Sunday, September 4, 2011

Chapter 60: In Which I Discuss True Blood Again

The problem with my favorite guilty pleasure is that it's a dumb show written by smart people.

Two episodes left and I'm enjoying this new season for the junk food it is. There are still too many storylines, but at least they're integrated better. The vampire vs. witch storyline is being handled decently, and thank god Bill has something to do other than moon over Sookie. Stephen Moyer's been a jem this whole season, but a lot of the actors are doing great. At this point in the story, the vampires are suited up in their black leather to go lay the smackdown on the witch Marnie and her group of human hostages. Other than Marnie, all of the witches want out, but the vampires, as usual, don't give a shit. And we're supposed to root for them and cheer them on as they blow everyone to Kingdom Come.

And I would, but the show is too smart for it's own good. What makes it smart is that the vampires aren't a romanticized group like, say, pirates in a Douglas Fairbanks movie. Or those sparkly vampires everybody keeps talking about. The True Blood vampires are vampires. And that's what I like about it. Bill being king has allowed him to indulge the slimier impulses he only used to get out occasionally as Sookie's love interest. Pam's rotting curse and subsequent vengeance quest has revealed that, under the witty oneliners, she's completely, irredemably evil. I like that King Bill is basically operating a Blackwater-style paramilitary organization that kidnaps his enemies. I like that puppy-dog amnesia Eric will still rip the heart out of a defenseless woman. There is no sparkle to these vamps. Kill, kill, kill all the time.

Which is where the complications arise. We're supposed to root for them, and they are often compared to an oppressed minority. Never mind that, four seasons in, the Academy Award-winning writing crew still hasn't figured out what minority the vamps are supposed to stand for. Comparing murderous, immortal cannibals with no impulse control to any real world group will always be problematic. In the first season they were unsubtly hinted to be analagous to homosexuals, "coming out the coffin" and all that, which I'm sure made gay people happy. In the second season, I guess vampires were supposed to be blacks, with the Southern fundie-style Fellowship of the Sun standing in for the Klan. Sorry Alan Ball, but I'm black and I don't eat people. In season three, I'm guessing they were Muslims, what with the "vampire terrorist" Russell Edgington messing things up for hard-working, honest serial killers like Bill and Eric. I actually like that one. In current American society, a Muslim might as well be a vampire.

By season four, I'm of the mind that vampires are supposed to represent the southern planter aristocracy. Let's see. They live in the South. Check. Overpowered bullies who pull strings in politics and the media. Check. Hold the upper hand in every confrontation. Check. Prone to acts of random and sadistic terrorism and are completely above the law. Check. As with the aristocracy, you have some who are image-conscious (David Duke/Nan), some who are image-conscious but handle it poorly (Strom Thurmond/Bill), and some who are just murdering thugs and rapists (the Klan/Russell/Lorena/Eric/Pam/Jessica/Franklin/ Luis/the Magister/the Texans).

Their claims at oppressed minority status echo current white supremacist doctrine, especially the kind coming out from the zenophobic elements in Scandinavia. And in case you don't think the show makes such an analogy explicit and I'm just pulling this out my ass, watch those scenes from last season where Tara's running for her freedom from Russell's plantation home wearing a 19th century chastity gown. This shit could not be more obvious. I wonder if somebody made a show about sexy Klansmen suiting up in black leather to go burn a colored church in Shreveport whether it would go over.

So the writers are aware of this analogy they've crafted, and at least aware that they don't portray the vampires as your typical heroes. I will watch this show to the end. Why, you ask? I could care less about the romance stuff. I will endure the substandard worldbuilding, too many subplots, inconsistent characterization and horrible main protagonist just to see what the POINT is. Another running theme of this show is that humans aren't so great either. While the vampires hold the monopoly on sadism, a lot of the non-vamp characters are murderers. Jason's first instinct when seeing his friend threatened was to blow the black assailant's brains out. An honest reaction and very telling for that character. Will that be the final message, that a vampire is just a human with super powers and no consequence? Or will the message be that we've all been duped by a species of sexy ghouls who want to eat us? The problem is that I don't know if there's an endgame. They might just be running all these plots without thinking it through. Which would not be a surprise, but would still be disappointing.

