humans as a lower form of life, mere pets to do with as they like. Tolerance is not at a premium in this series, despite what is said - one character even has to keep a key fact about his nature hidden from his best friends for fear of how they will react – and that in turn makes something of the show’s basic premise somewhat discomforting. There is the odd “good” vamp – Bill, Stephen Root’s doomed Eddie – but most are shown to be at the very least amoral – the largest gatherings we see of their kind are strictly in this vein (heh) and we never see a similarly convincing group of mainstreaming vamps fighting back. Should we accept this portrait as generally representative of the larger undead community? The show suggests we should, that it is their essential nature. Suddenly a show which appears to be about the difficulties of desegregation adopts a stance at the very least is pessimistic, at the worst rather insulting to both parties. Many of the residents of Bon Temps are small minded and bigoted, or at least ignorant (an important scene has Bill exploding some vampire myths to a group of churchgoers), but at times they have a point. Sookie ends the season looking naive all over again; she has laid her claim that Bill is a man of honour, whereas he has just performed a deeply selfish, heinous act to get back to her. Neither side is presently attractively, but it's the basic suggestion that they ultimately cannot live in harmony which is troubling, given the setting.

The other major criticism is, as said, that the development of Bill and Sookie's relationship offers no surprises whatsoever. By the season's end we've reached the point which we always kinda knew we would, almost as though this season was just set up and year two (which I admit I've avoided spoilers on) will be when things get truly interesting - certainly Bill's secret from Sookie at the end is by far the most interesting thing about him. Up to that point he's, pun fully intended, the most bloodless character, a bit too simplistic in his moral outlook. Jason, Tara and all might be straightforward but they know right from wrong and that's where their drama comes in - aside from tiresome visits from other vamps Bill doesn't have a lot of conflict season one. Similarly Sookie seems almost aware of the path fate has decreed for her from the moment he walks in - I have to admit to finding the moment when, shortly before her deflowering, she dons an overly symbolic white slip an irritatingly arch wink.

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But set against those two, admittedly weighty concerns, there’s a huge amount to enjoy in the show. It looks great, and while much publicity has centred around the sex scenes, there aren’t many similar to the shamelessly trashy moment in episode one in which a vampire, screwing the life out of his victim, looks to the camera and roars with utter relish – most, instead, are as sensuous as a proper vampire story’s should be (although I could do without the scenes of Jason and his girlfriend floating through the rainforest at one point.) There are moving performances aplenty, not just from the leads but the many secondary characters whose presence helps flesh out the town, everyone from the pitiful, in all senses of the word, Detective Bellefleur (Bauer), to Lizzie Caplan’s unsettling and ultimately blackhearted hippy chick Amy. It also has the same rich sense of humour as Six Feet Under, ranging from ironic character moments (talking about her engagement, one character says “I know I’ve done it four other times, but it never gets old!”) through to the unexpected visual gags of the nudist colonies. Just like V, the vampire blood people use as a modern LSD, it’s hugely addictive, drawing the viewer in – I can’t remember another show whose fifty minute episodes seem to pass by so quickly – and has a self-confidence in its writing and performance that also helps one believe Bon Temps has been around forever, it’s just only now that the cameras have arrived. With the exception of Skarsgard’s silly goth vampire there isn’t a poor performance to be seen. The identity of the murderer at the end of the season feels purely arbitrary, as though before filming they just put several names in a hat and drew one from a hat, and Michelle Forbes’ late appearance feels like it’s arrived too early for the next season, but other than that narratively wise it doesn’t put a foot wrong.

Several commentators have described True Blood as the spiritual descendant of Twin Peaks, but that is almost wholly wrong. While both share a small town setting in which all manner of odd things go on, where Twin Peaks had normal characters behaving in strange ways, embracing and celebrating the differences, True Blood is all about extraordinary characters trying to appear wholly normal. There are no old women talking to logs or backwards talking dwarves here; instead we have vampires who play Wii, have no fear of crucifixes or garlic and drink Tru Blood, an artificial blood substitute from which the show gets its name. And like its namesake, their efforts are almost totally fake; no matter how much everyone might pretend on the surface it’s the same thing, underneath we know... they are Other, and the conflict between us and them can never be fully resolved. In a modern multicultural society it’s a unsettling foundation for a series, and future seasons will have to tread carefully - it presents a deeply unattractive portrait of one corner of the US, but more unappealingly at the moment it's pessimistic about the possibility of things getting better. A hugely seductive series, then, but like many of its lead characters showing great differences between what it's saying and what, occasionally, it does.

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The twelve episodes of True Blood’s first season are presented on five BD-50s. The main menus are nicely designed, with a montage of scenes from the entire season playing over the main options: Episodes, Features and Languages. Each episode has its own small submenu, with synopsis and an option to watch the “Previously on...” and “Next Time on...” trailers – unless you choose these, they are not attached to the episodes themselves. Each disc has synopses for all twelve episodes, with viewers being directed to which disc holds which episode.

The Video transfer for the most part very good, with an image so full of detail you can pick out the individual pores on actors’ faces and labels on bottles at the back of Sam’s bar. The world of Bon Temps comes across in all its sweaty glory, and for the most part the image is clear and almost completely clear of grain. However, just occasionally some of the scenes set in night the grain level is ramped up several degrees, making for a sometimes jarring transition between the pin-sharp scenes that have gone before. There are moments when the effect is intentional, but several times its feels far too excessive. The Audio, meanwhile, is not as adventurous as it could have been. Sam’s bar comes across with a nice, busy atmosphere, but other sequences when a bit of extra audio could have added to things, such as the congregation of vampires near the season’s end, don’t have the menacing air they should have. It’s also notable that the bayou is not as full of things chirping and rustling and making other nature-y noises as is usually customary for such a setting – again, no doubt an intentional choice, but with a cumulative effect the audio experience is not as striking as is, for the most part, the video.

Unfortunately, due to poor scheduling on my part, I haven’t had as much time to go through the Extras as I would have liked, and can thus really only offer a précis of what’s included. There are five Commentary tracks - "Strange Love" with executive producer/series creator Alan Ball, “The First Taste" with Paquin and director Scott Winant, “Escape from Dragon House” with writer Brian Buckner and director Michael Lehmann, “Sparks Fly Out” with Moyer and director Dan Minahan and finally, “Burning House of Love” with director Marcos Siega. The rest of the value-added material is encased in the episodes themselves – all twelve have a Picture-in-Picture option, with all sorts of differing types of featurettes, trivia about the show (including maps), and even a fake documentary about Tru Blood itself. While it would have been nice to have had the option to watch this stuff separately from the episodes, it’s impressive to have included so much that all episodes get some, and, given the little bits I've already seen, I look forward to going back when I've had more time to checking them out in more detail.

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