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S2: "Nothing But the Blood," "Keep This Party Going," "Scratches," "Shake and Fingerpop," "Never Let Me Go," "Hard-Hearted Hannah," "Release Me," "Timebomb," "I Will Rise Up," "New World in My View," "Frenzy," "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'"
S3: "Bad Blood," "Beautifully Broken," "It Hurts Me Too," "9 Crimes," "Trouble," "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues," "Hitting the Ground," "Night on the Sun," "Everything Is Broken," "I Smell a Rat," "Fresh Blood," "Evil Is Going On"
by Walter Chaw "True Blood" is pulp crap. Yet as Bryant and Bill have already so eloquently pointed out, it's highly-addictive pulp crap--the sort of shallow, handsomely-mounted titillation that fosters the craze that sprung up around prime-time soaps like "Dynasty" and "Falcon Crest". White-collar smut that traffics in the currency of the age: once upon a time it was the super-rich, now it's the supernatural. Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme. It's certainly soapier than showrunner/creator Alan Ball's previous pay-cable drama, "Six Feet Under", but to its credit what "True Blood" does in returning sexuality--and gore, and (southern) Gothic trappings--to the vampire mythos, it does well. The shame of it is that it seems to be ashamed of itself and so continually strives for relevance in aligning the plight of its vampire underclass to gay rights. Bill said it first, but is the appropriate supernatural analogue to gays really vampires? Is it wise to suggest that gays present that same kind of sexual allure? The same kind of blood contagion? Doesn't that play into the Conservative storyline a bit too neatly? At least it's not "The Walking Dead".
Season Two picks up exactly where the first season left off, with telepathic Sookie (Anna Paquin) and her vampire boyfriend Bill (Paquin's real-life husband, Stephen Moyer) holding court in a tiny Louisiana burg that appears to be a saltlick for supernatural beings. For the uninitiated, "True Blood" takes place in a world where vampires are attempting to assimilate with human society following the Japanese invention of synthetic blood. There are growing pains, as you might imagine, church marquees displaying "God Hates Fangs" in accordance with Christ's message of love and acceptance. It's the easiest way to attack popular Christianity, of course, to take the dumbest and most bellicose of them and make sport the way we do when we allow Muslim terrorists to speak for their religion, and so the first major story arc of this second season has to do with Sookie's idiot brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten) getting sucked up into a pop-Christian cult. The vampire's Senator Kelly is Rev. Steve (Michael McMillian), who with his wife Sarah (Anna Camp) runs the Fellowship of the Sun, an organization waging an active campaign against the vampires Steve blames for the death of his father. The second major plotline has to do with maenad Maryann (Michelle Forbes), who likes to start orgies and knows the secret shapeshifter identity of bar owner Sam (Sam Trammell). There's also the return of flamboyant barman Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) and, at the end, the introduction of Sophie-Anne LeClerq (Evan Rachel Wood), the Vampire Queen of Louisiana. Typecasting: ain't it a bitch?
Episodic, serialized television, "True Blood" has rises and falls in action that often end in mini-cliffhangers to be paid off in subsequent instalments. It's like eating an Eskimo Pie with the knowledge that there are a dozen more waiting quietly in the freezer after this one's over. The show has a sense of humour, but it's broad and awkward more often than not, and if you were to run a clicker on it, you'd find there are probably a grand total of one or two chuckles a year. When Sam discovers that the new bimbo waitress he's hired (Ashley Jones) is a shapeshifter, too, what's most disappointing is that the show ignores the opportunity to have the two of them fuck while badgers or what have you. It misses the chance to show them in mid-transformation, as chimeras, as mythical beasts. The show lacks imagination, frankly, struggling against genre definition and wanting, I think, to be characterized by moments like Lafayette bitchslapping his cousin Tara's (Rutina Wesley) new boyfriend Eggs (Mehcad Brooks) for hitting her. It's a good scene, don't get me wrong, but there are vampires and were-panthers and maenads and shit amuck. "True Blood" takes the easy way out and does so constantly: It makes fun of fat racist redneck fucktards as if they weren't fish in a bucket; and it makes fun of popular Christianity as though there were sport in that as well. It's essentially an Ayn Rand series if Ayn Rand were a hippie instead of a Nazi. Why not existential problems? Why not social analysis that's not predicated on the same broad classist and racial stereotypes it seeks to excoriate? It's awesomely boring in no time, which is why the machine-timed appearance of tits makes more and more sense as the series progresses.