Nobody is claiming that True Blood is a masterpiece. The show gets campier every season. But it's also not completely disposable. If this were just a Twilight level shitfest I wouldn't watch it. There is a level of awareness of human nature and contemporary society that informs the show and keeps it interesting. Alan Ball crafts complicated characters like Bill Compton, Sam Merlotte, his brother Tommy, Eric, Terry Bellefleur, Lafayette, Tara, even Jason (that's mostly the acting, though). The relationships between them are the best part of the show. The down-to-earth elements, while they get repeatedly stomped on by scene after scene of vampire sex, are what make the show what it is.

Ball&Co. chose an edgy path by creating a world where it would actually make sense to be scared of vampires. Even then, they pull their punches. All the vampire opponents on the show are raving ultra-conservative lunatics. Never mind that an ordinary person, like Terry or Arlene, would be smart to be wary of them. The show paints Arlene as a bigoted redneck. I get it, Alan Ball. Conservatives are bad and should be mocked. Now can we actually explore what a world with supernatural creatures in the open would look like?
Think about it. The Great Revelation causes new religions to pop up. The police investigate unsolved murders that could be vampire-related. Makers go on trial for killing their progeny. Special government forces are trained specifically to deal with vamps. The whole world is turned upside-down by myth made flesh. The show raises these possibilities but never follows through. Just thinking about it makes me sound like a shitty fanfic writer, but how awesome would it be to have some kind of look at these possibilties? It doesn't have to be realistic. It can be halfway realistic. Instead we get fundies waving "BLOODSUCKERS SUCK" signs and, well, vampire sex. Why is their imagination so limited?
There is a lot of crappy writing on the show, as I've mentioned. There's also a haphazard magic system and a frustrating unwillingness to delve into the most interesting storyline, i.e. vampire politics. Characters hint at vampires pulling the strings, Illuminati-style, and a schism between the American Vampire League and the Authority. The time to pull the trigger on this plotline was yesterday, and instead I'm subjected to literally hours of Anna Paquin and Alex Skarsgaard stinking up the screen with their lack of sexual chemistry. Oh yes, and halfway through season three they decided to turn the show into Heroes, introducing a flurry of new supernaturals, more than can be developed in an hour-long episode.

Which would not be so frustrating if the writing was crappy all the time. It is not. I loved the intervention scenes between Terry and Andy last week. And you have a character like Jessica, whose evolution from cute innocent to bloodthirsty vamp has been handled naturally (absentee maker, early influence from Eric and Pam, realization of her physical strength, discontent with a domestic life she can never really have, kills two humans without repercussion). When she gets gung ho for Bill's kill squad, I buy it. Hell, even her romantic storyline with Jason and Hoyt has been good. You have a character like Tommy, who, in all his frustrating ways, was one of the most realistic depictions of an abused youth I've seen on TV. I even like how he died just as his story was getting interesting. Happens in real life all the time, and will have serious repurcussions for Sam's storyline.

The quality of these individual scenes/characters does not change the fact that Terry, Andy and Sam, the very definition of supportng characters, should NOT HAVE INDEPENDENT STORYLINES. Sam's two season-long sideshow has yet to intersect with the main plot. It brushed up against Jason's terrible werepanther storyline but that's it. Jessica can have a storyline or two because she is a VAMPIRE. The werewolves on True Blood suck. The fairies on True Blood suck. The only mythological creatures they do any justice to are vampires, and even their story is not as compelling as it can be. These writers are skilled. They can craft sympathetic characters and nail the small details, but they pick and choose when to do their job, so I don't know if there's a point. Underneath the trainwreck style camp, there are hints of an actual compelling show. Can somebody please write that story?

Rant over. It's Sunday. Time to go watch.

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