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"She's Not There," "You Smell Like Dinner," "If You Love Me, Why Am I Dyin'?," "I'm Alive and on Fire," "Me & the Devil," "I Wish I Was the Moon," "Cold Grey Light of Dawn," "Spellbound," "Let's Get Out of Here," "Burning Down the House," "Soul of Fire," "And When I Die"
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. To recap: "True Blood"'s third season ended with Vampire Bill (Stephen Moyer) and his queen (Evan Rachel Wood) revealing a heretofore-unseen ability to defy gravity as they prepared to duel to the death; Hoyt (Jim Parrack) and Jessica (the staggeringly beautiful Deborah Ann Woll) receiving a creepy housewarming present (unseen by them) in the form of a moldy doll; Tara (Rutina Wesley) departing Bon Temps for anywhere less likely to be a hub of supernatural activity; and a newly liberated Sookie (Anna Paquin) disinviting Bill and Eric (Alexander Skarsgård) from her home before vanishing in a ball of light with her literal fairy godmother.
Half-human/half-"fae," the telepathic Sookie has evidently been transported to the fairy dimension, here imagined as the relaxation grotto at a gay spa. (The connotations would be galling if the showrunner were straight. Instead, the setting elicits an eyeroll over the creators' California insularity.) Sookie encounters her grandfather Earl, played by Gary Cole, who's always welcome but feels uniquely out of place in the "True Blood"-verse. He's too blue-collar or something. No matter: Earl soon perishes a second time after helping Sookie escape through a portal back to humanity. Oddly, none of this comes up when Sookie is briefly reunited with her deceased grandmother (Lois Smith) at the end of the season, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Sookie soon learns that she was gone for a whole year even though it felt like minutes to her, allowing the show, for the first time, to exploit the lengthy hiatus between seasons, "Mad Men"-style, via some offscreen progression of narrative.1 And it briefly results in a fun game of catch-up, with Bill referred to as the new vampire king of Louisiana and Eric able to enter Sookie's house without repercussions.
Alas, the narrative has not progressed enough--too many things are happening for the first time the night of Sookie's return, starting with Jesus (Kevin Alejandro) inviting boyfriend Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) to join a coven that gathers in the increasingly spacious back room of a "Buffy"-ish magic shop.2 (Seriously, by the end they could host the San Diego Comic-Con in there.) It's clear from parsing retconny-feeling dialogue later on that Jesus is BFFs with coven leader Marnie (the great Fiona Shaw), the store's proprietor, but he and Lafayette are obviously joined at the hip now, so why has Lafayette never heard of Marnie before? And why did the white-trash were-panthers--that most non-starter of "True Blood"'s various "supers"3--hold off on trying to turn Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten) into one of them (for breeding purposes) for twelve months? These are rhetorical questions, of course, the answers to which are either "It's 'True Blood', stupid," or, "It's stupid 'True Blood'."
Speaking of retconning: The televisual "grammar" of Season Three implied that said doll was an ominous gift from Summer, Jessica's human rival for Hoyt's affections. I suspect the show's good sense to cast charming, buxom Melissa Rauch as Summer was also its bad fortune, as Rauch's ever-expanding role on "The Big Bang Theory" likely prohibited her return. Thus, the doll arduously finds its way to odd couple Terry (Todd Lowe) and Arlene (Carrie Preston), where it can be put to use exacerbating Arlene's fears that her new baby is the reincarnation of her serial-killer husband, Season One BigBad Rene. "True Blood" has the glossy production values and copious nudity--only morons say gratuitous--HBO subscribers have come to expect, but to say it lacks the structural finesse that characterizes the network's flagship dramas would be a charitable understatement. Even creator Alan Ball's notoriously problematic (but cumulatively devastating) "Six Feet Under" navigated its myriad false starts with more grace. Really, any blind alleys--whither Andy Belleflour's sister?--are extra embarrassing for "True Blood", considering it's a program with the rare advantage of being based on a book or several books by Charlaine Harris. (Unlike the similarly pulpy "Dexter", it didn't part ways from the source material after Season One.)
Harris--or rather her name--actually makes a cameo in one of the more vexing moments of Season Four, as Sookie Stackhouse unwinds with a Sookie Stackhouse novel. While I'm sure it elicited a squee of recognition heard 'round the world, as in-jokes go, it's truly infantile...and hardly a joke. Call it self-reflexive or post-modern or meta if you must make excuses for it, but, four seasons into a series that had never previously demonstrated any interest in breaking the fourth wall (despite bordering on self-parody more often than not), it's a little late to be setting that precedent.