Season Two is really all about cult-busting and interventions. Tara needs to be rescued, bodily, from Maryann and Jason needs to rescue himself from the evangelicals. One has fallen in with a Bacchanalian swinger's organization, the other with Born Agains. There are character revelations galore, including the creation story for Nordic Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) and the introduction of a few Anne Rice-ian elder-Vamps, but by the end, a series of unfortunate events--such as dumb Jason and his ridiculous detective sidekick Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer) doing a Dread Pirate Roberts shtick--culminates in a pagan wedding ceremony that misses so many opportunities to be actually pagan that it's painful. (Why is the string quartet playing Brahams instead of Stravinsky, for instance?) Make it frightening, make it alien; as it is, it's no scarier than a TLC show about Big Fat Druids. The lasting legacy of "True Blood" is that it's middlebrow affirmation of middlebrow tastes. It doesn't aspire to be more than softcore and situational, sometimes slapstick, comedy. It's written broadly, gracelessly, and it treats its intrigues with as little concern as it has for its interpersonal relationships. I have nothing invested in the show; it's hard to imagine how someone could. Maybe that's its ultimate appeal. Oh, by the way, in the last episode Bill gets kidnapped right after he proposes to Sookie.
Season Three pairs Sookie with, yeah, a werewolf, Alcide (Joe Manganiello), to figure out what happened to Bill, while Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) goes through the troubles of being 17 and immortal without her "father." Truth be told, Season 3 works a lot better than the first two because it doesn't seem to give a shit anymore. The closest analogue is probably the later years of "Dark Shadows", which went off the rails regularly with time travel, parallel universes, shark jumping, etc. The weariness with which the series introduces werewolves, for instance, with dimwit Jason saying "Bigfoot? Is he real, too? Santa?," suggests a tickle of self-awareness and indeed a self-aware sense of humour. All of a sudden, its cult status guaranteed, its camp curiosity likewise a certainty, "True Blood" blossoms into the community-theatre Tennessee Williams production it'd been threatening to turn into all along. It's not good, mind, but now it's occasionally uproarious. A friend of mine once coined a term, "hilarible," that works well here: one part "hilarious," one part "terrible." "True Blood" is hilarible. Never more so than when Sam discovers his hillbilly birth family and the existence of bratty little brother Tommy (Marshall Allman), who Sam comes to suspect is being pimped out for dog fights. Meanwhile, Jason and Hoyt (Jim Parrack), Jessica's sweet human boyfriend from last season, develop a sort of "Friday Night Lights" jokey 'neck romance whereby we can laugh at their hijinks and coo at their adorableness. I also like the moment where shrill Tara tells her shrill buddy Sookie, "I knows you means well, you always do!" because it makes me think how much better this show might be with Amy Poehler playing Sookie.
Half-assed in terms of narrative, with entire episodes going by with nothing happening in a reasonable period for them to happen (Sookie appears to lose interest in tracking down her lost beau for days of series-time), the third season's pleasures lie entirely in moments like a flashback to Bill, back from the war, visiting his dead son lying in state, the boy-corpse covered in pox. It's excessive. And it's a lot like the hands of dead Baron Von Frankenstein refusing to let go of his book. I love it when, without a second thought, Bill sets his evil maker Lorena (Mariana Klaveno) on fire--whoopsie!--before redefining the term "hate fuck" in another one of those hilarible sequences of massive over-indulgence. At its best, "True Blood" is excess. Then there's the moment where Sheriff Bud (William Sanderson) up and quits at a crime scene. It's pretty awesome. But of the season's twelve hours, it's safe to say that a good half is narrative filler. Bill rejects Sookie for her own good, we hope (grasping our powdered hankies to our ascots), thus leaving the door open for Eric to ply his charms. Meanwhile, mysterious Franklin Mott (James Frain) provides Tara with her very own demon lover. So much delicious intrigue, am I right? Mixed up with so much threat of bestiality, necrophilia, dismemberment, decapitation; and through it all, I still managed to completely lose interest. It's a bad date with a hot partner: you wish it would end already, but hell I guess I'm not doing anything else right now. Did I mention that Rutina Wesley is good at trembling her lower lip? She does it in sex scenes and torture scenes and grief scenes.
