HBO // 2008 // 720 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski (Retired) // May 27th, 2009
"Before the night is through, I wanna do bad things with you..."
Following it's default plan of scrupulously avoiding lawyer/doctor/cop shows, HBO took its first major step into the realm of the supernatural when it aired this first season of True Blood in 2008. Hoping Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball would bring them another hit, they had him helm this quirky vampire project based on a popular series of novels by Charlaine Harris. His adaptation blends horror, romance, mystery, and a bit of humor in a way that will feel somewhat familiar for fans of previous serial vampire narratives like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the more recent Twilight, but two elements set this series apart, for better or worse. First, the story's central premise is that vampires have collectively decided to reveal their presence to the world and live socially amongst humans, following the creation of a synthetic blood substitute, "Tru Blood," that allows them to survive without feeding on the living. Second, Ball amps up the eroticism that seems to simmer through all vampire tales, packing the season with the kind of graphic sex scenes he could only get away with on premium cable.
Genre fans should enjoy this inventive spin on the classic (vamp) boy meets (human) girl scenario, and Ball's followers will also find some pleasing strengths this series shares with Six Feet Under, despite wildly different subject matter. But the intensity of sex and violence means True Blood: The Complete First Season is not for the faint of heart. Though the two stories share many of the same plot points, those teenage girls who swoon over Edward and Bella's kisses in Twilight might actually pass out if they stumbled upon these DVDs...
***Spoiler Alert!*** I'll be reviewing the full season, and hence discussing plot points throughout.
In the backwoods Louisiana town of Bon Temps, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin, X-Men) leads a pretty quiet life, apart from being able to hear people's thoughts. She lives in a big country house with her kindly grandmother Adele (Lois Smith, Five Easy Pieces), hangs out with her brash best friend Tara (Rutina Wesley, Numb3ers), and tries not to hear the thoughts of her dimwitted, lothario brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten, Flicka). She also waits tables at the local restaurant/bar, Merlotte's, owned by neighborhood nice guy Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell, Judging Amy), who employs neighborhood sassy queen Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis, The Soloist) as his cook.
When Sookie meets her first vampire, the mysterious Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer, The Starter Wife), during a shift at Merlotte's, her whole world changes. Feeling an instant connection with Bill, she soon gets swept up in all the excitement, danger, and even politics of dating the town's vampire resident. Meanwhile, a mystery unravels as someone in Bon Temps is murdering "fangbangers" -- people who have sex with vampires. Hesitant to leave the investigation in the hands of local police Bud Dearborne (William Sanderson, Deadwood) and Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer, The Wire), Sookie herself starts to follow the clues.
True Blood: The Complete First Season includes all 12 episodes on five discs, with the non-commentary extras on the fifth disc:
* "Strange Love" (with commentary by Ball)
Bill and Sookie meet at Merlotte's and Bill gets himself into trouble with the locals right away. Jason, too, is in trouble when a woman he'd been having sex with is found murdered.
Sookie: "Oh my God! I think Merlotte's just got its first vampire...I've been waiting for this to happen since they came out of the coffin two years ago."
* "The First Taste" (with commentary by Paquin and director Scott
After helping Sookie escape a violent attack, Bill shares conversation (and blood) with her. His interest peaked, he pays her a visit at Gran's, made awkward by the judgmental presence of Tara and Jason.
Bill: "May I ask you a personal question?"
Sookie: "Bill, you were just licking blood off my head. I don't think it gets more personal than that."
Sookie accidentally crashes a very scary vampire get-together at Bill's and meets some of his "friends." Elsewhere, sex is on the everyone's agenda as Jason has trouble getting it up and Tara seeks some action in an unexpected place.
Malcolm to Bill: "Honey, if we can't kill people, what's the point of bein' a vampire?"
* "Escape from Dragon House" (with commentary by director Michael
Lehmann and writer Brian Buckner)
Another of Jason's sexual partners turns up dead, but he's got even bigger problems: namely, an out-of-control erection caused by an overdose of hallucinogenic "v-juice," vampire blood. Blissfully unaware of her brother's penile problems, Sookie takes a trip to a local vampire bar, Fangtasia, with Bill.
Jason: "Were you listenin' to me? I've got gout of the dick!"
