Image A- Sound A- Extras B-
"Strange Love," "The First Taste," "Mine," "Escape from Dragon House," "Sparks Fly Out," "Cold Ground," "Burning House of Love," "The Fourth Man in the Fire," "Plaisir d'amour," "I Don't Wanna Know," "To Love Is to Bury," "You'll Be the Death of Me"
by Bryant Frazer The notion of vampires and werewolves as romantic leads isn't exactly cutting-edge. Anyone who ever spent time in the '80s and '90s with cosplayers, Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts, SF conventioneers, and/or habitués of certain USENET newsgroups knows of a thriving subculture that imagines vamps and other shapeshifters to be highly potent sexual partners, if not outright preferable to human companions. In a cinematic climate where former nerd icons like Frodo Baggins, Iron Man, and even Alan Moore's Watchmen have been reinterpreted as big-budget propositions by the men in the suits, the eventual mainstreaming of vampire erotica shouldn't come as much surprise. In the romance aisles of your local bookstore, where "paranormal" is the preferred rubric for a burgeoning category of supernatural bodice-ripper, a reader may now find that vampires and werewolves really are that into you. On the other end of the spectrum, the brooding, outrageously popular Twilight book and film series pussyfoots around the central metaphor of vampirism, detonating a no-intercourse-before-marriage payload in the hearts and minds of a generation of teenaged girls enraptured by the idea of an impossibly ravishing, possibly fatal affair with a stormy Count Dracula type whose feelings for an awkward young thing from Arizona are stronger than his love of a virgin's blood.
In that context, there's something refreshing about "True Blood", a show that approaches the idea of loving the undead with healthy helpings of humour, viscera, eroticism, and subtext. The tongue-in-cheek storytelling and routinely bloody tableaux aren't especially remarkable, but "True Blood" is pretty packed with sex, even by HBO's standards. The show takes place in sultry, sweaty Bon Temps, Louisiana, revealed as a post-Anne Rice ground zero for paranormal activity in an America riven by controversy over the coming-out, en masse, of vampires, who no longer rely on our precious bodily fluids for sustenance. Over the course of "True Blood"'s first 12 episodes, we learn that Bon Temps and environs are home to not just a handsome Civil War vampire but also a plucky telepathic waitress and a shapechanging bartender, as well as assorted "fangbangers" (humans with a thing for screwing vampires) and addicts in thrall to V juice, the street term underscoring the intoxicating, potency-enhancing effects vampires' blood has on humans.
"True Blood" is adapted from a long-running series of novels by Charlaine Harris. This first season deals with the relationship between mind-reading homegirl Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and smouldering bloodsucker Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) in a world where the creation of nourishing synthetic blood--the eponymous "TruBlood"--has, quite inadvertently, enabled vampires and humans to co-exist peacefully. Showrunner Alan Ball, best-known for writing American Beauty and creating the long-running HBO series "Six Feet Under", has found and embraced a current-events hook in the material, which bluntly compares the fear and loathing of vampires with contemporary homophobia.
The point is made abundantly clear in the series opener, featuring a shot of one of those front-yard church marquees emblazoned with letters spelling out "GOD HATES FANGS." There's also a subplot depicting the private dalliances of likable gay prostitute/V dealer/short-order cook Lafayette Reynolds (a bracingly flamboyant Nelsan Ellis, stealing the show) and his politician lover, who publicly, hypocritically rails against vampire rights and homosexuals, leading Lafayette to shout at a TV screen, "You's a lyin'-ass motherfuck!" An agenda that could feel largely like an attempt at congratulating the audience on its progressive attitudes is rendered more complex by the notion that some vampires, at least, really are dangerous. Just because they can live on the ersatz stuff doesn't mean they never crave or indulge that craving for the real thing.
