Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski can handle synthetic blood, but hopes this show doesn't introduce substitutes for other bodily fluids...
Our reviews of True Blood: The Complete First Season (published May 27th, 2009), True Blood: The Complete First Season (Blu-Ray) (published June 29th, 2009), True Blood: The Complete Second Season (published May 25th, 2010), True Blood: The Complete Third Season (published June 5th, 2011), True Blood: The Complete Third Season (Blu-ray) (published May 31st, 2011), and True Blood: The Complete Fourth Season (Blu-ray) (published May 28th, 2012) are also available.
"Wild energy, like lust, anger, excess, violence—basically all the fun stuff."
Though the above line from True Blood has a specific context, it also provides a succinct description of what the series itself promises—and delivers. HBO's horror/romance sinks its fangs in even deeper in this second season, with more and better offerings in just about all of these "fun" categories.
Facts of the Case
Spoiler Alert! I'll be reviewing this set in its entirety, and thus revealing plot points through the second season finale.
In True Blood, creator Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) adapts mystery novels by Charlaine Harris that are set in a world halfway between reality and fantasy: the story imagines what our society would be like if vampires were not only real, but "out." Having revealed their existence, they now live among us—with the help of a synthetic blood substitute called Tru Blood that can sustain them and spare some human necks. The first season laid all of this groundwork, while the second splits its time between enriching this plot and adding a new kind of supernatural character.
We experience this world through the eyes of Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin, X-Men), a sweet-but-spunky waitress at Merlotte's Bar and Grill in the small Louisiana town of Bon Temps who just happens to be a mindreader. She can't hear vampire thoughts, though, which adds just a touch of normalcy to the unconventional romance she began in Season One with Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer, Quills)—a vampire trying hard to suppress his otherworldly urges and observe most human customs. The folks in Sookie's life aren't sure what to make of her dangerous new romance, including her pretty-but-dumb brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten, Flicka), her perpetually troubled best friend Tara (Rutina Wesley, How She Move), and her boss Sam (Sam Trammell, Judging Amy), who has always carried a torch for her. Sam is no stranger to the supernatural himself; as Sookie found out last season, he's a shape shifter who can turn into animals. Unfortunately, not all the supernatural beings in her life are as tame as Bill and Sam. There's also the more powerful vampire Eric (Alexander Skarsgård, Generation Kill), who has a sinister interest in Sookie, and the mysterious Maryann Forrester (Michelle Forbes, Battlestar Galactica), a wealthy newcomer whose extreme generosity toward Tara arouses suspicion in Bon Temps.
• "Nothing But the Blood"
• "Keep this Party Going"
• "Shake and Fingerpop"
• "Never Let Me Go"
• "Hard Hearted Hannah"
• "Release Me"
• "I Will Rise Up"
• "New World in My View"
• "Beyond Here Lies Nothing'"
If you're wondering whether you'll like True Blood, spend 60 seconds soaking in its opening credits. This sequence tells you everything about the spirit of the series, even though no vampires grace the screen. Instead, we get a graceful montage of culture and nature in the Louisiana backwoods, set to Jace Everett's seductively deep voice singing, "Before the night is through / I wanna do bad things with you." We see gators and snakes in the bayou, flirtations at a bar bathed in red light, a raucous church congregation, children smearing blood-red fruit around their mouths, and flashes of naked bodies grappling with each other. Everything looks dense and gritty—at once run-down and teeming with life. It's sultry, with flashes of humor (the "God Hates Fangs" sign), and with jarring moments that are unabashedly disgusting (possum roadkill, and a fox carcass that decays and hatches maggots in fast-motion).
So, too, is True Blood: by turns sexy, funny, and frighteningly violent and gross. Unlike some other vampire sagas that shall go unnamed, vampires in True Blood don't spend their days on gentle kisses and sparkling in the sunlight. (On second thought, let's name Twilight, if only to acknowledge the suspicious similarities between these two stories and remind everyone that Charlaine Harris' books were published before Stephanie Meyer's.) With all things bodily—both pleasure and destruction—True Blood is deeply carnal. It has the most explicit sex I've seen on television (or in non-porn film, for that matter), and plenty of it. Maryann's wild parties reliably end up as orgies, and the footage of these is quite graphic. Bill and Sookie's explicit scenes are sexier, but also unafraid of showing the kinkier aspects of vampire-human copulation: in a lengthy love-making scene from "Nothing But the Blood," Bill bites Sookie and then kisses her, spilling a good deal of her own blood into her mouth. The violence, too, is ratcheted up to extremes. Early in the season, Eric tears a human being limb from limb and feasts on the blood of his dismembered body. At the end of this process he is soaked in blood, opens his mouth and spits some of it back up. Sookie's injury by the creature in the woods also makes for some gruesome scenes.
