Tuesday, 25 May 2010

True Blood.

Those of you that follow me on Twitter will probably already know that I am a huge fan of the American television series True Blood. Written by Alan Ball (who also wrote the amazing Oscar winning film, American Beauty) True Blood is set in the small, conservative Southern town of Bon Temps, Louisiana. Vampires are living amongst human society, surviving on synthetic blood and attempting to integrate and achieve equal rights despite the huge prejudice against them. The story line revolves around the relationship between the two main characters: Sookie Stackhouse - a human waitress with a powerful ability to read minds, and Bill Compton - a five hundred year old vampire.

It is a dark fantasy, richly imagined and blackly comic, sexy and bloody and over the top, and in my opinion one of the very few things actually worth watching on television. Not only is it grippingly entertaining, but it is also far more sophisticated than it may at first appear. The opening credit sequence is nothing short of stunning and could actually work as a short film on its own. Created by Digital Kitchen it uses stereotyped imagery of the rural Deep South, juxtaposing themes of sex, religion, and violence to set the scene and create a deep sense of unease. We see a rickety Lucky Liquor store on a dirt road segueing into glowing crosses that could almost be burning. A white preacher heals a black woman as the rest of the congregation sway and clap. A bar room brawl made murky under red lighting occurs in slow motion. The snippets of film and jerking, sometimes flashing images all culminate in a river baptism, a woman flailing and splashing in the dark as two men dunk her in.

What struck me the most about season one in particular were the observations that it appeared to me to make about female sexuality - in particular the way in which societal judgements and norms are set in place to rigidly control it. It is made clear from the beginning that Sookie Stackhouse is a good, traditional Southern young woman - in fact it is made explicitly clear almost from the start that she is still a virgin. In Bon Temps women who associate with vampires are generally viewed with disaproval and contempt. They are labelled 'fangbangers', and so when a woman who was known to sometimes frequent the vampire bar Fangtasia is discovered dead in her apartment, and a further woman (one of Sookies fellow waitresses) is also found murdered in her home with vampire bite marks on her body, the whisperings around the town are that they had somehow asked for it - that they had 'had it coming.' Of course then the irony is that whiter than white Sookie Stackhouse falls in love with a vampire herself - bestowing unto him her precious virginity - and so sullying her reputation. What is interesting is that the whole town appear to take it upon themselves to be horrified, as if her virtue somehow belongs to all of them and it is up to them as a community to safe-guard it. Meanwhile her brother Jason (who was a sexual partner to both the dead women) behaves like a child in a sweet shop - having sex with every willing woman he can find - and everyone simply smirks and shakes their heads. Boys will be boys after all. Of course it is not long before the body count rises and the murderer is on the hunt for Sookie. The good girl gone bad must pay the ultimate price it would seem.

One of the reasons I like True Blood so much is that it pokes fun at this sexual double standard. It exposes as ridiculous the notion that women can be judged good or bad, deserving or undeserving of violence, based purely on how they choose to conduct their sexual lives. With a cast full of telepaths, shape-shifters, vampires and rednecks True Blood manages to say an awful lot about the nature of inequality and prejudice whilst at the same time spinning a yarn so riveting, I defy anyone not to become hooked.

Roll on season three. I can't wait.


  1. I LOVE True Blood, and your take on it is bang on. The opening credits are incredible and the whole undercurrent of 'who's really the monster here?' makes it riveting viewing. That and the fact that Erik is completely gorgeous! xx

  2. Great post and great timing for it! Season 3 is starting in 2 weeks time (for those of us who've got - hum - magical access to American tv anyway).
    It's funny how a lot of vampire stories end up being about female empowerement, what with Buffy and all, and even Bram Stoker's story seems to suggest that Mina would have more fun as a vampire than as Jonathan's wife! On a lighter note, I have heard that season 3 will feature Alexander Skarsgard (Eric) naked!

  3. Not sure that we have that here in the UK yet but I'll be keeping an eye on it. I find gender politics fascinating and recommend you read some Angela Carter - her essay: "The Sadiean Woman" is very insightful about feminisism, sexuality and the politics of it all.

