Sookie the Vampire Layer

I didn’t expect to like “True Blood” at all. I definitely didn’t expect to get completely wrapped up in it.

truebloodsookiebill.jpgThe first disc of the HBO Series “True Blood” showed up in my Netflix queue while I was still trying to figure out the Near Dark conundrum, so apparently I was on a vampire kick a few months ago.

The series is in its second season, and I’d been avoiding it because nothing I’d heard interested me all that much. First I heard of it was from that enormous viral campaign HBO launched, but it backfired for me because their teaser ads were so ubiquitous that I actively avoided them. I got more of an idea of the premise — southern gothic on premium cable — but it sounded like Twilight for middle-aged women, so I wasn’t interested. The first reviews started coming in, but they weren’t all that positive, so I didn’t think much of it. My friend Rain liked it enough to read the books the series was based on, but she didn’t seem that impressed either, so I didn’t bother.

I eventually heard more of the premise — the Japanese invent a synthetic blood that finally allows vampires to “come out of the coffin” and blend with mainstream society — and I heard that Alan Ball was involved, so I figured it was going to be a civil rights parable with analogies about race relations and gay rights and religion in politics. But I hated American Beauty and could never get into “Six Feet Under,” so I didn’t bother. I knew it was on HBO, so I figured it was going to be full of gratuitous sex and violence to justify the premium cable charges, and I read an interview with Anna Paquin where she says she didn’t mind the nudity because her outfits were skimpy throughout the show and she was raised in an environment that just wasn’t hung up about nudity.

So I moved it to the top of my Netflix queue and watched the first couple of episodes back to back in one night. And it really is kind of like Twilight for middle-aged women, and there is a ton of over-the-top sex and violence, and it is indeed full of not-particularly-subtle analogies to the gay rights movement and race relations and religion in politics. And it’s soapy, and silly, and pretty ridiculous, and frankly comes across as being a little stilted and clumsy. You get the sense that they’ve got some clever ideas that aren’t quite coming together.

But it’s plotted really well, with murder mystery intrigue tying the scenes together and a huge cliffhanger at the end of each episode. So even if you’re watching it just to make fun of it, you get sucked in. (Anybody interested in how to do episodic storytelling should be watching this series and taking notes). And besides, all the country roads and cemeteries and lemonade and old houses and roadhouse bars set back in the woods fill me with fake nostalgia. (I’ve never been to Louisiana, and I’ve spent a total of about a week in Savannah, but you still just have to show me one shot of a swamp or Spanish moss and that’s how I want to remember it.)

Then, somewhere around episode five or so, the series kind of transforms. Either they’d finally gotten the set-up out of the way, or they got the hang of how to write for all the characters, or the series becomes self-aware and takes advantage of how silly it is, or I just finally stopped putting up a resistance. Whatever the case, the show goes from so-bad-it’s-good to just plain good. The plot builds up a momentum that stumbles a couple of times but never completely. They toss in more supernatural complications that still manage to feel new and creepy in a story that already takes vampires as commonplace. They keep a mix of comedy and southern-gothic-romance and horror going on without its ever going too far into melodrama or look-how-clever-we-are meta-commentary (like “Buffy” would sometimes do).

They take all the stock rural-Southern-town stereotypes and put just enough of an edge on them that they’re still interesting to watch. And they throw in an amazing supporting cast: Lizzy Caplan was the best thing in Cloverfield, and she’s great here as a spin on the tiresome northeastern over-priveleged new-age college drop-out. And Stephen Root is one of my favorite people, so he doesn’t even have to be in something good for me to like it. But his first appearance is my favorite part of the first season: it’s a scene that’s really sad, funny, suspenseful, and creepy all at once, and I thought it crossed the “safe” line into something truly original. When Michelle Forbes pops up at the end, it seems gratuitous because I’m already hooked: she’s great in just about anything, usually better than her material, and she’s got a particularly interesting character in season 2.

Speaking of great scenes and crossing lines, the cold open for the ninth episode, which is the first time we see what happens when a vampire gets staked, may be the best opening for any episode of television. It takes it from a soapy southern-gothic romance TV series into over-the-top Sam Raimi territory, and the whole thing might as well have “ONLY ON HBO” superimposed on it. That was when I realized the show isn’t just repeating a bunch of familiar stuff, but is pulling from a ton of influences and is committed to throwing in as many of them as it can.

