As Season Three begins on FX James catches up with the story so far…
Quick note: this review contains spoilers for Season Two, obviously, but was originally written before Season Three aired in the US so contains no spoilers for anyone about to watch on FX.
Although it might seem like they’ve never been more popular, with every bookstore shelf’s heaving bosom aquiver with covers full of young, pale maidens staring out with a knowing gloom and TV schedules dripping with the latest transatlantic reports from the world of fangtertainment, it’s actually a pretty miserable time to be a vampire. Indeed, the current vogue for all things undead is the very problem, for the glaring sunlight of the mainstream has been turned full beam onto the bloodsuckers, and they are shrivelling up and fading away as a consequence. To keep his (lack of) soul Nosferatu must keep to the shadows; to maintain his (lack of) spirit he must sup on the perverse, the grotesque and the taboo as much as the blood of obliging maidens, to keep him keen he must experience the thrill of the chase and not be greeted with a queue of all-too-willing victims. This is why the current fad is so (lack of) soul-destroying: we are currently in a time of homeopathic vampirism, in which the lifeblood of the genre has become so diluted that no active ingredient remains and all that’s left is a giant pool of blandness as threatening as your average episode of Count Duckula. Having no wish to attract to this site hordes of indignant tweenage spammers I’m not going to be mention the primary offender but we all know what it is (rhymes with High Shite) – anything that allows preteens to go to bed not only not terrified of all things pointy-teethed but positively dreaming of meeting a pasty-faced bloodsucker is a far more effective stake through the genre’s heart than the most sturdy of wooden implements. The thing is, You Know What is not the only offender: Moonlight, Blood Ties, The Vampire Diaries are all recent efforts, hampered by the needs of the masses, which have been uniformly dismal, and it’s no coincidence that Let the Right One In, the one genuinely brilliant film of the decade, was made half a world away, outside the demands of commerciality, where it could safely (so to speak) go places and do things Hollywood would never dream of countenancing (at least not until there seemed to be money in it…) Vampires are at the best when they over the edge and beyond the pale – only then do they have any real bite.
True Blood, which features an America coming to terms with the revelation that vampires really do walk among us, is therefore extremely timely. The analogy is not perfect of course: whereas genres go through cycles, and in a few years something else will have come along to grip the next generation of potential Highhards, in Alan Bell’s series the bloodsuckers are here to stay – to mix metaphors, these are vampires who cannot be put back into the coffin. But in reflecting the current battle in the genre between sanitisation and purity, the series literally embodies both the best and worst of the current phenomenon. This is a series which, living on HBO, strains at the leash to push the boundaries, to embrace the darkness and go hell for leather down some suitably macabre lanes, but also has its other eye on what the average coach potato wants, and consequently never quite manages to completely block out the sunlight. We have a hero who allows an innocent girl to be killed for his lover but whose conscience is salved by the fact said victim comes to term with the issue, a vampire who captures and tortures victims but ultimately lets them go, a Maenad who invokes riots but is vanquished without cost to her followers in a manner that had this viewer at least yelling at the TV “Bull!” There is a real creative conflict in its soul fascinating to watch but which also gives the show an at-times uncertain, almost nervous aspect despite its ostensibly confident air, leaving its audience both exhilarated and vaguely dissatisfied with what they’ve seen.