  4. Peabee, Eric does make Bill look a bit wet - it has to be said. But I retain a certain loyalty to Bill you know?

    Sandrine, Can't wait for season 3! A naked Eric has got to be worth waiting for...

    Steve, I'm in the U.K. too. It's on sky, or you can just do what I did and buy the complete season 1 and 2 on dvd.

  5. Also Steve, I've got some Angela Carter somewhere I think. A collection of short stories that she edited entitled Wayward Girls and Wicked Women. How fitting.

  6. obviously I love Bill too, but more in a brotherly kind of way... ;)

  7. Well, I'm taking on your defiance. I was so excited by True Blood because I love Allan Ball's work, especially Six Feet Under. (Have you seen that?) Bill the vampire is so steamy that I picked up the novel by Charlaine Harris last year when I was midway through the first season of True Blood. (I watch most TV series through DVD.)

    I have an issue with True Blood, though. I love the opening sequence, as you mention, and I like your discussion of the double standard. Good point. But I don't think the show itself lives up to the expectations it sets forth in the first few (great) episodes.

    First of all, what do the vampires represent? They don't have to represent anything, but if the show is going to make a comment on American culture, as the opening sequence suggests, what is that comment? The vampires seem to be victims of persecution, for sure. We see the small town's prejudice against them, yet Bill is trying hard to acclimate to the mortal world. But almost every scene with the vampires shows them to be bloodsucking, mischievous, angry and bitter, evil. The townspeople seem to be right! So what point does that make? I'd be more on board if the vampires showed more depth, but then Bill goes and kills that young girl (the one who he has to make into a vampire or risk serious punishment).

    Furthermore--SPOILER ALERT--the Mexican guy is the killer? Come on! Not only that, but the black characters fit age-old stereotypes. The woman healer/witch, who is also a liar? I love the use of Bill's past and the civil war as his backdrop, but I don't see those themes of history being carried through the first season.

    My biggest issue, though, is the way Allan Ball handles the issue of death. Six Feet Under was an amazing show because of the way it grappled with our mortality--we all die, we all end. The writers handled it with grace, seriousness, and some occasional humor. This show is sort of the opposite when it comes to death. We become desensitized to the blood and gore; there is an unfortunate glibness about it, with the exception of Sookie's grandmother.

    Of course, as I write about this, I can see arguments against my points. Perhaps the vampires and mortals represent two sides of the political spectrum in America, but it's hard to find evidence to support that.

    Overall, I'm disappointed with the series. I loved it in the beginning; I fell for Bill and enjoyed the quirkiness of the characters. It just seemed to eventually fall flat for me, though. I stopped, then even went back, hoping it would redeem itself, and it didn't. I'm not even interested in the second season.

    Hope I didn't take over your blog. Please rebut my comments! I want to like the show!

  8. On SKY? That explains why I'v never seen it - despite having a few SKY channels on cable we don't seem to view any of them. I shall have a butcher's at the Radio Times tonight...!

  9. My daughter loves this show.

    Thanks for your comment on my post over at crying out now.

  10. Jana, Thanks for such a brilliant comment. It has given me so much food for thought, it really has. I'd like to take your second point first if I may... It is true that the black characters conform to age old stereotypes, but isn't that the point? The whole idea is to (like I pointed out with the sexual double standard) poke fun at these stereotypes - to show them for how ridiculous and limiting they are. It's social and political satire. Likewise when the (SPOILER ALERT) killer turns out to be Renee. It's almost as if the writers are poking fun at the viewers saying, 'well what did you expect? Did you really think we were going to pass up on that cliched opportunity?'

    Secondly, Bill offers to take the alternative punishment of laying in a silver coffin for 100 years (or whatever it was) rather than make the young girl into a vampire, but in the end is given no choice. Much like people there seem to be good vampires and bad ones. The vampire who ultimately gets killed by Jasons girlfriend seems a shy, lonely, but decent enough man. There's Bill, and there's all sorts of vampires working hard to assimilate behind the scenes. I think the point the writers are making is that you can't judge a whole group of people to be unworthy of equal rights simply because a few of them behave badly. Look at the way some of the humans behave in the show - not only towards vampires - but towards each other too!