Usually the accents are the thing that kills TV shows and movies set in the south for me. In “True Blood,” the accents are all over the place, which is understandable because the cast is from all over the place. Looking on IMDB turns up New Zealand, England, Australia, and everywhere in the US north of the Mason Dixon. But there’s nothing really grating — most of them you’d never suspect a thing — and the ones that do feel a little “off” are given a story explanation: Bill’s supposed to be a Civil War veteran, so you can forgive the “Sook-ay”; and Sookie’s played by Anna Paquin doing her Rogue-from-X-Men thing, which you can accept because holy damnation is she pretty.

I was thinking that my only big complaint was that I’d already figured out the murder mystery by around the fourth or fifth episode. But even that isn’t a problem, because the murder mystery is only a fraction of all the plotting going on, and it’s basically just a vehicle for all of the relationship-driven stuff. Not just the big romantic relationship, but the interactions of a bunch of badly damaged characters trying to make sense of their lives in a world where religion doesn’t work as well as it used to. And even that makes it sound more pretentious than it really is — it seems like it matured into a series that does have more depth than just “Twilight for middle-aged women,” but it’s also confident enough that it doesn’t have to “mean” anything all the time. It’s not afraid to be soapy, silly, and pretty ridiculous.

Most surprising to me is that they can have a series with this much gore, profanity, violence, nudity, sex, drug use, and of course, blood, and it doesn’t come across as completely gratuitous. I can remember being a kid and sneaking into the living room to watch “The Hitchhiker”, and even at that age it was boring. They were trying to make “The Twilight Zone” that would sell HBO subscriptions: run-of-the-mill horror episodes that would always have one sex scene (always filmed exactly the same way) clumsily inserted (so to speak) at some point in the story.

Even in well-made shows like “Rome” and “The Sopranos,” the sex and violence is there more for authenticity’s sake than for being essential to the series: being a mobster or an ancient Roman means you’re going to hear a lot of swearing and see a lot of blood and nudity. But in “True Blood,” it’s used more for contrast. When your heroine who never swears suddenly lets out the f-bomb, you’re reminded it’s a big deal. When you’ve got a character who’s angry and damaged, you’ve got to have her constantly (and inappropriately) swearing to show how far off “normal” she is. When you discover a murder scene that’s supposed to be a horrifying moment, in a series filled with blood, you’ve got to have blood on the walls and floor to convey the real impact of it.

And no offense to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” but a story about sexual awakening that’s been edited for network TV just doesn’t have the same weight: it becomes Twilight-ized into teen girl romance fantasy. The core romance of “True Blood” doesn’t interest me as much as all of the other stuff, but the thing that keeps it from being completely tedious is that they’re able to make it genuinely romantic and passionate. And I don’t think they would be able to do that as well if they couldn’t show other people having dirty, raunchy, meaningless sex. Even if they weren’t going for the Tennessee Williams angle, where it’s so hot in the south that people have no choice but to hump constantly.

Plus, a show with this much sex and violence doesn’t really need to be written as well as it is. I already mentioned that the plotting is insidiously addictive, but the dialogue is sharp, too. I’ve been surprised by how many times I laugh out loud. A gay nerd vampire tells his lover, “I always look forward to Monday nights. First ‘Heroes,’ and then you.” A jealous jock type tells Jason, “You think you can walk on water, don’t you?” and he cockily replies, “Uh, I’m pretty sure that was Moses.” An over-excitable fang-banger gets some rags to dress a gunshot wound and then starts screaming hysterically when she realizes they’re dirty. There are plenty of surprisingly clever moments, surprising when so much of the show is as subtle as a brick through a window. (Which is itself another line from the show).

There are still plenty of ways it can go wrong — especially now that I like it, and that’s usually the kiss of death for good TV series — but for now, it’s happily jumping back and forth over all kinds of lines and changing things up the moment it starts to get too predictable. For now, I’m perfectly happy to abandon my skepticism and let the series do whatever it wants, and treat it like Twilight for middle-aged men.