The paradoxes abound throughout the thirteen episodes, which once again centre around the travails of Sookie Stackhouse, local barmaid and clairvoyant, and her Civil War era vampire lover Bill (Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer.) Overall the season’s stories are far stronger than the first’s, which were by and large a scene setter, but the manner in which they are developed is often much poorer, both structurally unsound and with some very disappointing decisions made along the way. The season, based on the second of Charlaine Harris’s The Southern Vampire Mysteries novels Living Dead in Dallas, follows two main plotlines. The first, which was teased at the end of the first year, is the arrival in Bon Temps of Maryann, a bewitching woman of seemingly limitless wealth who sets up shop in town and takes in Sookie’s best friend Tara (Rutina Wesley) and other young strays in what at first appears to be an act of philanthropic charity. We know that it can’t be that simple, both because of various winks to the camera early on and also by the fact Maryann is played by Michelle Forbes who last played a goodie twenty years ago in Star Trek (and even then she betrayed Picard in the end.) The other main arc of the season follows Sookie’s brother, the loveably dim Jason (Ryan Kwanten). as he gets himself involved with the Fellowship of the Sun, a happy clappy evangelical church who are secretly planning on waging war against the newly emancipated undead. The shortish length of the season means that these two strands are enough to keep things going, supported by secondary storylines such as Sam the barman’s mysterious new girlfriend (who in the end turns out to be exactly who you think she will) and Hoyt the good-natured simpleton’s slightly less-mysterious new girlfriend Jessica (who, against all the odds, is the year’s breakout character) as well as the gradual growing fascination Eric the Local Heavy Vampire’s develops for Sookie. The show is never less than hugely entertaining, no episode drags and I would defy anyone even remotely interested in the genre not to have fun with it. Unfortunately, there are also enough things that irk to make this sophomore year less than it feels it should be.
Not least of which are the increasingly tiresome lead pair. Am I the only one who finds Sookie and Bill, and her in particular, utter pains? From her shrill strops and homespun philosophy that refuses to see anyone else’s point of view to at-times unbelievable naivety, she makes a worthy descendant of that other TV vampire lover Buffy, who was also the least interesting character of her own series. Sadly, the comparison is not helpful to Miss Stackhouse; whereas it was just about possible to believe that Angel would find Buffy a soulmate given the weight of her historical duty it’s difficult to see here what a 150-year-old vamp would see in this child-woman beyond her obvious physical appeals. Not that Bill is much better, the conflict of loyalties within him between his bloodsucking kin and his relationship with Sookie – the series encapsulated in one character – being ruined by what feels like a hugely misguided decision the creators make. At the end of Season One he was forced to turn a helpless, innocent girl Jessica into a vampire purely to save Sookie’s life. This is a big point, as it’s a heinous crime, and the moment was powerful but frustratingly the follow-up this season is pitiful. Effectively Bill suffers no lasting consequences from his actions, the gravity of which are effectively null-and-voided by the fact that Jessica’s struggles to accept what happened are presented to a surprisingly large degree in a comic fashion. Not only does this feel wrong, but crucially it is a big problem for Bill’s character, and, given he is the lynchpin around which many of the show’s main themes are based, the entire series – if he gets away with that, what’s the big deal the rest of the time? It’s not the only time this season he escapes moral punishment either – several flashbacks show that, while he killed some humans, he pretty much hated doing it, and isn’t especially attracted to his Maker who turns up to attempt to seduce him back, so that’s all okay then. The blunting of that conflict is a mistake, and Bill’s character a big problem which goes unsolved – indeed, by season’s end a new external threat in the form of Eric is needed to help give Sookie and Bill sufficient conflict, which is surely a couple of seasons too early – one can’t help feeling there was more mileage to be mined from the pair on their own before outside problems interfered. Coupled with Moyer’s too-mannered performance, it means he, and Sookie are the weakest links in their own show.
The season also makes a mistake in neutering two of the first year’s most memorable characters. Rutina Wesley’s Tara spends far too much time being suckered in by Maryann and not enough railing against her mama, Sam, Sookie or anyone else, and as we know where that whole story is heading her year is less satisfying as a result. The neglect of Nelsan Ellis’s Lafayette is even worse. In Season One he was easily the most attractive character, in all senses of the word – in a cast that as often as not flirted with stereotypes, here was a properly developed, substantial figure, one who played on the dark side fully knowing the danger he ran, a man both strong and intensely vulnerable. Ellis, while not given quite as much time as deserved, was the obvious star of the season, and the first couple of episodes this year, in which he is chained up in Fangtasia’s basement while Eric plays mindgames with him, promises great things. Sadly, the biggest pity is that he then escapes, and spends the rest of the year whimpering, curled up in a ball with his head under his hands hoping everyone goes away. The show feels his absence keenly, and one can’t help but hope that Year Three sees him striking back, because from the evidence of his early appearances one can imagine that he could deal out payback with an eye just as cold as that of his former captors.