Various hankerings, passions, and grudge matches drive the story. The eventual fireside coupling of Sookie and Bill is the centrepiece of season one, though by the time the pilot is over we've already seen local girl Maudette Perkins (Danielle Sapia) not only get it on with Sookie's brother, the town's boyish lothario Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten), but also appear in a homemade sex tape getting taken from behind by a creepily enthusiastic, fang-baring partner. Things don't end so well for Maudette--and her murder is the first of many killings that local law enforcement is eager to pin on Jason, whose heart is pinned clearly to his sleeve throughout. He's no killer. But then who is? As you'd expect, the show's writers drop clues pointing in any number of directions, using the murder mystery to reveal social psychology and prejudices. As Jason faces prosecution for the crimes, religious weirdoes start to come out of the woodwork congratulating him for his persecution of those who would consort with vampires.
More subplots add texture and dimension over these twelve episodes. The frequently nude, exceptionally well-built Jason falls in with a sexy but ruthless girlfriend (Cloverfield's Lizzy Caplan) who brings him in as a reluctant co-conspirator in her plot to kidnap and siphon the blood from a lonely middle-aged gay vampire (Stephen Root). Worldly-wise bartender Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley) visits an exorcist to try to cure her mother's alcoholism. Some older, meaner vampires are starting to think handsome Bill is kind of a pussy. Sookie's boss Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell) proves that he truly is her best friend. And so on. Some of these hit-and-miss digressions are cheesy and more than a little silly, but they're not meant to be delivered or received with a completely straight face--and they add up to enough, over time, to distract you from the conventional romance at the heart of the story. Which is good, because romance can be an awfully thin thing when it's stretched as if the very urge to go to bed with a handsome stranger is itself an excuse for lots of smiles, winks, come-hither glances, and neurotic, introspective blah blah blah.
"True Blood"'s central romance is fine, and it probably has a lot more in common with all those paranormal Harlequins than with that aforementioned shopping-mall sensation, Twilight. Since our Sookie is telepathic, she spends her days listening to the mostly picayune, too-often-unflattering inner monologues of her customers and co-workers. When Bill ambles into the place and orders a bottle of synthetic blood, she is intrigued by the idea of--finally--being with a man whose thoughts she cannot read. The costume department has decked Paquin out for the role in a tight white T-shirt, short shorts, and what appears to be a particularly aggressive push-up bra, the effect of which is more endearing than it is sexy, exactly. Because the va-va-voom isn't coming naturally, Sookie looks instead like a young woman who's slightly uncomfortable in her own skin but not especially self-conscious about it.
Moyer plays Bill as a quiet, composed Southerner with a sad smile, a world-weary demeanour, and the suggestion of great, deep-seated anger. Like Sookie, he has good reason not to trust people, although he chooses to live among them just the same. Glowering from under his mop of hair, lips hanging open just so to reveal the pointed white fangs beneath, Moyer's gentleman vampire has a ferocious streak kept in check by an essential decency. (Intriguingly, there's often the hint of a smirk, as though Bill's about to break out into evil laughter at the punchline of some private joke.) When Bill and Sookie finally come together on screen, it's in an apparent partnership of equals--and outsiders--that seems to make both of them a little happier. I'll take that over two hours of abstinence-only sex education in the guise of pretty boys with goo-goo eyes any day. It's worth noting that several of the performances, but especially those of Paquin and Moyer, feel more nuanced appreciated as a whole than they do taken one instalment at a time.