* "Sparks Fly Out" (with commentary by Moyer and director Dan Minahan)
Sookie and Bill are on the outs after their trip to Fangtasia, but Gran has convinced Bill to give a speech to her Civil War remembrance group -- since he actually remembers it. Also, Lafayette shows Jason how to properly enjoy v-juice.
Arlene, another waitress: "Vamp club not all it was made out to be, huh? Lot of freaks, I hear -- and a lot of people from Arkansas."
* "Cold Ground"
Alan Ball temporarily forgets he's no longer making Six Feet Under, filling the bulk of this episode with Gran's funeral.
Tara to Sookie: "Stop bein' so damned appropriate. This is not an appropriate event."
* "Burning House of Love" (with commentary by director Marcos
Sookie loses her virginity to Bill, but then seems to lose Bill to a daylight fire set at a vamp house by local troublemakers. Tara grudgingly accompanies her alcoholic mother to get an exorcism.
Arlene: "Sookie has been with that vampire...Oh my lord, suppose she gets pregnant! How in the world can she nurse a baby with fangs?!?"
* "The Fourth Man in the Fire"
Elated that Bill hasn't been killed, Sookie is less thrilled when he asks her to do a favor for his vampire superior, Eric, at Fangtasia. Desperate for more v-juice, Jason and his new girlfriend Amy follow Lafayette to his source: a shy, schluppy vampire named Eddie.
Eddie to Lafayette: "I always look forward to Monday nights. First Heroes, then you."
* "Plaisir d'amour"
When Fangtasia's vampire bartender attacks Sookie, Bill strikes back and splatters his guts all over the scene. Tara pursues her own exorcism, and Jason bonds with Eddie, his vampire prisoner / all-you-can-drink v-juice buffet.
Pam to Sookie: "There's vampire in your cleavage."
* "I Don't Wanna Know"
Bill must appear before a vampire tribunal to get his sentence for killing one of his kind. Sam watches over Sookie as the fangbanger murderer seems to be targeting her and Sookie finds out that Sam isn't a normal human, either.
Amy to Eddie, as she's draining his blood: "Don't you dare get morally superior on me. I'm an organic vegan and my carbon footprint is miniscule."
* "To Love is to Bury" (with commentary by writer/director Nancy Oliver)
While Sam and Sookie play detective, Tara gets arrested for drunk driving and Jason makes the mistake of doing v-juice "one last time" with Amy. Meanwhile, the tribunal punishes Bill by forcing him to make an innocent young woman, Jessica, into a vampire. Jessica: "Yeow! I'm a vampire! Whooo-eee!"
* "You'll Be the Death of Me"
Jason's in jail for the fangbanger murders, but the police have arrested the wrong man. The real killer finally gets his chance to finish Sookie off, while her two suitors -- Bill and Sam -- both rush to her rescue.
Sookie to Sam: "You need to let people see the real you, 'cause you're kind and brave. There's nothing there not to love."
In explaining the look of True Blood on the first episode's commentary track, Alan Ball hits on the essence of the show, and it's difference from his last TV series: "I wanted this show to be a lot more cluttered and a lot more messy than Six Feet Under because it's completely different. This show is not about the control of emotions that might feel dangerous; if anything this show is about total lack of control, all the time." Vampires -- with their driving thirst, raw sexuality, and animalistic instincts -- do indeed provide Ball with a sharp contrast to the propriety and uptightness of Six Feet Under's Fisher family. It is these out-of-control elements that give series much of its intrigue -- and much of its shock value. Take the opening scene of "Mine," for example, when Sookie walks in on three vampires having an unsettling little party with Bill. After vampire Diane purrs about how delicious babies' blood is and Liam says "I get hard just thinkin' about it," Bill dissuades them from biting Sookie to indulge in virgin blood. So instead, the three vampire visitors start playing with the blood/sex slave humans they brought along, with Liam reaching a rough blow-job-induced climax right in Bill's living room. As this scene demonstrates, True Blood brims with the sex and violence (and violent sex, and sexualized violence) that result from this "total lack of control," and most of it is pretty compelling, if disturbing. The extreme adult content here seems to be a legitimate part of the series' commitment to taking its central premise totally seriously, to revealing all the nitty-gritty aspects of what life would be like if vampires really walked (and f*cked) among us.