    Your third point about death is really interesting I think. I haven't seen Six Feet Under so I can't compare the two, but in True Blood I think immortality is as much of a theme as death itself. Bill drinks Sookies blood and it gives him strength and vitality, Sookie drinks Bills blood and it saves her life with its healing powers. Some of the most bloody scenes have nothing to do with death. A few parts in True Blood certainly are genuinely scary, but they tend not to be the ones which feature the most blood and gore. I think that rather than the gory scenes having a glibness to them that desensitizes us, that they are deliberately so over the top as to have an almost comedic element. I think that's deliberate - that the violence has an almost slapstick edge to it in order to avoid becoming just mindless horror. The only exceptions to this that I can think of is the murder of Sookies grandmother and the beating of Sookie herself at the end of the first episode. These are made realistic and truly horrifying in order to properly engage our emotions. To me they really stand out in contrast to the rest of the scenes of death or violence. The true gut-churning stuff is used incredibly sparingly I think.

    I hope that I've adequately addressed your points and not just rambled. I love comments like yours - it's good to have your point of view challenged.

  11. Okay, poking fun at stereotypes. I can see that with the woman healer, since she turns out to be an employee at a drugstore. (Funny.) But I don't see any satire associated with Renee being the killer. I wonder if they were limited by the book, which has him as the killer.

    The bar owner as dog is really sort of lame, in my opinion.

    I agree with you--and thought of your rebuff when I was writing--that not all vampires are bad, and the one that Jason and his girlfriend killed was an example of that. You're right, she was as bad as the other vampires. I guess we could even go so far as to say she's a vampire because she seeks out vampire blood. She doesn't have fangs, but gets the blood in other ways.

    I guess I'd like to see the show exploring issues in a more intelligent way. I can't help but feel that they're caving to the audience, looking not to challenge assumptions but perpetuate some, and taking the easy road, sort of. Maybe the second season will build on the first.

    Thanks for your good points! It makes me want to watch the show again.

  12. Jana, He's not a dog - he's a shape-shifter! ;-)

    Seriously you really have to watch season 2. Without wishing to spoil anything it really addresses one of the issues that you've brought up.

  13. I pretty much stopped watching TV when I started blogging. I also stopped reading books. :(

  14. I think it's probably a bad idea to look for some sustained social commentary in the show. As you say Jana, it's somewhat constrained by the books, and it's first aim has to be to tell a good story (with a close second: showcasing sexy men for us girls to feast our eyes- here goes the feminist slant!) But it strikes me that at least in part it has to do with homophobia - all the coming out talk, the 'god hates fangs' stuff, and the fascination for the vampire's life style and sexuality of some with the repulsion and fear of others. Also explains why they're on the whole neither better nor worse than the humans! But as I said, I don't think we should look for a sustained metaphor, and the major weakness of this one is that, er, gay people are human!

  15. Sandrine, You're right - attempting to deconstruct these things can sometimes take some of the shine off them, it's true. But I don't think the makers of the show felt particularly constrained by the book. Sookies best friend Tara is a white restaurant owner in the book for example. So I think it was probably a deliberate decision to keep Renee as he was.

  16. Sandrine, I had heard the point before that the show was making a comment on homosexuality. I think the first episode, which I loved, suggested it, too, because from what I can remember, there is some sort of political race on television and one woman is representing the vampire lobby, so I immediately assumed there would be some sort of connection through the rest of the season. I couldn't find it, though. In fact, I found that if I tried to see vampires as allegorical for homosexuality, my deconstruction fell flat, as you said. I don't like when that happens. (But why suggest it at the beginning? is my problem.)

    I like to critique the TV shows I watch, because there is a lot of smart writing out there. Most HBO series are fabulous. (Have you seen The Wire, Gappy? If not, do! And check out Six Feet Under when you get a chance.)

    I was definitely steamed up by Bill the vampire, but no one else on the show. He's enough, though. I like his 19th century sideburns.

  17. Hi Gappy,
    I haven't watched television for almost five years so I don't know the shows that are discussed sometimes. But I still want to say hi and wish you a wonderful weekend.