"True Blood" is paced at an appealingly brisk clip, each episode building to a cliffhanger from which point the next episode picks up with barely a hitch. That makes it well suited for devouring on Blu-ray Disc, where the next helping of lurid sex and violence in 1080p is a mere press of the button away. The "previously on" and "next on" clip-fests that lead into and out of individual episodes are accessed separately, which can be helpful if you're trying to figure out which hour contains a specific scene. And the show is so densely plotted and peppered with references to its topsy-turvy alternate reality--it's difficult, the first time through, to spot throwaway gags like the supermarket-tabloid headline reading "Angelina Adopts Vampire Baby!"--that it holds up surprisingly well on repeated viewing.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
HBO's five-BD release of "True Blood: The Complete First Season" is shipped in a five-tray paperboard foldout tucked inside a slipcase with a soft, almost velvety finish. (Interestingly, only three of the discs are dual-layer BD-50s. (The other two are BD-25, natch.)) The show has been encoded using the AVC (MPEG-4) codec and is presented in the HD-native aspect ratio of 16:9. Although its visuals aren't as plush as you'd get from a theatrical release, "True Blood" looks exceptionally good on Blu-ray. The series is shot on 35mm film rather than the HiDef favoured by much of its pay-cable competition (including Showtime's "Dexter" and "Weeds" and HBO's own "In Treatment"). The HD broadcasts had an appealingly saturated, glossy look, but the transfers for Blu-ray really shine, bringing out the intense reds and greens and highlighting the fine, dancing grain of the source. Mild compression artifacts may be discernible in the background of especially noisy shots, but it's only just perceptible and never distracting.
Film still has greater dynamic range than HD, and though "True Blood" is generally well lit, some scenes benefit from the generous amount of shadow detail celluloid provides. On the other end of the scale, the highlights, such as sunlight streaming in through windows, are occasionally allowed to clip; unless the show's DPs were simply struggling to manage the natural light, they may have meant to suggest the intense and painful reactions vampires have to daylight. Well-lit locations like Sookie's grandmother's house have a safe, inviting quality (all the more disturbing, then, when evil trespasses on the property), while the more dimly lit Merlotte's Bar has a smokier, less secure feel. Interestingly, nighttime exteriors have a lot of light poured into them, ensuring that viewers can catch every nuance of the show's well-pitched, wryly comic performances. (It's worth noting that although the show is set in Louisiana, it's shot in California--director Michael Lehman notes the appearance of a pesky palm tree on screen in one audio commentary.)
The set's main listening option is a fairly aggressive DTS-HD MA 5.1 track that goes a long way towards establishing the show's atmosphere. Night exteriors are alive with the sounds of insects and other ambient noise in the surround channels, and Sookie's telepathic abilities are played up in a multichannel mix that places viewers momentarily inside her head. The soundtrack is also available in a French DTS 5.1 mix and in a much-reduced Spanish DTS 2.0 version. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Extras are a mixed bag. Presentation is sleek, with an "enhanced viewing" gimmick employed to spread out a full complement of supplementary material over the dozen episodes. These bonuses include phoney TV commercials for the "TruBlood" beverage in addition to a series of shorts that were originally created as viral videos to stir up interest in the show online. As you watch the series with this feature turned on, the clips join trivia, bite-size backstories on a few of the vampire characters, and an on-and-off video commentary by Lafayette himself in pop-up windows for your delectation. It's a fun way to re-watch the shows, but the density of the enhancements thins out as the season progresses, making it a long sit between goodies. What's worse, there's no way to access any of this stuff from the disc menus, meaning the only way to ensure that you see it all is to re-watch the whole season.
Combined with the time required to dig through six pedestrian commentaries, that represents an investment a lot of viewers who'd enjoy the bonus material won't be prepared to make. Probably the best yakker accompanies episode 5 and features Moyer and director Dan Minahan, who have good audio chemistry. It's nice that Paquin teams up with director Scott Winant on episode 2, but the content tends towards the conventionally precious. (Actual quote: "The most exciting thing was working with you, Anna.") Ball's track for episode 1 drops a few too many needlessly teasing hints about plot twists to come, but he makes up for it by divulging that, shooting one dialogue scene, he told Paquin that she needed to respond as if she'd just had an orgasm. The remaining tracks are by writer (and co-executive producer) Brian Buckner and directors Michael Lehman, Marcos Siega, and Nancy Oliver. They're fine, and fans should find them enjoyable, but they're hardly essential listening. The real missed opportunity is a lack of any contribution by author Harris, which would seem like a gimme. Maybe for season two? Originally published: June 8, 2009.