While sex and violence almost always connect on True Blood, I find its humor to be more hit or miss. The season has two workhorses in this department: Jason Stackhouse and Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer, The Wire), a town detective who gets no respect and has now taken to drink. Sometimes their antics are hilarious, such as the scene in which a drunken Andy confronts Lafayette about his unexplained multi-week absence. Andy notices Lafayette has had less "pizazz" since his return, so he logics out a way to reject Lafayette's explanation that he'd been on a gay cruise. In his gravelly voice, he intones, "You weren't on any gay cruise! If you were, you'd have come back with more pizazz, not less!" At other times, Andy's scenes veer toward ineffective slapstick. Jason's good-hearted befuddlement is usually good for a chuckle, but late in the season I started to tire of his Rambo antics.
In terms of the plot, this season is nicely structured by two main storylines: Godric's capture by the Fellowship of the Sun in Dallas, and Maryann's gradual takeover in Bon Temps. Though it seems like taking our leads out of Bon Temps for half the season could make things feel disjointed, the writers did a nice job of letting the Maryann plot simmer alongside the Dallas plot, bringing it up to a boil only when our heroes return. The events in Dallas provided some tantalizing new insight into the structure and politics of vampire society, great flashbacks to Bill and Eric's pasts (prompted by the introduction of their makers), and an intriguing new character in Godric. The problem with the Godric bits, though, is that the writers tried to tackle two compelling vampire stories with one character: a vampire who wants peace and unity with humans, and a vampire so old that he has tired of existence. The conclusion of the latter story necessarily cuts the former short! So Godric ends up as a great character with a lot of unrealized narrative potential. Similarly, the Fellowship of the Sun story had a lot of potential, too. Instead of underdevelopment, this aspect of the Dallas plot got a lot of attention but suffered from only decent execution. I loved the idea of imagining how fundamentalist Christians would respond to the reality of vampires living among us, and some of the details are right on. The problem is that Reverend Steve Newlin and his wife Sarah, the leaders of the Fellowship, are too often silly and too seldom sinister. The writers, and actors, try to play these characters for laughs, taking the bite—so to speak—out of villains that could have been more interesting. It's not that extremist religious groups that spread hate don't deserve to be mocked—far from it. If anything, they're too easy a target, and some of these jokes just feel like cheap shots and lazy writing. Though fighting is maybe more alluring than politics, it seems like the real power such an organization would have would be its message—attempting to turn Americans against vampires the same way similar groups attack the LGBT community today. It's too bad this aspect of the Fellowship takes a backseat to their ineffectual army in these episodes. Even with these weaknesses, the gang's escapades in Dallas were still consistently entertaining, often leaving me on the edge of my seat with the show's intense cliffhanger endings. These must make the experience of watching it in weekly broadcast—when one can't just start the next episode right away—feel rather masochistic!
Maryann's story was more consistently well-done, starting with a fabulous performance by Michelle Forbes. She plays Maryann with a mature sexiness and refinement—half earth mother, half jet-setting sophisticate—and measures out her creepiness at just the right levels. Her conquest of Bon Temps introduced new kinds of otherworldliness to the series, provided clues about Sookie's powers, and integrated some of the minor characters in town more fully. It was nice to see Merlotte's waitress Arlene and traumatized war vet Terry, for example, getting some good (and very amusing) screentime among Maryann's converts. This story also gave the excellent Rutina Wesley quality material to work with as Tara—unlike her semi-lame exorcism and Sam romance subplots of last season. Seeing her negotiate between the sense of family and belonging she feels with Maryann and Eggs and the seductive dangers of their lifestyle made for some very compelling scenes.
An auxiliary storyline that played out during the whole season is that of Jessica: her adjustment to vampire life, her feelings toward Bill and what he did to her, and her budding romance with bashful townsperson Hoyt. At the end of the first season, the writers seemed to be setting Jessica up as a relentlessly petulant teenager—a plot that promised grow irritating quickly. But they surprised me by making Jessica into a fully sympathetic character, by playing her transformation for real emotion more often than for humor. Her relationship with 30-year-old virgin Hoyt is completely charming, from his attempts to set the mood for love with blood-scented candles to her embarrassment at getting a "fang erection" when they make out. Her transformation does provide some very funny moments, too, as when Bill begins educating her—one would think lessons for a new vampire would be exciting, but key features are how to use the household recycling system and which flavor of Tru Blood tastes the least terrible.
Acting on the series is uniformly strong. In addition to the aforementioned Forbes and Wesley, Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer are excellent as the leads—especially Paquin, who seems sexier and more spirited than ever in these episodes. Perhaps drawing on their chemistry as a real-life couple, they make Sookie and Bill's relationship sweet but not cloying, and give them real problems to work out that have real consequences. It's a treat to watch them share a joyful dance at the season's end—and, admittedly, to watch them share hot sex in a number of episodes. Another performer who stood out this year was Skarsgård as the imposing Eric Northman. The Spike to Bill's Angel, to reference the classic vampire TV series, Eric emerged in the second season as a force to be reckoned with in Sookie's life, not just because he is physically powerful but because he is seeking an emotional and sexual hold on her.