What the show is interested in, I gather, is social commentary, which is more garbled than ever as the addition of witches to the ballooning rogues' gallery causes metaphors to mix and curdle. After Marnie successfully brings her late parrot back to life, Bill sends Eric to bully her into discontinuing these experiments in necromancy, for the power to raise the dead could conceivably inspire her to take control of vampires, who are technically not alive. The plan backfires when Marnie fortuitously channels the spirit of Antonia Gavilán de Logroño (former Miss Colombia Paola Turbay), a witch repeatedly violated by a vampire priest during the Spanish Inquisition. She got her vengeance on the stake by summoning all the surrounding vampires into the sunlight to burn right along with her. This development is frustrating for a few reasons, chief among them that Shaw is in the midst of giving a complex, captivating performance, all of halting delivery and spinster pathos, when suddenly she's forced to switch gears and do a moth-eaten Maria Ouspenskaya routine. I also can't help but be annoyed that a 15th-century Latin American woman speaks present-day English without skipping a beat, though the show offers some guff about the spirit absorbing the traits of the host body, perhaps to pre-empt this very criticism.
Moreover, real ambivalence takes hold in the matter of historical witches vs. vampires, here serving as avatars of patriarchal oppression. In other words, it's women vs. the power elite, but your moral instincts are challenged, if not short-circuited, by an allegiance to the series' vampire heroes, who are of course simultaneously coded as gay, with those "God Hates Fangs" signs from the first year resurfacing with a vengeance in Season Four. Truthfully, I've always had difficulty reconciling the alleged parallels between "True Blood"'s vampires and the gay experience. Maybe I'm naïve, but it seems insensitive to me to equate bloodthirsty, nocturnal monsters with homosexuals. Even if we see the show's core premise of vampires merging with polite society (made possible by the titular synthetic blood drink) as merely symbolic of the mainstreaming of gay culture, there's a big difference in the fear this engenders on the show--which is perfectly valid, because...vampires--and in real life, as homophobia is always ultimately irrational.
Still, when Jessica tells Jason that she would never want to go back to being human--she was brought up in an ultra-strict Christian household--despite the complications of vampirehood, I can't deny hearing strong echoes of a friend who recently came out of the closet at the age of 40. His world's a whole lot crazier now (and, like Jessica, his transition to a new lifestyle somewhat entailed a second adolescence), but he's happier than I've ever seen him. And while Vampire Jessica was made not born, the series sensitively suggests that she and the other vamps we meet were vampires all along, waiting for their moment, whether they knew it consciously or not.
Indeed, I would argue that Jessica is the viewer's best surrogate, in that the vampires on this show are the true mortals (humans are never in legitimate peril so long as there's "V juice" around to revive them4) and the heroine proper is pure harlequin nonsense: a humble waitress with so much alleged charisma that she's constantly fighting off broody suitors. Paquin gets a lifetime pass from me for her searing work in Margaret, and one of the best reasons to watch "True Blood" is the 50/50 chance she'll show her exquisite breasts, but there's a pluck to Sookie Stackhouse that Paquin renders with unrelenting shrillness, like a singer who just can't hit a certain note. Never losing her compulsion to cover her mouth in embarrassment when her fangs pop out in public, Jessica makes the extraordinary relatable, and Ball is canny enough to put her and her alone in jeopardy in the season's centrepiece episode, "Spellbound" (4.8), which ends on the stress-inducing tableau of Jessica flooding herself with impossibly bright daylight. Jessica is so much the breakout character that she starts the season as Hoyt's girlfriend and ends it as Jason's: Politically, you couldn't have her continue to date a guy played by a sixteenth-billed cast member. TV's a lot like life in that way.
Oddly, the arc of this season is pretty much identical to that of Season Three. Sookie again becomes the rope in a tug of war between Bill and Eric (made temporarily worthy of self-righteous Sookie by amnesia that leaves him almost childlike) before once more deciding she wants neither. The difference, I suppose, is that she reaches this decision organically as opposed to making it in anger. And Russell Edgington (Denis O'Hare is unseen but felt) ends the season miraculously escaped from the cement grave he was buried in at the end of the last one, so what was the point of that? I have to admit, it almost wouldn't be summer without "True Blood"; the series' combination of sin, sweat, and ultimate lightness of tone really hits the spot on a sweltering Sunday evening. But it's all beginning to feel too much like a merry-go-round.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Shot on film--in Super35, to be precise--in a digital world, "True Blood" still looks amazing on Blu-ray Disc, in a 1.78:1, 1080p presentation with bold contrasts, vibrant colours, and crisp detail. Not even an uncompromised HD broadcast compares, partly because there's a handsome sheen of grain, sometimes artificially heightened (during flashbacks, mostly), that gets funnelled out of the televised image, if not reduced to noise. Hints of black crush disappoint, however, and shadow detail might overall be slightly below par. The attendant lossless audio (5.1 DTS-HD MA) roars to life thanks to an aggressively loud base volume, immediately drawing our attention to a mix that is for the medium uncommonly layered, from the complex vampire-disintegration effects to the voices inside Sookie's head (conveyed through a five-channel onslaught that feels appropriately intrusive). And no matter how sonorous it is to start with, it's hard to resist cranking up Jace Everett's devil's-music theme song, "Bad Things," which responds gratifyingly well to the amplification.
