True Blood

I’d been resisting it. The ad campaigns kind of turned me off, and I thought that the last thing we needed was yet another vampire show. I realize that vampires are pretty trendy right now, and I do like the novels by Charlaine Harris, although I haven’t read them in ages, but I didn’t really see the point of True Blood. And then, the price of the first season on Amazon became irresistibly low, and I decided to order it on an impulse to see what all of the fuss was about.

As it turns out, True Blood is actually pretty darn good. Being HBO, it veers into the realm of the porny on occasion (as do the novels, as I recall), but that doesn’t detract from the general excellence. In fact, my only real complaint about the show is the distribution method. As someone who doesn’t own a television, let alone subscribe to television services, getting HBO is really just not that feasible for me. I get that HBO is not like the networks, and therefore not interested in making content available online for free. I’m cool with that. But I would pay to watch season two as the episodes roll out, and I actually went to iTunes to do just that, only to find that only season one episodes are available; evidently, HBO doesn’t release episodes for download until they release the DVDs, which kind of defeats the point, if you ask me. I really don’t want to wait a year for the next season to get released on DVD, because I like the show and want to watch more of it, and because I fear I’m going to get spoiled on the events (the show deviates enough from the books that this is a valid fear).

I mean, here’s this show that’s a big hit, that people are really into, and HBO is basically forcing fans to pirate it. They could be making bank releasing episodes online for download, but they aren’t. Hell, almost a million units of the first season on DVD sold within a month of release, so clearly, people are ready to pay for this. What gives, HBO?

Anyway, on to True Blood. For those of you not familiar with the show or the Southern Vampire Novels, on which it is based, the plot is that the Japanese have developed synthetic blood, which allows vampires to go public, thereby creating an opening for all kinds of shenanigans. The protagonist of the series, Sookie Stackhouse, is a telepathic waitress in the employ of Sam Merlotte, a shape-shifting bar owner. Sookie, of course, (wait for it) falls in love with a vampire, Bill Compton. As the series progresses, we learn that vampires aren’t the only supernatural creatures that really exist; we meet shape-shifters, and werewolves, and fairies. The books are framed as supernatural mysteries, but are thoroughly steeped in the real world, and the same appears to be true for the television series, at least so far.

One of the interesting things about True Blood is that it plays with the stereotypes of the genre. In the first episode, we see Sookie saving Bill, in a reversal of the usual “vampire with a conscience saves cute blonde girl” narrative. The first episode also exposes us to the fact that humans exploit vampires, draining their blood for sale as a mind-altering drug. In fact, a lot of the first season of True Blood surrounds the prejudice endured by vampires, and the ways in which humans exploit them, right down to when Sookie’s brother Jason and his girlfriend Amy kidnap a vampire to have a steady supply of V, as vampire blood is known, and Amy ends up killing the vamp after Jason has established a friendship with him, viewing him as more human than vampire.

You almost feel sorry for vampires, until you start to learn more about them and see that they do their share of exploiting as well. Vampires, for example, view themselves as superior to humans, and in several situations, Bill is forced to protect Sookie by stating that she is “his,” which means that she is his property and she cannot be touched by another vampire. (Which could come across as a bit antifeminist and all, except that men are also owned by vampires, and Bill obviously feels deeply uncomfortable with the concept of owning a human being.) Sookie is also used as a tool by the vampires, with Bill’s superior, Eric, using her telepathic abilities to find out who is stealing from him in one episode.

One of the interesting things about modern fantasy which involves vampires is that it features vampires who are the exceptions to the rule, who go against the grain of vampire culture. These “good” vampires become humanized in the eyes of viewers and readers, and we often find ourselves excusing them for shocking behavior; I find it interesting to contrast this with more classical works, in which vampires are evil monsters, straight up, and we do not view them as sympathetic characters. I think that this has to do with the shifting narrative of the other; as society has become more and more accepting of the “other,” we are forced to make the other more and more exotic to explore it.

I also find it very intriguing to note that in the modern reimagination of the vampire narrative, in which there are good and bad vampires, it is always a woman who falls in love with a male vampire. (Unless someone can name a man who falls in love with a female vampire?) The male vampire is the tragic hero, the woman is the innocent (Buffy, Bella, and Sookie are all virgins when they meet their vampire lovemates), and their love is forbidden, exotic, and oh so exciting for viewers/readers. Are we not seeing a reversal of this because female sexuality is scary, and therefore an experienced female vampire would be too frightening for viewers? Hrm, I think I feel a post coming on.

In this narrative, the male vampire is also allowed to do pretty inexcusable things, which we somehow except because he is a vampire, even though he has been humanized in many ways. Some terrible things definitely happen in True Blood, like the scene in which Bill is forced to make a 17 year old girl into a vampire to satisfy the terms of a sentence handed down by a vampire court, and they force us to question just how far we will allow the characters to go before being repulsed by them. While one might initially view a vampire legal system as a good thing, the Magistrate of the court is elitist, viewing humans as little more than blood bags, and his callous disregard for human life clearly runs contrary to Bill’s own beliefs, and it seems strange to see Bill submitting to the court when it’s obviously a very questionable entity. (Again, Bill is presented to viewers as the good vampire, not like those other bad vampires, so that we can feel comfortable with liking him despite the fact that he violates a 17 year old girl, and support his sexual relationship with Sookie, much as we only accept a relationship between Buffy and Spike by seeing that Spike is unique.)

The overarching plot of the first season was pretty close to that of the first book, Dead Until Dark: a murderer tracks down women who have sexual relationships with vampires and kills them, putting Sookie at risk because she’s dating a vampire. I think there are some definite comparisons to be drawn between this plot and beliefs about the “pollution of Southern womanhood” in interracial relationships. Indeed, the criticism that Sookie endures for openly dating a vampire is probably quite similar to that experienced by interracial couples in the South (and elsewhere) not that long ago. I think that the show does a pretty good job of confronting people with prejudices and asking tough questions, even if it’s in the guise of fantasy.

The books also explore the infighting between minority groups, which is something I just started to see in the first season of True Blood. All supernaturals are not created equal in the eyes of the supernaturals themselves, and many actively dislike each other. Since Alan Ball is kind of known for pinning social issues right on the nose, I suspect that we will be seeing more of this as new supes are introduced in True Blood.

The show definitely has some problems. Sookie’s friend Tara is a bit of a magical negro, and I’m not entirely comfortable with Tara’s mother’s character either, because she is a walking (or staggering) stereotype. I can’t say I’m too thrilled about the fetishization of a paternalistic protector in the form of Bill, either; while I think that Sookie is a very strong female character, her relationship is definitely problematic. Bill stalks her, is ferociously protective of her, and treats her like property, and while she rebels against this, she also eats it up; and let’s not forget the good old boys club between Bill and Sam, which involves periodic meetings in which the two alternately vie for Sookie’s affections and commiserate over her independent nature. “Ah, women,” they say. (Does all of this not sound familiar? Does it not appear in pretty much every modern vampire story? Could we please, perhaps, deviate from the norm?)

But there are some good characters here, and some interesting stuff is happening. I’m looking forward to season two, and hoping that HBO will relent and start posting episodes on iTunes. Or somewhere. (Or, you know, HBO, you could send me DVD screeners. That would be pretty cool. Please?)