Sunday, June 13, 2010

True Blood #1: Complex Vampires, Stock Christians and Uneasy Comparisons

Alan Ball, the creator of HBO’s True Blood, which begins its third season tonight, has generally failed to match the quality of his previous show, Six Feet Under. That HBO series, which dealt with a family of funeral directors in Los Angeles, was a smartly written, superbly acted and directed show, which raised challenging questions about life, death, family, love and all the other big questions which have galvanized humanity since the beginning of time. True Blood, a vampire series about creatures that rarely if ever die, while not without merit, isn’t nearly as smart about the issues that matter to us all.

Based on Charlaine Harris’ series of novels, True Blood centres around a world where vampires -- having come of the coffin just a few years ago -- are agitating for equal rights as the latest put-upon minority in the United States. True Blood sticks reasonably close to the books, which I admit I have only been able to skim (they’re pulpy and not all that well written). Its main character is Sookie Stackhouse (The Piano’s Anna Paquin, now grown up) -- a virginal Southern lass, who can read minds. The show is set in Bon Temps, a small town in rural Louisiana, where Sookie has lived her entire life and where she works in the local bar, Merlotte’s, owned by Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell), who has a power of his own. Her eventual lover Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), is an undead Civil War veteran, who’s the gentleman caller of the vampire world. He’d rather not kill humans, or even drink their blood, and he doesn’t regard us as prey that exist simply for his community’s predations. Because a Japanese scientist has invented 'Tru Blood,' an artificial blood substitute that can meet the vampires’ nutritional requirements, Bill and his compatriots don’t have to drink the real thing anymore. That invention is also the reason that the vampire community has decided to reveal itself to humanity. Unfortunately, not all the undead want to live in peace with their human hosts.

True Blood milks its vampire-as-persecuted-minority premise for all it’s worth. Sometimes it's clever, as in the series' inventive opening montage, set to Jace Everett’s haunting song, "Bad Things," where we get a glimpse of a church sign that says ‘God Hates Fangs,' an inspired riff on the slogan ‘God hates fags’ that was coined by rabidly hateful and homophobic Fred Phelps and his independent Baptist Church. So is the idea that some vampires pass for humans (read: straight) and that other humans crave illicit sex with vampires. (They often hook up in Fangtasia, the amusingly named and notorious vampire bar in the city.) Other times, such as in a TV report on the first vampire/human nuptials (a mixed marriage first legalized in, surprise, Vermont ), the show’s point is too obvious. But this comparison between vampires and gays is also a problematic one that, surprisingly, has gone unremarked upon by the TV critics who like or, less often, dislike the show.

Can you really compare gays and lesbians -- human beings whose only difference from the so-called heterosexual norm is an attraction to their own sex -- to undead creatures, who are immortal, don’t have a heartbeat and don’t require food other than a need to drink blood to survive, among other inhuman attributes? Isn’t it a bit insulting, if not insensitive, to compare what homosexuals go through in many places around the world (discrimination, violence, even murder), to the plight of vampires? I’m sorry, but I would have a problem with living next door to a vampire, too, or working with one, even if I didn’t think he or she would try to bite my neck. And that brings me to the series’ offensive attitude and blinkered portrayal of religious Christians.

Okay, it’s a given that Hollywood isn’t going to offer up too many nuanced and complex depictions of the millions of born-again Americans (they don’t even get non -evangelical religious Christians right, part of their bias against any organized religion), but the way they’re portrayed in True Blood is particularly galling, as it ignores the understandable revulsion and fear that most people would have if they suddenly found out that vampires were living among them.

The main villains in True Blood are The Fellowship of the Sun, an activist church that is fulminating against vampires, most often on TV where its leader, the Rev. Steve Newlin (Michael McMillian), argues his case with representatives of the vampire world. Fair enough, the Christian church would probably oppose vampires on principle because they’d be seen as allies of Satan. (In Harris’ books, Islamic countries, predictably, treat their newly revealed vampires much worse, staking them in their public squares. For its part, the Western world alternates between political acceptance of them in the U.S. , Canada and Mexico!, among other countries, and a refusal to give them equal rights in France or Germany . The TV series, however, is American-centric to such an extent that we never find out what’s happening to vampires outside the States.)

