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Drive a Stake Through It: Taking Down "True Blood"

Home Theater   Is it me, or has the HBO series True Blood become as hackneyed and tiresome as an Ed Wood movie?

I’ve watched the series since it premiered in September 2008, “glamoured” by the promise of a weekly dose of atmospheric, high-toned terror, presented with that HBO sheen. My wife, Elizabeth, was taken
by it almost immediately. As for me, I was plenty amused and often surprised its snaky Gothic narrative.

Still, at the end of the first season, the series seemed short of something—namely genuine scares. Most of those few jolts were delivered by the appearance of Maryann (Michelle Forbes) the maenad, who, so long as she remained a shimmering mystery, was an exciting and disturbing presence.

The second season was more of the same. About once every other episode, I experienced a tasty shudder, a sense of the ground opening up and me falling, the mirror’s glass turning to liquid, the veil of reality burning away. But then, the show would return to its wide-eyed jumble of fantasy, soap opera and Southern Gothic intrigue where the plots continued to jump and clank along like an old Republic serial or, worse, the old cult soap opera series Dark Shadows.

Now it’s season three and I’m laughing at every episode—the “boy-that’s-sooo-stupid-and-hokey” laughter provoked by Showgirls. As True Blood pulls rabbit after rabbit out of its now-threadbare hat, the rabbits look more limp and fleabitten. If this show is going anywhere, I hope it gets there soon, because I’m about to tell the hearse to pull over and let me out.

To me, True Blood’s problems starts with its initial premise—we live in a world already occupied by the supernatural. The World Underneath—or Behind the Veil—has broken through and crawled up and out to live among us. The supernatural is no longer secret and mysterious, it’s in the booth behind you, nursing ts fourth beer, mumbling to itself. (One reason why Bram Stoker’s Dracula remains powerful a century later is that Dracula seldom appears though his shadow is everywhere.)

In True Blood, vampires and werewolves (and God knows what members of the Supernatural Pantheon are coming. Zombies? Mummies?) are as common as human beings. Humans, it’s important to note, seem a mostly unsympathetic minority species in the True Blood universe. This determined lack of sympathy with humanity’s common clay douses any hope of creating genuine fear in this viewer. The truest terror and
suspense arises mostly from a sense of sympathy and identification, even with the most grubby of characters (see 2001’s exquisitely bone-chilling Session 9).

Of the alleged “humans,” practically all of them—especially Andy Bellefluer (played by Chris Bauer, wonderful in the second season of The Wire) and Sheriff Dearborne (William Sanderson, indelible as
E.B. Farnum in Deadwood, wasted here from Episode 1)--have become more like chewy caramel stereotypes of Southernism, the kind of characters who wind up eaten in the first reel of Attack of the Crab Monsters. I wonder how lovely, perpetually tortured Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley) can go on living. When will natural selection finally erase perpetually and spectacularly stupid Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten) from existence?

As for a world where werewolves and vampires are as common as pigeons, when everyone’s shape-shifter, what’s to wonder at? It’s a truism that these figures—whom I love—are Mirrors of our Secret Selves (or the Spawn of an Absurd Hostile Universe), but the more you put them under the light, the more their mystery, their intrigue, their danger disappears. They become too human. They may even start becoming cuddly. (Do you really want a cuddly werewolf? Not me.)

Finally, the longer True Blood drags on, the more questions I ask (going beyond “Why is Bill Compton so bland and wussy?” And no, he’s no Hamlet), the more I sigh. Many horror littérateurs will tell you that most of this genre’s great work is found in the short story and novella, in a Twilight Zone episode and a feature film like the original Night of the Living Dead.

In supernatural narratives, the longer the tale, the more time the audience has to ask questions. As narrative holes open up, the plot turns seem increasingly arbitrary and the impact diminishes. (“LOOK! SOOKIE SUDDENLY HAS SUPER-DUPER-NATURAL POWERS!” “Yeah, so what.”). Questions of everyday physics can stop a narrative dead before its clawing rotted fingers reach from the graveyard soil.

Of the monsters, vampire king Russell (Denis O’Hare) seems to have developed quite a fan base, but seems less than powerful. (I’d call Ian McShane, but he’s busy gracefully sweeping his commanding cloak of darkness through Pillars of the Earth). Only Eric Northman, played by Alexander Skarsgard with otherworldly Nordic clarity, has maintained a cool sense of menace throughout and remains a good representatove from the Other World.

As the sounds of the writers’ shovel scraping around the bottom of the barrel grows more grating, all the performances have become more hammy and less convincing. The scripts are pulling the actors down to where I wince through the laughter as they’re forced to mouth such lines
as “Bill! You can’t be dead! Not after all we’ve been through together!” (Anna Paquin, as Sookie, seems to be suffering in particular. Her eyes are getting so wide, they’re like Christmas ornaments).   Whatever virtues it may have started with, True Blood has devolved into a campy exercise where encountering a genuine sense of fear is the least of my worries.

In some quarters, it’s said that the vampires of True Blood are a metaphor for the status of gays and lesbians in America. But this is nonsense (an opinion apparantly shared by series producer Alan Ball). Do they really mean to say that that every time I hang out with gay friends, I have worry
about whether they’re going to suck my blood (or other vital fluids)? If that’s the message here, I wonder if gay rights are being that well served by this show . . . especially when the King Vampire of Mississippi offhandedly praises Hitler. (At best, the show could be serve as metaphorical debate on the limits of tolerance.)

True Blood isn’t really a horror tale, but a postmodern mashup of soap opera and intrigue with its supernatural elements piled, shoveled and trowled on. A whole genre of feature films like this has arisen in the last ten or so years (The Mummy series, Van Helsing, Blade etc.). These are action movies. Not horror films. The results have been pleasing to the 14-year-old boys that Hollywood is now dependant on, but I wonder if many of True Blood’s supposedly more discerning, adult audience is
looking for something with, well, truer blood in it.

Whatever True Blood is, it isn’t scary--at least to me--and if it isn’t scary to this serious horror fan, it’s pointless. I found even Quarantine, a ten-cent, You-Tube-style film with almost no script to speak of, packed more scares into its short running time than True Blood has managed to generate over two and a half seasons.

Finally, one of the problems with the long-form series is knowing when to quit. Some viewers think The Sopranos went on a season or two too long, whereas The Wire stopped at just the right moment (and Deadwood—well, let’s not go there). True Blood might have worked if it had stopped at the end of its first season. That it’s lasting for three—so far--only reminds me of an old saying:

Let the dead remain dead.       My contemporary Dracula novel, Dragon’s Ark is scheduled to be out at the end of the year from Ambler House. More essays and other ephemera can be found at my page the Red Room website for writers, while my comic screenplay Whackers can be downloaded at Smashwords.com. You can also follow me on Twitter (ThomBurchfield) and Facebook. My e-mail address is tbdeluxe at sbcglobal dot net.