However, all that said, the fact four of the show’s leads are poorly treated does at least mean that Season Two’s biggest pleasure is in watching other characters flourishing – with the above quartet all losing some of their lustre, other stars step forward to take their place. The loveably dumb Jason, who along with Lafayette was undoubtedly the most fun in Season One, cements his place in the viewer’s affections here, Ryan Kwanten’s wide-eyed innocent never less than a joy to watch as he stumbles from one crisis to another. The late season development of his double-act with Andy (Chris Bauer) the equally dozy sheriff, is fantastic, the pairing of Bon Temps’ Dumb and Dumber so natural that you can’t help feeling that the writers have been teasing us up to this point, not wanting to play their ace card until the time was just right. More surprising is the blossoming of Jessica; when she first appeared at the end of Season One, Deborah Ann Woll’s new vamp looked to be a tiresome character whose tragic origins were going to be drowned out by her adolescent whinging. However, this season has seen a complete turnaround as the character slowly discovers what it means to be a member of the undead, a splendid analogy to a confused teenager of her age who is neither a child nor yet an adult. While in regards to what happened to her she recovers far too quickly, taken on its own terms it’s one of the highlights, with her relationship with Hoyt (Jim Parrack), which could have been somewhat twee, both touching and authentic, helped by the sincere performances of the two actors. These are all supported by a growing collection of secondary characters who collectively are making Bon Temps feel far more fleshed out as a setting, and there isn’t really a dud performance to be had. Sam has a bit of a quiet year, getting to frolic with a fellow werewolf only, but the season’s end promises he’ll have something better to get his teeth into (ahem) in the next, while the emergence of Skarsgård’s Eric from brooding, and almost laughable, vamp in Season One to a character who is going to be far more intricately involved with Sookie and Bill from now is, if telegraphed from virtually his first appearance, at least a chance for the performer to do more than sit in his chair and glower.
Where the side is let down, as already mentioned in the example of Jessica’s turning, is the less sure-footed development of the major themes of the show. One of the very first scenes in the Pilot was a series-defining sequence in which Sookie walked through the bar, her mind-reading exposing the difference between the outward appearances of the townsfolk and their inner, far more bigoted and hypocritical, selves, but this year that idea is looked at in a cruder (as in less subtle) way. The bacchanalian seduction of the community has the same idea behind it, but all nuance is lost in the hysteria, presenting us with a gaggle of Pentheuses who appear to need virtually no persuasion to drop their fronts and their drawers, the merest hint from Maryann enough to have them casting off their inhibitions. Euripides would not be impressed. Equally, while there are plenty of good jokes and laugh-out-loud moments, the satire is also less sharp than it needs to be. The portrait of hypocritical Evangelicals in the Fellowship of the Sun is fun, its leaders making for a suitably oleaginous pair, but this is a joke that’s been told many times before and consequently feels somewhat outdated. So many pastors have now had the disparity between their public personas and private peccadilloes exposed, and so many ministries been discredited, that only the most naive of followers can still take at face value the movements without at least wondering what they look like before putting on the lip gloss. True Blood is telling a joke whose punchline is at least ten years out of date, and even worse adds nothing new. In terms of prejudice and bigotry there is nothing half as subtly revealing as the treatment of Eddie in the first season, and that’s a shame. Something is lost. Coupled with a very uneven structure – it’s obvious from very early on what Maryann is up to, removing any tension, while Jason’s sojourn with the Fellowship drags – this season struggles to make good on the potential of its arcs.