Ultimately, though, Ball is a sucker for repression: his brooding vampire-hero Bill is all about taming his desires and instinctive behaviors to "mainstream" and win the acceptance of Bon Temps' human population. Moyer nails the role, in many ways, with his flair for expressing vague torment and even a kind of sheepish awkwardness just underneath his undead cool. Sookie has a way of bringing that awkwardness out when she playfully teases him about his too-normal name ("Bill? I thought it might be Antoine, or Basil, or Langford maybe") or the idea of a vampire bar called "Fangtasia." In the latter scene, an embarrassed Bill defends, "You have to remember that most vampires are very old. Puns used to be the highest form of humor." While his ego can be enjoyably vulnerable, Bill is also a more interesting character than many vampire protagonists because of other vulnerabilities, too. He's not terribly strong compared to other vampires in the area, he doesn't seem to have any allies, and he occupies only a middling position on his kind's very rigid social/legal hierarchy. Half the time he swoops in to rescue Sookie she ends up rescuing herself, and he seems to be in need of her help just as often. Between that dynamic and her telepathy, their romance has a more pleasing gender equality than you might expect, given all the Southern courtship rituals they do uphold.
As an aside on the gender equality topic, True Blood's ample nudity achieves the same unexpected balance. While Tara rightly complains that the waitress uniform at Merlotte's shows a lot of skin, and we do see some lady nipples from time to time, the boys on the show seem to spend more time in their birthday suits than the girls. Trammell streaks more than once as Sam, Bill crawls out of a grave in the buff, and Kwanten's well-muscled body is stripped down and sexualized in almost every episode.
Though I've discussed Bill first, Sookie Stackhouse (the namesake of the book series) is the clear protagonist and Paquin delivers the show's strongest performance in playing her. She manages to keep Sookie sweet and compassionate, but always willing to speak her mind or threaten someone at knife point, if the need arises. Though she frequently giggles at her own acting during her commentary track, Paquin also admits, "I wanted [the part] so bad and fought so hard to be cast, and there's nothing I won't do to make it better or more real." One can sense that commitment watching her on screen, and also can feel the way she slips into Sookie's skin so snuggly, right from the start. Perhaps she picked up some strategies for playing Southern women whose sex lives are impaired by tactile superpowers when she played Rogue in the X-Men franchise...
The other pleasant surprise you'll find in True Blood: The Complete First Season is the quirky, often-dark sense of humor Ball brought to Six Feet Under. It's on display in force during the subplot about Jason's "gout of the dick," and in lots of great lines from Tara, Lafayette, and Arlene, another waitress at Merlotte's. We also see it in little moments with the vampires. Remember how the characters in Interview with a Vampire liked to watch movies about sunsets and sunrises, to experience daylight vicariously? Well, vampires in this world have graduated from cinema to video games in their technological progression, and now they play a lot of Wii golf -- very competitively. Another funny moment with really old people and technology happens when Eric demands somberly of Bill, "I texted you three times. Why didn't you reply?" Bill answers, "I hate using the number keys to type." The best gags, though, are the little visual ones that just happen in the background, speculating on how our popular culture might be different if vampires were real. I laughed pretty hard when I saw the stack of tabloids, the church sign, and the political poster below:
These standard DVD renditions of True Blood left me pretty satisfied, though the Blu-ray version seems to offer a few additional extras, plus the audiovisual boosts. In terms of both sound and image, this series goes for sheer density mirroring the atmosphere of a Louisiana swamp. That's why you'll notice a lot of grain in the visuals, I think: to convey the thick, almost sensual presence of the air and the darkness in Bon Temps. This look worked well for me, and I had no problem with the black levels of this largely-nighttime series. Density works even better on the soundtrack, which is built from thick layers of insect noises, rustling leaves, and whatever other sounds would convince you that a Hollywood backlot is really a wooded Louisiana exterior. From these ambient sounds to the ample directional effects, the clear dialogue, and the well-balanced music, this soundtrack pleases on every level.