In terms of the release itself, True Blood: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray) is very impressive. Just picking up the packaging, you realize how much care went into the set: the box features rich black-and-white photographs and its matte finish and soft texture make it feel like it's made from leather. Inside, we get five Blu-ray discs with truly sumptuous images and sounds. Bon Temps has that same rich density of the first season—conveyed visually through set detail and a sometimes-grainy nighttime look, and aurally through a rich DTS-HD track that is filled with ambient sounds. Additionally, the season-long theme of hedonism that Maryann ushers in justifies some particularly lush colors and textures in this season's sets and costumes. The brilliant blue poolside paradise of Maryann's mansion, the colorful spreads of tropical fruits she enjoys, and then later the earthen look of the house she transforms all make for great visuals. Black levels are generally excellent, though once or twice I noticed some digital artifacts in these darker scenes. My only real A/V gripe with this set is that the still photo they use of the Hotel Carmilla, a hotel for vampires in Dallas where our characters stay, looks jarringly bad—like a poorly Photoshopped image file blown up beyond its optimal resolution.
Special features on this set are generous and fun. We get seven commentary tracks that bring in a wide variety of participants from the cast and crew (listed above, with each episode), including all of the lead actors. Some of these can be a little dry (prepare for endless praise of everyone who has ever worked on the show), so for those wanting to sample I'd recommend the "Frenzy" track with Wesley, Ball, and director Daniel Minahan, and the "Beyond Here" track with Paquin and Forbes. As the guy helming this series, Ball has a lot of insight to share (The Queen is "a little like Norma Desmond"), and also some funny comments about wanting to send vampires to the homes of those who leak spoilers online…"But they'd probably like that." Paquin and Forbes offer something different, with a cute and giggly track that's really fun to listen to. In between their laughs, they actually do say some quite interesting things about the characters, plus it becomes apparent late in the track that Forbes has a massive crush of some variety on Paquin, which is charming. The extras also offer a 24-minute faux news show recapping the year's most interesting news stories on vampires. This extra is really well-done, getting the tone of these semi-sensationalist news shows just right and expanding the vamp world in ways the main series doesn't have time to cover. It's packed with segments about v addiction, a vampire soap opera star, and web videos of vamps athletes doing amazing things. In between, it features commercials for the Soldiers of the Sun and "V-Longate" (a V substitute that claims to help you sexually perform like a vampire). And the extra even ends with a guest spot from celebrity chef Tom Colicchio who shows us how to prepare a nutritious liquid meal for humans who want to "dine" with vampires. We also get four "Reflections of Light" videos from the Fellowship of the Sun, which are preachy, anti-vamp tidbits from Steve and Sarah Newlin (around three minutes each). These are so convincing that you might forget you're watching a spoof—which is both a compliment and a criticism, since watching real preaching videos would probably be dull to most True Blood viewers. Lastly, you can watch each of the season's episodes in "Enhanced Viewing" mode, which features hints about the show's mysteries, the ability to flash back and forth to related scenes from other episodes, political messages from the Fellowship or the American Vampire League, and video segments that pop in at certain points (making this mode better for a second viewing, since these tend to drown out the main dialogue). The videos are also available to watch separately on the fifth disc as "Character Perspectives," featuring four minor characters from the season sharing their take on what's happening on-screen: Hoyt, Eric's vampire companion Pam, Maryann's servant Karl, and Steve Newlin. These videos total a whopping 122 minutes when strung together, and are probably best enjoyed in the enhanced viewing mode rather than in a big chunk. The Perspectives are a great idea for special features, and they're very well-done here—they pick fun characters who offer insight on several different groups that are important in the season. These can be quite funny, too, especially videos from the deadpan Pam. Pam comments on Bill and Sookie's relationship by recalling a human lover she had once: "Let's just say the thrill of meaningful sex didn't last long—and neither did he." Later, she scoffs at the scene of Bill shopping for Jessica's wardrobe, saying he'll make her look "like she's about to guest star on Little House on the Prairie."
Between the outstanding audio/visual presentation and the additional bonus features (neither "Enhanced Viewing" nor the "Character Perspectives" are available on the DVDs), fans with Blu-ray players should spend the extra cash for this set rather than the DVDs.
True Blood's second season proves to be about as addictive as V, and the wait is almost over for fans with HBO: the third season premieres on June 13. Until then, the excellent Blu-ray presentation on this set should tide us over nicely.
Guilty of wanting to do bad things with you.
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Scales of Justice
• Enhanced Viewing
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