True Blood

Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO. Five episodes into the first season.

When it rained on Sunday night a couple of weeks ago, our satellite reception went staticky and I wasn’t able to watch the new episode of True Blood. (Why the hell is cable not available on our street? We live in New York, a huge metropolitan area, the media capital of the nation! Arrgh.) I sighed and scheduled the DVR to record a rerun of the episode later in the week. It rained that night, too, so I found another middle-of-the-night reshowing and, on the third attempt, finally got a complete recording. Yay!

But through this whole satellite fiasco, with all my cursing at DirecTV, I was sort of embarrassed for myself. This was a lot of effort to watch a TV show that I know in my heart to be pretty mediocre. The stereotyping of the small-town South is inappropriate. The allegorical treatment of vampirism manages to be both heavy-handed and wildly inconsistent. Much of the “drama” is laughable and way too reminiscent of late-night softcore fare, which it already kind of resembles in other ways (ahem). And yet, and yet, and yet … I kind of like it.

Partly, I’m holding out for its potential. I’m not a huge fan of Alan Ball (writer of American Beauty and creator of Six Feet Under) but I think he deserves time to find his bearings, especially with such rich material. Vampires have been potent mythical figures for thousands of years for good reason. Depending on the mythology, they can stand in for fears about death or identity or sexuality or Other-ness—basic elemental stuff—and always with a deliciously dangerous yet alluring edge.

In the world of True Blood, based on novels by Charlaine Harris, the perfection of synthetic blood led vampires to reveal their existence to the living, and some vampires are attempting to assimilate into human society. Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a waitress in rural Louisiana, is excited to serve her first undead customer, Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), but most others in Bon Temps are less welcoming—notably Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley), Sookie’s protective best friend; Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten), Sookie’s dim-witted, over-sexed brother, who envies vampires their reputation for sexual prowess; and Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell), Sookie’s boss, who secretly loves her and likely harbors other secrets as well. But Sookie is drawn to Bill, for a reason she can’t easily explain. Since she was a child, she has heard the thoughts of her fellow human beings—a “gift” that has left her somewhat isolated and wary—but a vampire’s mind is closed to her. With Bill, everything is quiet, which makes him all but irresistible.

Thus far, the tone of True Blood has been erratic, largely because Ball can’t seem to settle on how he wants to portray vampires. I don’t have a problem with some fluidity of metaphor—this isn’t a medieval mystery play—but Ball veers wildly about and sometimes becomes literal and heavy-handed enough to rival one of those fifteenth-century dramas. In one scene, for example, Bill visits the Stackhouse home and ends up in an argument with Jason over vampire rights. Jason insists he doesn’t have a problem with vampires; he just doesn’t think they deserve “special” rights. Bill tells him they don’t want “special” rights, just the same rights as everyone else, and on and on. Do you get it? Ball seems to demand. Vampires equal gay people! But beyond that facile equation, the scene has no meaning, nothing to actually say. It’s just a stupid debate transplanted from Fox News with a few global word changes. So what?

By contrast, a similar scene in X2 (the second X-men movie), in which a mutant boy “comes out” to his leery parents, plays beautifully, partly because it’s a better analogy but also, and more importantly, because the writers didn’t stop with the gimmick. They explore subtle details and larger truths—about how families struggle when a child grows into an adult the parents hadn’t expected; how parents can feel threatened by a new role model in a child’s life; how a child can feel threatened when a sibling suddenly becomes the center of attention, be it good or bad. Too often, that kind of thoughtfulness is missing from True Blood.

But not always. One of the more interesting uses of vampirism in True Blood—one I admit I hadn’t considered before—is the idea of a vampire as a kind of living history, a portal to the past. Bill’s Civil War vintage (he fought for the Confederacy, and his father owned slaves) provides Tara, a black woman, with another reason to dislike and distrust him, but Sookie’s grandmother (played by the wonderful Lois Smith) is thrilled by Bill’s past and invites him to speak to a local community group, the Descendents of the Glorious Dead. That leads to an incredible scene in which Bill gently disabuses the assembled crowd of some of their illusions about the “War of Northern Aggression” and is embraced afterward by a traumatized veteran of the conflict in Iraq.

I wish there were more of that kind of thing and less of, say, Jason overdosing on vampire blood, which is sold as an illegal drug, a kind of hardcore amalgam of Ecstasy and Viagra. That slapsticky sequence, which culminates in a truly disgusting visit to the emergency room, does the entire show a disservice, but Ball falls back on such cheap gags too often, and I can’t figure out why.

Why try to eke out dumb laughs when they only distract from and diminish the splendid Gothic romance/suspense that could grow out of this material? The conceit of Bill easing Sookie’s curse of telepathy enchants me. The idea of the person you love being able to still the chaos around you and thus allow you to be you, the uncursed you, free from expectations—it’s lovely. Even I think it’s romantic, and I never think anything is romantic. Neither Moyer nor Paquin has a wide range as an actor, but they do have chemistry, and their scenes together crackle. I might be sick of the Jason and the potpourri of generic Southern Hicks and Eccentrics, but Bill and Sookie still have my attention. So I keep watching True Blood—appreciating what it does well, cringing at what it does badly, and hoping that it will eventually reward my affection by blossoming into the smart and provocative and my-kind-of-romantic show that I know it could be.