Special features on the set are weighted oddly, but generally strong. While we get zero deleted scenes, interviews, or making-of featurettes, we are given commentary tracks on fully half the episodes of the season -- each with a different commentator (distribution noted above with episode list). Having six different people or pairs of people doing commentary gives a nice variety, but also breeds a lot of repetition in what's said. You'll certainly be convinced that Ellis is a good improvisor and that another actor worked hard on his Cajun accent after you hear these remarks over and over on every track! I'd recommend the tracks on the first two episodes most. For the pilot, "Strange Love," Ball's commentary demonstrates his deep, intuitive feeling for what the show is all about and also discusses the relation between the television series and the book series substantively. He throws in some great tidbits, too, like the three things he vowed never to use on True Blood after watching a ton of vampire movies for research and seeing these elements far too often: 1) opera music, 2) those weird, distorting contact lenses, and 3) cold, metallic blue light. He also admits to giving Paquin a stage direction to feel one of Bill's lines in her vagina. When Paquin joins the party for a commentary on "The First Taste" with director Scott Winant, she doesn't mention that vagina line. She does, however, giggle like a schoolgirl at all the sexy bits, talk about drinking three gallons of sugar-free, low-carb "blood" through Bill's prosthetic arm, and banter charmingly with Winant -- making for an upbeat and lively track. The other four tracks feel like more standard commentary fare, but should interest serious fans of the show. While the commentaries form the bulk of the special features, HBO also provides a fun array of spoof commercials that we might see on TV if we lived in True Blood's America. There are seven commercials in all, each lasting a minute or less. My favorites were the American ad for Tru Blood, modeled on stereotypical beer ads ("This blood's for you!") and the spot for a vampire dating service that riffs on those "REJECTED by Match.com" commercials. The pro-vampire public service announcement really gets the tone of those ads spot-on, too, even ending with the clever slogan, "Vampires were people, too. Support the Vampire Rights Amendment." Lastly, the set offers a 14-minute mock news program on the recent history of vampires in America, detailing the invention of synthetic blood, the "Great Revelation" when vampires went public, and the current debate about the Vampire Rights Amendment. Though the very obvious green screen effects were distracting, I enjoyed this inventive feature -- especially the segment on fangbangers, or fangophiles, as they prefer to be called. A college student with a vampire boyfriend makes a good case for the practice: "Imagine being with someone who's had 200 years to learn how to please a woman but who still has the body of a 27-year-old...and with vampires you don't need birth control."
My biggest complaint about this fairly high-quality series is that while it's patting itself on the back for those oh-so-clever jokes about "God Hates Fangs" and Angelina's adopted vampire baby, it seems to get badly tangled up in its own imagined politics. Alan Ball amply demonstrated on the special features of his strangely awful film Towelhead that he mistakenly believes all prejudices are created equal, and he carries that mistaken belief into True Blood whole-heartedly. With Towelhead, Ball repeatedly compared anti-Islamic racism to homophobia, claiming to understand the former because of his personal experiences with the latter. Here in True Blood, Ball takes his initially cute comparisons of vampires and gays in America way beyond the boundaries of political efficacy or even simple logic. When you see pundits on TV in True Blood arguing about whether vampires should be allowed to teach in schools or whether they would corrupt or molest the children, the analogy to LGBT politics might seem thought-provoking. But then you remember that the vast majority of vampires in this series -- unlike the vast majority of gay people in this country -- are terrifying creatures with an innate drive to attack and feed on humans that they don't really seem interested in suppressing. This might also be a good time to recall the vampire lines about virgin and baby blood being the most delicious. So it seems to me that any sane, accepting individual would support gay teachers but strenuously object to vampire teachers. And yet, Ball crafts the world of this series to look down upon anyone who doesn't support equal rights for vampires as an ignorant bigot.
The lack of critical thinking skills on display here is unfortunately not True Blood's only weakness. It also suffers from a fair share of humdrum and overlong subplots, which I'm guessing result from an effort to flesh out supporting characters and stretch a single book's storyline to fill a whole TV season (though I can't be sure, since I've not yet read the books). Tara, for example, is a great character -- a real firecracker, and well-played by Wesley -- who is routinely given terrible storylines. I became impatient with the exorcism plot almost instantly and was dismayed to see it last a full five episodes. Her ambivalent romance with Sam also wore on my nerves quickly and stuck around for far too long.
In the final analysis, True Blood plays pretty much like Twilight on crack...or v-juice. While neither series reaches narrative greatness, both are delectable and addictive, tapping into the kind of desire for sinful pleasures that its tormented vampire-heroes are always trying to resist. But while Twilight is a harmless treat for all ages, True Blood offers the kind of diversions you'd expect to get carded for.
Review content copyright © 2009 Jennifer Malkowski; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* Portuguese (Brazilian)
Running Time: 720 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Spoof Commercials
* Official Site
* Charlaine Harris Official Site