Tuesday, December 09, 2008

what did he just call her?

We've been watching True Blood in our house. It's the kind of show that's just good enough to make you wish it were better.

My husband's read all the Sookie Stackhouse books. I've browsed most of them, since they pretty much live in our bathroom and/or on the head of our bed. They're nicely written, sweet and light, which for me makes them slightly cloying. I tend to write with a light touch, myself, not sure why--I'm certainly not squeamish, but neither do I believe in wallowing in nastiness.

True Blood is truly wallowing. It's full of nudity, vulgarity, obscenity--and I'm sure there would be profanity, except the absense of anything approaching faith on this show precludes anything to profane against. Whoever was in charge of researching "Southerners" should have picked up on the fact that a lot of those ignorant backcountry folk still believe in God--whether they live by the Word or not. The only hint of religion in this story, for better or for worse, are the bigoted TV evangelists who talk about vampires being soulless creatures of the devil.

Other critics have said that the show's tone is uneven; rather I would say that it has no tone. It seems to be trying so hard not to be didactic that it comes off as extremely superficial, even detached. The books satisfy their core audience by being breezy and blithe; bad things happen but the sunny, slightly innocent nature of the heroine colors everything. Sookie as narrator is there for the reader to see and feel through; she gives events weight and purpose, but she's an insulated personality, she protects herself and the reader from the worst of the filth.

On the show, we don't have that filter. So there's no unifying tone; in one scene we get Sookie's breezy cheer and in the next we get her brother Jason's skeevy head-scratching stupidity. There are moments of sudden violence that would be shocking if they weren't so disconnected from everything else that goes on. Sookie damn near gets kicked to death one night, but gets up the next morning completely unaffected.

There's a lot of stuff going on in each episode. Bill and Sookie (I swear it sounds like he's calling her "Sucky" in his badly affected southern drawl) are falling in love, Jason is having butt-naked kinky sex with every hot slut in town (some of these scenes are so ludicrous, the SP turned to me and said, "We must be doing something wrong,"), Sookie's best friend Tara is coping with her alcoholic mother and her unrequited love for Jason, both factors which lead her to spend a night in the arms of her boss, Sam, who is carrying a torch for Sookie.

Then there are some other characters wandering around to facilitate the main characters' raisons d'etre: Sookie's wise and understanding Grandma, Jason's string of hot sluts whose names don't matter, because they keep ending up dead, a trio of evil vampires who menace Sookie and serve conveniently as murder suspects, Tara's flamingly gay/proudly black/casually drug dealing cousin Lafayette, who provides comic relief, eye candy, and anti-anti-stereotype in one effervescent chocolate-coated package.

Sadly, none of these characters, with the possible exceptions of Tara and Lafayette, even come close to transcending their cookie-cutter functions in the plot. This is probably because, as my husband assures me, the latter two were minor characters in the book, and have been substantially revamped (pardon the expression) for the show.

At any rate, Bill and Sookie just bore me. Anna Paquin has two expressions--sweetly wide-eyed and wide-eyed with horror. Stephen Moyer doesn't even have that range; he just glowers. He's rehashing every comatose broody vamp who's come before him (he even looks a little like David Boreanez, but at least Angel served as a useful straight man once in a while--Bill Compton is just a lacramose dud).

And I must say... although I rolled my eyes when people complained about the swearing in Deadwood, and I don't even blink at Jennifer Carpenter's potty-mouth in Dexter, something about the vulgarity in True Blood seems dreadfully affected. It all seems affected, including the actors' accents, which makes the swearing stand out more. Although I have certainly known and worked with my share of rednecks, people just don't generally swear that much around strangers and co-workers. HBO is trying too hard.

That includes the vampiric effects on the show. Switchblade fangs? Puh-leese. And we could do without the hissing, too. I'm sooooo tired of vampires spitting at each other like cats and throwing their heads back when they bare their fangs. Do animals do this? Hell, no. Joss Whedon was the only one who could make his vampires look dangerous and not ridiculous--he made them animal-like, hunching their shoulders and growling like tigers. Alan Ball's vampires pout and purr and occasionally lurch in stop-action across the screen when they're supposed to be moving super-fast. It's not effective, it's confusing.

Anyway. I'll probably watch more of it, but only if it's on in the background. It's not engaging enough to pull me away from my sewing, but not so stupid or annoying that it offends me. Ironically enough, my favorite part is the intro, a pastiche of honky-tonk and Southern Baptist documentary footage overlaid with Jace Everett's song, "Bad Things." It's pitch-perfect: the tone, the images, the schizo visuals. Pity the show didn't adopt some of that flavor.

(Warning: some nudity)


draxes said...

I have to say, that I thought that Alan Ball was trying too hard to hammer home the "anti-vampire" theme as alliteration to the "anti-gay" sentiment. It really stands out for me.
But, now that they have finished Season 1... how do you feel about the overall series thus far? I really think that they rushed it at the end. Also that they gave away too much, and could have made a better statement with the "killer".

Holly said...

Um... "alliteration" means the repetition of initial sounds in neighboring words, as in poetry.

I think you mean Allen Ball was creating an "allegory."

As to that, I saw within the show references to various civil rights movements in the last 100 years, from the black rights' movement, to gay rights issues, to the rights of handicapped persons. If Ball was saying anything, it was that discrimination is discrimination.

There is a certain amount of dark humor in that assumption, however, which the writers may not have intended: given that most discrimination arises out of irrational fears of the "other"--fear of the white folks that having "coloreds" in their neighborhood will corrupt their children and drive down property values; fear of homophobes that having gays adopt children or teach in public schools will somehow corrupt young minds. Those fears are irrational. The vamps, on the other hand, are truly dangerous, and one has to wonder--within the context of the story--what their real agenda is in coming out of the closet, so to speak. Sookie's open-mindedness, as portrayed in the show, borders on idiocy, in my opinion.

But in suggesting that there are some "good" reasons for discrimination, Ball has written himself into an uncomfortable logical situation that suggests--to certain mindsets, and perhaps unconsciously to many of us who wouldn't admit it--maybe those queers and Negros really are up to something nefarious, hm?

But discussing the show in those terms is probably giving it too much credit. It's full of logical gaps. It's badly miscast, in my opinon. It's gratuitous and lurid, lacking in humor to add verisimilitude. It's an R-rated soap opera with a nasal drawal, and now that Lafayette has been killed off, I probably won't bother with it anymore.