But that perception ought not to extend to all Christians in the series, who, as we can read in daily newspaper articles, are as likely to deviate from church teachings or admonitions as not. Yet, invariably, the only anti-vampire folk around are the religious ones or the ones who invoke the name of Jesus Christ. Is it really that simple? Can the world, as in True Blood, be so neatly divided between accepting (non-religious) folk and bigoted (religious) humans? Aren't there any agnostics among them? Aren’t there religious Christians who would support vampire rights (as they do gay rights in the real world) and atheists who would be rabidly anti-fang?

The refusal on the part of True Blood’s writers to recognize that negative reaction to vampires could at least be understandable (for reasons that have nothing to do with religion) actually narrows its storyline and reveals the thinness of its concept, especially in comparison to a complex, multifaceted series like Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. True Blood also plays into the ‘backwards’ Southern stereotypes Hollywood is so fond of grafting onto its depictions of the region. To that end, the folks in Bon Temps don’t own air conditioners and rarely use computers. They do have cell phones, though, so that is a bit of an improvement on the norm.

The lame portrayals of Christians and Southerners are not the only problems with the show. True Blood is also saddled with some bad or weak actors, notably Ryan Kwaten as Sookie’s not too bright, womanizing brother Jason, and Chris Bauer as quasi-redneck local cop Andy Bellefleur. Nelsan Ellis, who plays the flamboyantly gay Lafayette Reynolds, who was killed off in the books, isn't a bad actor but his character just seems out of place in conservative Bon Temps. It beggars belief that he’d stick around for any length of time in such an intolerant burg. The show’s risible dialogue, which seems to accrue mostly to the character of Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley), Lafayette’s cousin and Sookie’s unhappy best friend, doesn’t help either. Also not helpful was the ill-advised hiring on, at the end of season one, of Michelle Forbes as Maryann Forrester, as a maenad, a ridiculous character out of Greek mythology, whose only function on the show, near as I could decipher, was to taunt Sam Merlotte (they have ties from the past) and inspire everyone, through mind control, in Bon Temps to the heights of sexual frenzy. It knocked the show, which in season one effectively concentrated on the genuinely sweet and poignant relationship between Sookie and Bill, beautifully played by Paquin and Moyer, off its axis and, too often, plumbed the depths of silliness, especially when the orgy scenes began.

Admittedly, there are some reasons to watch True Blood. – SPOILER ALERT follows – The performance of Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd, as the mysterious, moody and commanding Eric Northman is strong. He is an ancient vampire, and ‘sheriff’ of Louisiana ’s vampire district who ‘made’ (created) Bill and whose blood, when fed to Sookie, has compelled her to have an attraction to him. Deborah Ann Woll as Jessica Hamby, who was made into a vampire by Bill when she was 17, began as a stereotyped spoiled brat but she has developed into an arrestingly caustic character. Her abusive nature is made understandable because she learnt, the hard way, that since she was a virgin when she was turned, each time she has sex it will be painful, to be repeated ad nauseum, because her hymen will grow back after the sex act. Whenever a vampire is ‘injured,’ its ‘wound’ will heal immediately. Ostensibly, she's a virgin all over again. That’s a provocative idea. So was the powerful moment in season two when Godric (Allan Hyde), the oldest of the vampires, out of despair at what he came to see as a meaningless existence, committed suicide by exposing himself to the sun. (I’ve been informed by Critic at Large's Kevin Courrier that this is an idea ‘borrowed’ from an episode of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer that featured Angel, but it still made for good, moving drama.) Those characters and the always welcome presence of actor William Sanderson (Deadwood) as the town sheriff, though he’s underused in the role, are the welcome corollaries to the show’s weaknesses.

I’m curious, too, as to how the show will handle the introduction of a new werewolf protagonist (the existence of werewolves was mentioned a few times in Season's One and Two, but they had not yet revealed themselves to the world), whom Sookie comes to rely on, along with Eric, when searching for Bill, who was kidnapped in the last episode of season two. I plan to stick with True Blood, which after The Sopranos is HBO's second most popular series ever, at least for awhile. However, I am doubtful that it will surmount its deep flaws and its simplistic division of good and bad humans – the vampires are so much more cast in shades of grey – to arrive at something approaching the impact and indelible force of Six Feet Under. But I’m willing to be proven wrong. We’ll see.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

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