HBO // 2008 // 720 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // June 29th, 2009
Thou Shall Not Crave Thy Neighbour
Wait, it's another series about a special young girl who falls in love with an older male vampire? With a premise like that, a series has to bring its A-game because its staring down stiff competition from the master Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. True Blood certainly tries hard to be competitive, amping up the sex and violence in true HBO fashion, but it can't quite find its legs in these first twelve episodes. Still, fans of vamps and high-definition video will want to give this set at least one spin.
In the not-so-distant future, vampires have come out of the "coffin," thanks to the availability of TruBlood, a Japanese synthetic blood. The creatures are become more mainstream, and exhibit A in this case is the arrival of vamp Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer, Quills) in the sleepy Louisiana town of Bon Temps. There, he meets a psychic waitress named Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin, The Piano). The two strike up an unlikely relationship, even as Bon Temps is reeling from a series of murders that appear to be related to vampires.
All twelve episodes are spread across five discs on True Blood: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray):
* "Strange Love"
* "The First Taste"
* "Escape from Dragon House"
* "Sparks Fly Out"
* "Cold Ground"
* "Burning House of Love"
* "The Fourth Man on Fire"
* "Plaisir d'amour"
* "I Don't Wanna Know"
* "To Love is to Bury"
* "You'll Be the Death of Me"
The thing that really gives me hope that True Blood will come into its own are the characters. Sookie Stackhouse, a small-town waitress who can read minds, is a very compelling character. Despite her gift she stays in Bon Temps and doesn't try to profit from it (by say, going to Vegas for some Texas Hold 'Em). Her combination of innocence (she's never been intimate with a man as the series starts) and experience (she can read minds, so she has a pretty good idea what the world is like) makes for an interesting premise. Bill Compton is a similar combo, but he mixes quiet Southern gentleman with ferocious vampire, and watching those two sides play out keeps the show going.
Those two alone would probably have been enough to carry the show, but we get a whole cast of other interesting people populating Bon Temps. My total favorite Tara starts out as a total bitchy black stereotype, but as her story is gradually revealed we see that she is a woman both troubled and strong. Plus, she gets some of the best dialogue in the show. A close second is Lafayette, Tara's cousin, a short-order cook at the bar Sookie works at who is also an entrepreneur on the side, specializing in illegal merchandise. He also starts out as a stereotypical flamboyant black man, but his ambitions eventually mark him out as more. My least favorite character starting out was Sookie's brother Jason, but as the series progressed I couldn't help but be charmed by all the crazy, stupid situations he gets himself into. Finally, Sookie's boss carries a pretty big torch for her, and his steadfast support of her despite her dalliance with Bill makes him a compelling character.
All of these characters are sharply delineated with some occasionally fantastic dialogue. Although the show attempts to create a complete alternate world, it's not above camping it up. That shows clearly through some of the more morbid set pieces, but also through the dialogue. Sookie gets to hear some pretty hilarious (and offensive) monologues with her gift, Tara goes off on anyone for any reason to humorous results, and Lafayette gets to crack wise about everybody. His best line might be when a character tells him that a man barks in his sleep and he replies "Oh, damn, white folks is fucked up." A line like that could easily fall flat, but it's perfectly delivered, and none of the other actors skimp on excellent line readings.
The other thing True Blood has going for it is the universe it has created. It's just enough like ours that it resonates, but the addition of vampires makes it new and interesting. I also like that it's set in a sleepy Southern town rather than the generic urban environments that vampires often get saddled with these days. It's obvious the creators have thought this world through. We have fictional products (TruBlood), new slang (fangbanger -- one who has sex with vampires), and even a vampire rights organization. The level of detail is impressive and makes me think the series could go the distance.
Another thing that gives me hope for the show is this Blu-ray release. Rather then cramming all twelve episodes onto three discs like they could have, the producers of this set spread them out over five which gives the audiovisual presentation room to breathe. True Blood is not a slick show, so it's no surprise the video doesn't look shiny and new. However, the transfer does an excellent job of maintaining the look of the show with a decent amount of detail and strong blacks. The audio is equally strong, with audible dialogue and an impressive use of the soundscape.
Extras ported over from the standard def release include six audio commentaries with various cast and crew, as well as a "documentary" on vampires and some commercials. For Blu-ray, we get an "enhanced viewing mode" that creates an overlay on each episode that allows access to trivia, a map of Bon Temps, and some additional information about the world of True Blood.
The whole mystery aspect of this first season simply didn't grab me. If it had I would easily put this in the upper echelon of HBO series, but as it is the murders just never felt that dramatic or compelling.
In the quibble department, Bon Temps has no relation to the Louisiana I know. The accents and attitudes are all a bit iffy, and I'm not sure the geography works out either. Louisiana has enough interesting culture that I think that it should be used more effectively or not at all.
I'm also concerned about the sex and violence of the show. I'm not against it generally, but one of the great advantages of telling vampire stories is that the storyteller can cloak subversive views on sex and violence into the allegory of the vampire and its bite. Throwing all the sex and violence onto the screen turns the subtext into text and makes the whole thing infinitely less compelling as a vampire story. In fact, I'm almost willing to argue that this would be a stronger story without all the vampire trappings.
Although it's not a stone-classic like other HBO series, True Blood is compelling enough to warrant a viewing for any fans of violence and vampires. The strong audiovisual presentation and interesting extras of this Blu-ray set make it easy to recommend.
The court is not entirely convinced of its charms, but True Blood is not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2009 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 720 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Spoof Commercials
* Enhanced Viewing Mode