The fictional town of Bon Temps, Lousiana, the setting for Alan Ball’s wildly entertaining True Blood series, based on novels written by Charlaine Harris, affords its creator a chance to work with an open, lush landscape—a facet of storytelling that Ball rarely played with in the purposefully dull interiors and limited L.A. exteriors of Six Feet Under. Flush with pulpy sanguine puddles and an abundance of lavish green forestry, the second season of True Blood takes the gaudy habits that typified the show’s first season, centered on the raging romance between a genteel telepath and a stately vampire gent in a world where vampires are something of a special interest group, and cranks them to deafening levels, raising the stakes on both the show’s unabashedly lustful agenda and its kitschy and off-kilter sense of community.
The season begins with a shock to the community as comely Southern belle Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and her best friend, Tara (Rutina Wesley), discover the corpse of a false prophet in a car outside of their workplace, Merlotte’s. Sent reeling, Sookie seeks out her fanged boyfriend, Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer, Paquin’s real-life fiancé), only to find him acquainting Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll), a fiery redheaded teen he recently turned, to his estate. The tension is palpable, but Ball intelligently keeps Sookie and Bill’s relationship as a minor facet as the season goes on and Sookie is enlisted by certifiable bloodsucking hunk Eric Northam (Alexander Skarsgård) to rescue his maker, Godric (Allan Hyde), from a Texas-based religious group called the Fellowship of the Sun.
Of the many amorphous relationships that litter the swamps and high grass of Ball’s new South, Godric and Eric’s is perhaps most endemic of True Blood’s earnestly ambiguous attitude toward sexuality. Allegorically, the show incorporates nearly every sociological pressure point known in American life; abortion is negligibly not on the table, but the show has two more seasons at least to play that card. Defined by ample doses of zombie orgies, blood orgies, adultery, and one seriously freaky marriage ceremony, sexuality and love are Ball’s most fervently discussed and dissected topics, with race and religion taking up a very cramped backseat. But despite the fact that the relationships are remarkably dense and often convoluted, True Blood’s ideas on all these subjects are disappointingly simplistic, boiling down to little more than one might pick up by taking notes at a particularly lively gay-pride parade or a Jenna Jameson book signing.
This should not be taken as notice that True Blood doesn’t manage to be quite clever on occasion. Ball gets great mileage out of the mirroring of Sookie’s brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten), being taken in by the Fellowship of the Sun and Tara falling for an orphaned stud, Eggs (Mehcad Brooks), under the tutelage of demonic maenad Maryann (Michelle Forbes). Maryann often summons a town-wide spell of carnal hysteria, causing the human residents of Bon Temps to mutilate, fuck, and feast on everything in sight. Coextensively, Jason becomes a rising star in the Fellowship at the behest of the church’s head, Steve Newlin (Michael McMillian), and is seduced by Steve’s wife, Sarah (Anna Camp), while preparing for a public vampire burning. While the latter storyline ends with Godric basically performing a self-crucifixion, Maryann seeks out Sookie’s friend, employer and friendly neighborhood shapeshifter Sam (Sam Trammell), for sacrifice, leading to the aforementioned climactic marriage.
Due to several other storylines that emerge, build steam, and dissipate throughout the season’s 12-episode run, critics have often picked at True Blood’s baroque and convoluted narrative. In fact, it’s the fullness and density of Ball’s storytelling, not to mention its fearless portrayal of unbound sexuality, which distinguishes it from its pale ilk. In a recent ploy to make vampires and werewolves into brooding, abstinence-lovin’ teen heartthrobs, series like the CW’s Vampire Diaries and the unbearably dull Twilight films have basically turned these creatures of the night into parodies of their origins, which are based largely in concepts of male repression and, especially with the bloodsuckers, impotence. All of which might make for some fascinating reversals if these works were not poorly written, stiffly performed, and directed with a timid, lazy eye.
Ludicrous though it may be, the second season of True Blood never even begins to approach monotony; it’s a well-written and imaginative entertainment, despite its relatively uncomplicated politics and a few storylines that are truly superfluous. It’s also a commendable work of ensemble acting: Besides the resolutely admirable main cast, Evan Rachel Wood, Mariana Klaveno, and Valerie Cruz offer guest spots that pepper the series with unique brands on bloodlust. The sight of Wood going down on a young girl’s femoral artery and a flashback featuring Klaveno, playing Bill Compton’s maker, going at it in a blood-soaked bed are particularly garish. But if anything, Ball’s excessiveness is an act of beguiling pragmatism: What would be the point of being a vampire in this day and age if you don’t attend a few blood orgies?
The 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer on all 12 episodes of the season is a work of brilliant precision. The purposefully grainy imagery never hinders the show’s magnificent use of versatile colors that director of photography Matthew Jensen details masterfully. Black levels are near perfect and all definitions, textures, and details are rendered with remarkable attentiveness. Even the sparse use of banding can be forgiven. But as strikingly loyal as the imagery is to the source, the audio quality is even more stunning. The lossless DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio soundtrack balances the crowded auditory landscape of Bon Temps beautifully, though dialogue is thankfully always given precedence. A wild night at Merlotte’s, with atmosphere, soundtrack, and dialogue mixed together, is just as awe-inspiring as the intimate moments between Sookie and Bill or Jessica and Hoyt. HBO has made another near-perfect transfer, all around.
A show like True Blood comes ready-made for a cult following, and though the extras are generally low on insight, they are exactly what a fan of the series would want. The two main features (one an extended episode of a fake news program detailing the struggles of vampires as a special interest group, the other a welcoming video for the Fellowship of the Sun) are slight but enjoyable, with some particularly funny moments. The crowded commentaries don’t offer much past a handful of behind-the-scenes stories from Alan Ball and his cumbersome ensemble. Most useless, however, is the Enhanced Viewing feature, which offers coy clues for upcoming episodes and past instances and allows minor characters, like Hoyt and Maryann’s loyal assistant, to get more face time and speak their minds. It seems to serve little-to-no purpose, but I imagine any super-fan of the series will likely find this interesting.
Even if its ideas and politics are staggeringly simplistic and one-sided, the second season of Alan Ball’s wildly entertaining, densely constructed True Blood offers an outstanding visual and auditory experience on Blu-ray that easily makes up for the series’s shortcomings.