Pity the poor vampire. Walking the Earth for eternity and forced to drink blood to survive, he can’t even be taken seriously as a monster these days. Not unless he’s reduced to a metaphor. That’s what makes the vampires in Alan Ball’s new series, True Blood, particularly fang-less. Ball, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of American Beauty and creator of HBO’s Six Feet Under has reworked Charlaine Harris’s witty Sookie Stackhouse novels into something less Buffy and more brooding. Instead of immersing the audience in the fantasy and allowing the themes to emerge naturally, True Blood kills the fun by repeatedly winking at us with the idea that these aren’t really vampires after all. They’re just a reflection of the culture war that’s tearing our country apart. The problem is that these are vampires, so the metaphoric reflection is decidedly empty.
Anna Paquin stars as Sookie Stackhouse, a virginal waitress at the local Louisiana bar Merlotte’s with her own special problems. It seems Sookie can read people’s minds. Not exactly read, more like tune into their frequencies. A swirl of random noise both offensive and banal, these thoughts are torturous for Sookie, who has to work overtime to shut them out. Which is why returning hometown boy William Compton (Stephen Moyer) fascinates her: she can’t hear his thoughts, which both comforts and excites her. That and the fact that he’s a 175-year-old vampire and just might want to feast on her. Especially when bodies begin to pile up around town with very distinct bite marks on the necks and thighs.
The existence of vampires is a fact taken for granted in the world of True Blood. Here, vampires have all come out of the collective closet, uh, coffin and are trying to integrate into human society. The series makes no secret that these vampires are supposed to stand in for whatever alternative lifestyle or minority group you want. Some have given up drinking human blood for a more socially acceptable synthetic version called True Blood while others do not agree with the new policy of capitulation and are still hunting in packs. Around all of this, a subculture called “fangbangers” has developed: humans who crave the excitement of vampire sex and the hallucinogenic thrill of “v-blood,” which seems to be something like Ecstasy laced with Viagra.
There’s certainly enough story here to develop into a strong series were it centered around interesting characters, but Ball has populated it with one stereotype after another. From the flaming gay black cook, his finger-waving cousin Tara (Rutina Wesley) and her passed-out-drunk-on-the-couch-good-for-nothing mother to Sookie’s dim-witted redneck brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten), the characters are all broadly sketched. Even Moyer’s principal vampire is like some refugee from early-’90s vampire flicks. His brooding manner and faux existential malaise would make him an excellent guest alongside Lestat and Louis at Anne Rice’s writing desk.
While trying to be edgy through generous helpings of sex and gore, the show is never really sexy or scary. The first episode is so labored in its setup that it gets the series started on the wrong foot. It’s not until episode five that True Blood actually begins to engage with the audience. We finally get to know something about Bill, about his former life as a human and how he came to be a vampire. There’s nothing new here but the show eventually drops its busy façade—where it doesn’t know if it’s a political allegory, satire, sitcom, mystery or horror story—and just allows the audience to become immersed in the simple charms of story and character.
What makes it harder to like is Ball’s painful insistence on the obvious. A church sign that reads “God hates Fangs” and vampire lobbyists on Real Time with Bill Maher are what passes for wit here. It’s clear that Ball couldn’t take the vampire story seriously at all and is just going through the motions whenever they take center stage. Surely a being that has lived for hundreds of years would find something more interesting to do than dance around like an obnoxious twit at vampire bars like “Fangtasia.”