Sookie is decidedly a secondary character for the early part of season, to the show's credit. Unfortunately, her void is filled with a lot of politesse around the table as Bill is courted by the King of Mississippi, Russell (Denis O'Hare), to be Sheriff of the Second Ward or somefuck. As soon as "True Blood" establishes itself as essentially silly, in other words, it becomes a medieval BBC chamber drama for a spell. Eventually, though, Ball and company find their rhythm again and start blowing vampires up in geysers of blood and viscera. It's excessive, reminding me in the best possible way of stuff like Ernest Dickerson's Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight--a film that will never be mistaken for great, but hell yes is it a great film. "True Blood" also wallows in Nazi werewolf lore (Holocaust flashbacks never looked so Ilsa), in leather freaks and sado-masochism, and unfortunately in a subplot for Jason involving crazy bitch Crystal (Lindsay Pulsipher) that's as uneventful and self-serving as all the other subplots involving Jason. I'll say this, however, that I was genuinely affected a time or two by Lafayette's budding romance with dashing day-nurse Jesus (Kevin Alejandro). And I loved a shower sex scene where Hitchcock's bloodlust is literalized in a clever reversal. By the time all is revealed about how Sookie is half-fairy and stuff, how television and politics are going to be the next things "True Blood" takes shaky aim at to soothe its self-loathing, it becomes clear that while the show is occasionally diverting, it'll never be "Deadwood" or "The Sopranos" or "Big Love" or "Six Feet Under". Hell, even though it's better than anything Showtime ever dreamt of in its wildest red-headed stepchild dreams, that's more an indictment of Showtime than an endorsement of "True Blood". Its pacing is awful, the show-running is slipshod; it steals moments from sources as dishonourable as "The Jeffersons" when a vampire-phobe is saved by vampire blood and resents it (remember that episode where George donates blood to save a bigot and the...oh, never mind)--not because it's being meta, but because it isn't terribly smart. "True Blood" is good counter-programming for the cult of Twilight, it's true, but then so is getting a boyfriend and your GED. Well, anyway, tits.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
"True Blood", shot on 35mm, looks absolutely fantastic in HBO's 1.78:1, 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray presentation. Especially important for a southern-fried gothic, the blood is a silky red and the nights are deep and dark but never dim. It's pitch out there and the show's night scenes (they're mostly night scenes or interiors, for obvious reasons) have remarkable dynamic range. Filmic grain boasts a nice, steely sheen, detail is tactile down to the fibre counts on the Queen of Louisiana's sling-back divans, and our sexy stars' abs are almost three-dimensionally defined. Also, tits. The high-quality image, sustained between seasons, is matched by peerless 5.1 DTS-HD MA tracks that are completely enveloping, spreading information across the soundstage with logic and meat. Frankly, watching it on my system, I'm hard-pressed to distinguish the insect noises coming from my backyard from the environmental ambience of the soundtrack. As with any project that HBO throws its weight behind, "True Blood"'s production values are above reproach. I'm impressed.
Every season of "True Blood" on Blu-ray contains a nice PIP function that decorates a dozen or so moments in each episode with popups of trivia, interviews with various cast and crew, and even some mythological details to round out an appreciation of things like maenads and werewolves. Embedded flashbacks allow one to remember back to yesterday when you were marathoning the last season to get into the middle of this one, while flash-forwards pull together ancillary character arcs and such. Unfortunately, and this seems the case with both sets, the material for the PIPs wanes and their occurrences grow farther between.
Season Two sports seven commentaries. Episode 2.2 has director Michael Lehmann and Nelsan "Lafayette" Ellis talking for a while about nothing related to Heathers, so I'm not much interested. Lehmann does the technical trainspotting and Ellis largely narrates the action. It's inoffensive as these things go, and, taken with the PIP option, it could probably prove diverting to diehards. Director Michael Ruscio and writer Raelle Tucker tag-team for 2.7, "Release Me," and sort of talk around the orgy scene in the way people usually talk around orgy scenes, I find. This one's dry as a soda cracker. Moyer and Skarsgard are paired with director John Dahl for "Timebomb" (2.8) and don't bring up either Nicolas Cage or Linda Fiorentino, who Dahl directed back when they were the Next Big Things in Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, respectively. The three have a nice, collegial familiarity with one another and spend a good part of the time laughing. If Moyer hadn't introduced himself, by the way, I would've had no idea it was him...mate. Ryan Kwanten and Sam Trammell contribute a more obsequious, actor-ly track for episode 10, the one after Eric loses his "father" to sunlight. Why is it, by the way, that when the good ones die it's less gross than when the bad ones do? Meh, don't answer that. Next, Alan Ball makes his debut in the specials alongside director Daniel Minahan and actor Rutina Wesley, who if I never see in distress again will be too soon. Not because I have any particular empathy for her, mind, but because she's an irritating victim. She tones it down for the "Frenzy" (2.11) yakker, in which Ball takes centre stage and delivers a series overview. The commentary, as commentaries go, is fairly non-specific. The season finale, "Beyond Here Lies Nothin," is the pinnacle of overkill as it features two, yes two, commentaries. The first with Michelle Forbes and Paquin (which is fun and warm), the second with director Michael Cuesta and writer Alexander Woo (which is more technical). A combination of the two would have been ideal. As it is, even if I liked this show, I wouldn't wish listening to 8 hours of commentaries on anyone.