The supplemental package is characteristically overstuffed and haphazard. Commentaries grace six of the twelve episodes, starting with 4.2, "You Smell Like Dinner," on which co-executive producer/writer Brian Buckner joins Woll and Aussie-accented Moyer, who, were he not identified by name, would be impossible to peg as the stentorian Bill. They begin by dolloping praise on a guest star neither actor has a scene with, Chronicle's Dane DeHaan, and end by similarly extolling the work of Fiona Shaw. In between, they settle into a groove of discussing "True Blood"'s appeal from within and without, including how Woll's own mother is an avid fan of the series. (That may explain why Jessica always fails to go the fully monty in her sex scenes.) It's an inessential but utterly pleasant listen. Paired with Ball on the subsequent episode, "If You Love Me, Why Am I Dyin'?" (4.3), Moyer's real-life wife Paquin self-deprecatingly cracks that a cold night shoot marked the first time she was wearing more clothes than a scene partner, while Ball waxes rhapsodic about title designers Digital Kitchen, as he used to on the "Six Feet Under" DVDs. Ball says, "I like how Sookie's become a badass!" but Paquin demurs, and you can tell these were recorded a while ago, because Ball uses the Michelle Bachmann NEWSWEEK cover as a point of reference for Marnie's crazy eyes. Again Dane DeHaan is singled out, his name alone eliciting a dreamy gasp from Paquin, much like mine would.
Since we've heard from the real-life Bill and Sookie, it follows that Eric would be next. Sure enough, Alexander Skarsgård teams up with his director Michael Lehmann on "I'm Alive and on Fire" (4.4), the episode where Eric, temporarily impervious to the sun, goes swimming during the day. Skarsgård cops to art imitating life in such scenes, in that daytime exteriors are a gift to the show's vampire regulars. Unfortunately, there's a lot of dead air in this one. As producers are wont to do, Raelle Tucker and Gregg Fienberg spend "I Wish I Was the Moon" (4.6) focusing on pseudocreative tasks like the challenge of staging a vampire mano-a-mano without breaking any of the priceless set dressing, and director Romeo Tirone and a laryngitis-afflicted Sam Trammell bluff their way through 4.9, "Let's Get Out of Here." The takeaway on the latter is that Trammell is a New Orleans native and therefore maybe the most authentic thing about the bayou drag revue that is "True Blood". Lastly, a track for "Burning Down the House" (4.10) reunites Shaw with director Lesli Linka Glatter and husky-voiced co-executive producer/writer Nancy Oliver, who dominates and is transparently invested in the characters, to the point of blurring the fan/author divide.
Each episode includes an "Enhanced Viewing Mode" that organizes its stream of content into three distinct categories: "Character Perspectives," "Flashback/Flash Forward," and "Histories/Bios/Hints/FYIs." A brief sampling of this feature confirmed my every suspicion that it's ideally suited to the unabashed fanboy/girl or the terminally young. More conventional makings-of take the form of a dozen discrete "Inside the Episode" featurettes (HD) running 4-5 minutes apiece (for a 56-minute total), wherein show helmers like Jeremy Podeswa encapsulate narrative developments and production challenges specific to the episode in question. If you don't have time for the commentaries (and in some cases, even if you do), this is the way to go.
The fifth and final disc closes out the package with "'True Blood': Final Touches" (28 mins., HD), an invaluable roundtable between Ball, colorist Scott Klein, music supervisor Gary Calamar, editor Louise Innes, postproduction producer Bruce Dunn, composer Nathan Barr, VFX supervisor Jon Massey, sound designer John Benson, and executive producer Gregg Fienberg that, as you probably gleaned, deals exclusively with matters of post-production, which tend to be glossed over in behind-the-scenes documentaries for their lack of glamour and drama. Some of the subjects--Barr, for instance--are patently camera-shy, but all contribute something of value to the conversation, and Ball's sardonic manner keeps things casual. The participants wistfully recall opportunities to use practical effects and home in on the hastily-bluescreened Fairy Land as a source of aggravation. Lastly, "'True Blood' Lines" offers an interactive glossary of the series' various factions--Human, Vampire, Shapeshifter, Werewolf, Witch, Werepanther, Faerie, and miscellaneous--complete with text-based character biographies. Spoilery for the newbie and fairly pointless for the veteran, it has no discernible utility apart from conveniently putting names to faces. Bundled with the BDs is a cardboard sleeve containing the full season on two DVDs, as well as instructions for accessing Digital Copies of these episodes.
1. I'd like to believe that the title of this season's premiere, "She's Not There," obliquely refers to a movie about another girl gone AWOL, Otto Preminger's terrific Bunny Lake is Missing, in which The Zombies perform the eponymous song. return
2. "Buffy" fans may likewise be overcome by déjà vu during Sookie and Eric's marathon sex session in "Spellbound," which brings to mind Buffy and Riley diddling while Sunnydale burns in "Where the Wild Things Are." return
4. That's why this season's grimly-pitched cliffhanger of Tara taking a bullet to the head doesn't have me on pins and needles, irrespective of the fact that I can't stand her. return