Friday, November 21, 2014

True Blood never figured out what it wanted its vampires to be

A still from HBO's True Blood HBO

"I wanna do bad things with you."

For the last seven seasons, that line introduced every episode of HBO's wild vampire soap True Blood. It's a confident invitation — a promise of excitement, danger, and sex. Unfortunately, for the last three seasons, it's served as a reminder of how much fun viewers are not having. And it can only serve to disappoint even more heading into tonight's series finale.

In the beginning, this beguiling show had a premise that felt fresh. Vampires in True Blood were fantastical beings capable of amazing feats, blessed with good looks, and possessing unquenchable sex drives. Yet they were still struggling for equal rights in the eyes of the American people.

The oppression of vampires was meant to be representative of xenophobia, homophobia, racism, or misogyny. An added layer of this was that vampire blood was valuable. It had healing qualities and induced euphoria, which made vampires an endangered species, hunted for their blood.

Vampires in television and movies had explored some of these themes before. In Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, vampires were misunderstood, amazing creatures trying to stay out of the way of the rest of humanity by eternally haunting one high school. Underworld made vampires stand-ins for elites fighting against extinction. Buffy the Vampire Slayer used vampires as stand-ins for predators and the patriarchy ("one girl in all the world … she alone will wield the strength …  to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their numbers"). And those are only a few of pop culture's recent vampire touchstones. We could go even deeper by dipping into classic vampire tales.

But this also meant vampires were well-worn territory, which made True Blood developer Alan Ball's fresh interpretation of Charlaine Harris's novels more impressive. Ball was blunt in the show's first season, wrapping stories about civil rights, fetishes, and miscegenation around both his human and vampire characters.

Bill (Stephen Moyer) and Sookie (Anna Paquin), their strange love story, and the reactions of the humans in Bon Temps, Louisiana, drove that first season. Even though the vampires had ugly sides, the humans, like vampire blood addict Amy Burley (Lizzy Caplan), who captured and tortured a vampire for his blood, and Rene (Michael Raymond-James), a serial killer, were just as capable of ugliness.

At times, Ball's bluntness felt too formulaic. The series featured only smart heroes and dumb villains, and the other characters were either adorable idiots or thrown into the pile of vampire haters. And it seemed like he knew this too.

"To look at these vampires on the show as metaphors for gays and lesbians is so simple and so easy, that it's kind of lazy," Ball said during a 2009 press conference. "If you get really serious about it, well, then the show could be seen to be very homophobic because vampires are dangerous: They kill, they're amoral."


The season after those comments were made revolved around Russell Edgington (Denis O'Hare), a manipulative, angry, gay vampire king of Mississippi who killed without abandon. An over-the-top, gay, militant villain felt like an equally lazy attempt to stop the "lazy" gay rights allegory that everyone saw in the show. But that didn't stop Edgington from becoming a fan-favorite.

Fairies, werewolves, witches, mediums, shape-shifters, and were-panthers (like werewolves, but panthers) were introduced and fleshed out in the next couple of seasons, culminating in a season-breaking female were-panther gang rape of Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten). That incident pointed to a larger problem with the show's fantastical elements: these supernatural beings didn't really reflect anything bigger the way vampires once had. Most of the time, fairies/were-panthers/werewolves were just there to introduce the audience to other, meaner fairies/were-panthers/werewolves.

That shallowness is why no one is really grieving that those storylines have been dropped.

But the plot that broke the whole show came in the fifth season, when Ball plunged us into the bowels of The Authority, a secret vampire council that rules vampire society. While it didn't help that the majority of the season was set in the Authority's underground, gray home base, what really bogged down the fifth season was the strange, heavy-handed religious aspect of the show, which featured a cabal of old, powerful vampires who believed in strict adherence to a vampire bible of sorts.

True Blood stopped being fun. Instead of wanting to do bad things with us, the show wanted us to see vampires as stand-ins for the Republican field of 2012. Vampires went from fun, supernatural one-night stands to Rick Santorum.

"For me the jumping off point was watching the Republican primaries, watching Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and asking what would it be like to have a theocracy in America — which is way more terrifying than any fictional monster could ever be," Ball told The Wrap in 2012.

It's deeply strange that not even primary voters ultimately found Rick Santorum all that appealing, yet a whole season was built around him. The fifth season's ratings dipped from the highs of the third and fourth installments, and Ball left the show after the season's conclusion.

Instead of veering knee-deep into The Authority or trying to introduce new characters, it's still a mystery why the show didn't give more to its strong supporting characters. Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis), Arlene Bellefleur (Carrie Preston), Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley), and Jason Stackhouse all sparkled, but were often too stuck into one-note caricatures — Lafayette always sassy, Arlene always neurotic, Tara always angry, and Jason always randy.

Each one of these actors brought a humanity to their characters that made them feel like outsiders despite not having fangs, fairy blood, or shape-shifting abilities. And seven seasons later, these characters (the ones who are alive anyway), except for maybe Arlene, are still in the same place doing the same things we saw them doing in the first season.

Mark Hudis (Nurse Jackie) replaced Ball, and then was replaced by Brian Buckner (Friends), who was with True Blood since the first season. Now, vamps have once again become the hunted, doomed for death by Sarah Newlin (Anna Camp) and the AIDS-like disease called Hep-V — a plot spanning the last two seasons. The Yakuza have made an appearance. Hoyt's mom died, prompting Hoyt to come back from Alaska. And there was a penis-shaped, hot metal torture device.

But despite all these spinning plates, there's been a lack of pace and a cloud of boredom in Bon Temps. There may just be too much scar tissue from seasons past for anyone to get too excited about a show that once promised excess. The show mistook simple for lazy, convoluted for interesting. In trying to tinker with and continually redefine its vampires, the show ended up gumming up its own motor. And along the way, it lost all the excess, and we lost all the fun we were having.

True Blood ends its run tonight at 9 p.m Eastern on HBO.

Get Vox in your inbox!

By signing up, you agree to our terms.

X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot username?

We'll email it to you.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Try another email?

Forgot username?

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.
Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.

tracking_pixel_10934_tracker