Thursday, August 26, 2010

Chapter 6: In which I wax on the fantasy show of the decade

True Blood.

Though I don't have HBO, I've been keeping up with this current season whether by watching HBO On-Demand at my family's or catching it online. This is an interesting season for the show. They've expanded the cast a lot in order to finally create an expansive vision of the world. It hasn't been air-tight storytelling, but it is compelling. The wonderful realization I came to about half-way through the 2nd season, with its seductive maenad leading the town in Dionysian revels, was that I was not merely watching a quasi-horror show. True Blood is an out and out fantasy. Contemporary fantasy. Mythpunk. A southern fried fairytale. It picks up where shows like Buffy and Xena left off, and goes the extra mile.

I've noticed a theme with HBO shows. Season 3 is always the "Remember, these characters are eeeevil" season. Season 3 of The Sopranos had Tony's loveable crew of sociopaths acting racist and beating hookers to death. On the third season of The Wire, we got graphic portrayals of the price of the drug trade, from strung-out junkies to prostitution to people getting killed in a senseless gang war. The third season of Deadwood moved into similarly dark territory, though it had a central villain to represent the sociopathy of the western miner culture. HBO specializes in doing shows about characters we shouldn't sympathize with, making us care about them, then two years later reminding us what total shitbags they are.

That is what I like about True Blood. During the 2nd season, we were rooting for the heroes as they fought a group of Christian fundamentalists who wanted to wipe out all vampires. In season 3, we start to think maybe those guys did have a point. The senseless bloodletting has been amped up. All throughout the season, the vamps have led a trail of destruction. Tara gets terrorized by a psycho vampire (James Frain, more in horror movie mode than sexy!vamp mode). The Vampire King of Mississippi declares war on humans, and still partakes in murder despite the fact a vamp of his age doesn't really need blood. It is continually emphasized that vampires are predators by nature.

What I like about True Blood's portrayal of vampires is that it sits firmly in the middle of Twilight and Let the Right One In. This is not just in the obvious terms of quality, with LTROI being a masterpiece and Twilight being shit. In Twilight, vampires are your perfect, sexy imaginary boyfriend come to life. In LTROI, they're monstrous predators with an insatiable thirst for human blood. On the show, they're sexy, monstrous predators with an insatiable thirst for human blood. No matter how glamorous they are, they are presented as monsters. Even the "mainstream" vampire Bill Compton has killed about five humans in the course of the show for pretty spotty reasons. And the disregard for human life extends all the way to the upper echelons. In the first season, after Bill staked another vampire, the vampire judge had him kill and vampirize a kidnapped girl. Considering the vampire Authority advocates the murder of humans, it makes you wonder why they chose to reveal themselves in the first place. Is it all part of a devilish plot? It makes for compelling TV.

The show is not only about vampires, but werewolves! And shifters! And were-panthers! And now it turns out Sookie is descended from fairies. I admit being spoiled to this revelation by reading the back of a Charlaine Harris book, but its good to see the producers got the idea of the fae right. It is implied by Bill that one of Sookie's ancestors was raped by a fairy. In other words, this ain't Tinkerbell. These are the crib-robbing sprites of olde. I don't know if any fairies will show up in the story's narrative, but I am positive, if they do, they'll be badass. This is basically Faulknerian southern Gothic told through the use of mythological tropes. And it uses these tropes to look at modern ideas, such as the War on Terror and the immigration debate.

The season hasn't been perfect. Sookie's relationship with Bill strains all credulity as he continues to lie to her. Jason's storyline has dragged to a stupid extent, though it has provided opportunity for Ryan Kwanten to show his acting chops. Sam's storyline with his family only picked up about halfway through. As in previous seasons, the stuff gets very soap operatic. However, there are things they've nailed: the tenderness between the vampire Eric and his progeny, Pam. Bill's progeny Jessica's attempts to acclimate to her new undead life. The psychological repercussions of the insanity these characters have been through. The producers of the show have crafted a world where the supernatural has real life consequences.

Alan Ball has crafted one of the most compelling fantasy stories of the last decade, and certainly one of the most popular. Blood and sex is the draw; mythology is the sticking point. The success of this show (one could also point to the success of Harry Potter) is testimony to the enduring relevance of these myths. In an era where fantasy is considered a bastard stepchild sort of entertainment, I love seeing a show that so embraces its magical trappings.

In other news on this overexposed supernatural trope: I saw the trailer for the American remake of Let the Right One In. Looks to be a shot-for-shot copy. I've made my peace with this unnecessary cash grab. In a world where Twilight is considered this great vampire story, having Hollywood mass market a vampire tale with depth to subtitle-hating Americans could ultimately be a good thing. I was disappointed in their decision to make Eli a girl, instead of the androgynous creature from the Swedish original. This removes all the queer subtext from the film. Apparently, not only do Americans hate subtitles, but we hate gays as well and can't stand that kind of stuff in a movie. Absolutely cowardly decision.

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