But despite that, TB has one trump card that ultimately makes it many flaws and mistakes almost immaterial, and that’s the sheer gusto and exuberance it gives everything. This is a show that doesn’t do things by half measures, but like the most frenzied of Maenads throws itself whole-heartedly and with the utmost glee into whatever it does. There are plenty of laughs, the sex scenes are hot, the violence bloody and the cast equally enthusiastic in both. It’s this that elevates the show above any other remotely mainstream entries into the genre at the moment and about halfway through the series there’s a moment that sums up the difference. We begin to hear word of a great, ancient vampire, one of the most powerful that still walks the earth, and tremble when finally the characters find him… only to discover he’s a pasty-faced youth who has all the charisma and power of… well, your typical teenage saga… and who very quickly burns to death. It’s a gag, if gag it is, that says it all. Most other vampires on TV and film at the moment just couldn’t hack it in the world of Bon Temps. True Blood, unlike the eponymous drink is the real thing: hot-blooded, sincere and, like its central characters, sexily ambiguous. It might not be Let the Right One In, but it’s a couple of steps in the right direction. Here’s hoping Season Three can finally live up to its potential.
The complete second series is available on Region Two on both Blu-ray and standard-def DVD versions, the latter of which is the edition under review here. It’s missing several features the hi-def edition includes – the collection of Picture-in-Picture featurettes going AWOL is understandable (although even those can be put onto a SD version as regular extras) but there’s no excuse for not including the Episode Previews and Recaps which only those with a BD player are allowed to see. This is especially so considering the excessive five DVDs the thirteen episodes come on – there really is no need for a season of this length to be spread over so many discs, and there is plenty of spare space to have included those extra bits and pieces. The series is also included as part of a Season One and Two collection, also available on both SD and HD formats. Both Video and Audio on this SD edition are fine, the image handling both the at-times very bright daytime scenes and those in dark with few difficulties, and the audio, if not having any particularly atmospheric moments, committing no crimes
There are seven commentary tracks across six episodes, with the finale getting two of its own. The most listenable-to (is that a thing?) is that for Timebomb which features that episode’s director John Dahl alongside Moyer and Skarsgård, with the three making for an informative and enjoyable track. There’s one awkward part where Skarsgård seems to take exception with the use of a pig in the show (“Just leave it,” he warns Moyer) which adds to the spice, as does the revelation that neither actor sounds much like their character. Neither, for that matter, does Kwanten, who joins Sam Trammell (who plays Sam) on the track for New World In My View, his virtually unrecognisable from the dumbass drawl he uses for Jason. Indeed, it’s a testimony to his performance that one can’t help being struck just how poles apart he is from his character, sounding far more thoughtful and quiet than Trammell in a track that has its share of blokey banter but isn’t any the worse for that. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the gal-pal duo of Paquin and Forbes on Beyond Here Lies Nothing which is pretty unbearable – let’s just say the pair are fairly giggly and move on swiftly. The season finale’s second track comes from the more sober writer/director combo of Alexander Woo and Michael Cuesta which is a little serious but at least has some discussion about the show – and hints about Season Three. Release Me also has that writer/director mix, this time with Raelle Tucker and Michael Ruscio, the episode’s writer and director respectively, thrown in. Tucker is a extrovert and Ruscio is less so, and it would have been nice if there had been a little more insight into the writing of the episode here – equally disappointing is the track for Frenzy. Given it’s the only commentary this season which includes series creator Alan Ball, together with the episode’s scripter Daniel Minahan and Wesley, it has little to offer, being slow and not especially revealing. Finally, Keep This Party Going has Ellis teaming up director Michael Lehmann, and is a story of two halves: the first twenty-five minutes it’s perhaps the best of the bunch, mixing scripting observations with on-set stories and jokes, but as the time wears on the pair start running out of things to say before resorting to saying how great everyone is.
That’s nearly it, sadly, but Disc Five does include two satirical gems. Fellowship of the Sun: Reflections of Light (12:15) are four mock infomercials for the Fellowship, originally posted on HBO.com, presented by Steve and Sarah with all the cloying, faux piousness of the worst kind of evangelicals. Extremely witty (“Let me tell you, there is nothing funny about my marriage”) these are good fun, indeed more so than most of the Fellowship’s antics in the actual episodes! Nearly as sharp is The Vampire Report: A Special Edition (23:51) which is a similarly faux entertainment news show with updates on human/vampire relations, complete with “I’m a farmer… and I also sleep in a box at day” clips ala various other recent US ad campaigns. The highlights of the extras package.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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