Jumping to disc 5, find 122 minutes' worth of "Character Perspectives," outfitted with in-character exercises you can experience in nugget form in the preceding four discs' PIP options. "Fellowship of the Sun: Reflections of Light" (12 mins., HD) offers more broadsides at televangelism because televangelism isn't already parodying itself constantly as it creates itself. Savvy? "The Vampire Report: Special Edition" (24 mins., HD) assembles in one place all those 24-hr. news reports running in the background throughout the season. Why? Oh God, why?
It's a question I asked often as I found myself forced into another kajillion hours of "True Blood" supplementals for Season Three. The PIP option returns in identical form and, true to form again, it seems like the gaps between segments only widens as the season wears on. (At least with this "Complete Third Season" you have the option of skipping forward to the next PIP feature, which is handy.) Six commentaries this time around, starting with Skarsgard and director Scott Winant on 3.2, "Beautifully Broken." Time here to mention how much I like Skarsgard as a physical presence and an actor: his line deliveries always feel spot-on to me, no matter how ludicrous, and I like the way he handles the essential silliness of the show with arctic calm. He never goes full zombie like Moyer tends to, and never shatters glass like Paquin. Well-played, Skarsgard; I hope you get more and better work. The commentary is the typical thing with long silences. Episode 3.2, "It Hurts Me Too," pairs Lehmann with writer Woo and by now they seem weary of the whole process. They goad each others' memories of the shoot, speculate on the characters' futures, and don't even have the good manners to talk about getting Ed Begley Jr. to wear antennae in Meet the Applegates. "9 Crimes" (3.4)--the third-season episode that took me, like, three tries to get through--sees MILF-y Kristn Bauer Van Straten (Eric the vampire's progeny) and director David Petrarca spending a lot of time saying how great everyone is at their jobs. Then Ball returns for 3.6, "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues," with actor O'Hare. This one's, again, animated and informative. Ball comes across as smart, scattered, and energetic, which is sort of not a terrible description of the stupid, scattered, and sometimes-not-somnambulant "True Blood". Maybe it isn't. Paquin, actor Manganiello, and writer Brian Buckner join forces for 3.7, "Hitting the Ground," which provides a moment of real delight at Paquin's reaction to the fountain of blood evil Lorena vomits up when she receives her comeuppance at last. Finally, season cliffhanger "Evil is Going On" is attended to by Moyer and helmer Anthony Hemingway (no relation), who, surprising no one really at this point, take their jobs pretty seriously and add almost nothing to the conversation. Again, who's listening to these?
"Post-Mortem" shorts (22 mins. in toto, HD) deploy dreaded faux-documentary pieces and essentially figure out a way to package all the errata produced for a successful series with an expensive subscription. Again, I guess if you're a fan this stuff is gold, but I could never lay eyes on another fake newscast or a fake televangelical rant and be happy. Ball appears after the finale to titter excitedly about all the new things he's going to do in Season 4 but, not to give anything away, Bill has already nailed that the arc of the succeeding year is essentially a redux of the arc of this one...with fairy-land. "Character Perspectives" (153 soul-deadening minutes, HD) negates the necessity of PIPs; "Anatomy of a Scene: Episode 2" (11 mins., HD) dissects a werewolf attack and reveals that monkeys could do this (exhibit A: Catherine Hardwicke); "True Blood Lines" is an interactive feature that allows one to trace the relationships in the Falconiest "Falcon Crest" ever; and "Previews and Recaps" allows those who've sanely nodded off to avoid rewatching entire hours to catch up. Snoop Dogg, inexplicably, contributes a music video for his "Oh Sookie." This one's from the heart, guys: "sigh." In all this additional material, all of it, just once what I would have liked to hear is a serious conversation about the sociology of this stuff--about why the Gothic has suddenly erupted again. I would liked to have had a feeling, too, somewhere along the line, that "True Blood" was headed for an emotional holocaust à la Ball's "Six Feet Under". I don't get that feeling at all.