As its seasons have worn on and its universe of beasties and beastly acts has expanded, True Blood has become less interested in revising or adapting the soap-operatic tropes that made it such campy fun to begin with. With its fifth season, which swarms with faeries, witches, ghosts, and were-persons of all varieties, True Blood, like Dark Shadows before it, has finally become simply a soap opera with supernatural characters. The explosive love triangle—between the bubbly Anna Paquin, the perennially nauseous-seeming Stephen Moyer, and the Swedish charmer Alexander Skarsgård—that anchored the first several seasons of the series has been splintered and reconstituted so many times that it’s lost all of its edge and sexiness. The revelation of new creatures beyond the vampire/werewolf dyad has become banal and expected. And especially in the context of the ruthlessly innovative Game of Thrones, Ball’s abject refusal to kill off any character without a caveat has made the series feel bloated and decadent.
What’s worse, however, is that this season’s marquee villain is a marked step down from season four’s spectacularly needy medium, Marnie (Fiona Shaw), season three’s slitheringly charming vampire king, Russell Edgington (Denis O’Hare), or even season two’s bizarre maenad, Maryann (Michelle Forbes). This season’s model is an ancient and powerful vampire played by Law and Order’s Christopher Meloni, and neither the writers nor the actor seem like they know what to do with the character. Sullen but vicious, calculating but idealistic, the Guardian, as he’s called, is in the model of a late-era Bond villain. In other words: unforgivably forgettable in context of his forebears. Meloni does a serviceable job with the material he’s given, but he’s not doing quite enough to render his character anything more than a cookie-cutter heavy with a lot of mythology circling around him. As the Guardian sets about his globe-spanning scheme and sends his vampire minions out on suicide missions, he seems like a placeholder for something better.
But Meloni’s portrayal is very much in keeping with the tenor of the season. Gone is the sense of off-the-wall invention, the gleeful satire, the lusty, kitschy sadism. Instead, season five finds the cast in an uncharacteristically ruminative mood. Indeed, one of the main themes is coping with post-traumatic stress—what to do once all the explosions and orgies are over. Sookie (Paquin) is reeling from the realization that she’s a veritable “angel of death” to her friends and relatives; Jason (Ryan Kwanten) is feeling the burn, so to speak, of his womanizing ways; Eric (Skarsgård) and Bill (Moyer) find themselves facing the imminent possibility of the True Death; and even the vicious Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten) is now wrestling with concerns that wouldn’t be out of place on Parenthood.
Ball should leave the handwringing to the kids in Twilight. Sure, new faery orgies and mysterious killing extravaganzas abound, and the show is building out some frivolous C storylines around some supporting players, but it’s hard for the audience to have any fun with these titillating distractions when the main characters themselves no longer take pleasure in their own excesses. True Blood has never been a show with a conscience, so it’s awkward watching it try to get one in a hurry.
Luckily, despite the fact that he doesn’t appear in the first four episodes, the series seems to be bracing for the return of O’Hare’s 3,000-year-old monster. The circumstances of his return provide both the only really coherent plotline in the new season as well as its greatest hope. O’Hare’s character and performance represent everything that’s ever worked on True Blood: acidic sexual-political satire, Corman-esque gore, and the dynamics of petty drama over the course of a long history, all tied up in a grandstanding guest star. His return may help straighten out the mess we find in Bon Temps, LA. This particular dead man is the only sign of life on True Blood.