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Dead Tree Alert: True Blood Review

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The new print edition of TIME has my review of True Blood. As you’ll see, I am not crazy about it. And yet—mainly because I had to cut the review down by about a third—my piece ended up being both more and less harsh on the show than I wanted.

First, I pretty heavily pin the blame on writer-creator Alan Ball. He’s adapting a series of novels, and I haven’t read the source material, but nor do I think that matters: some things work in print and some things work on screen and the adapter is responsible for the latter, not for creating a picture-by-picture illustration of the source. In any case, I do believe that the episodes I saw indulge some of Ball’s worst tendencies as a writer, as manifest sometimes on Six Feet Under (and especially in the overrated American Beauty): his inclination, especially when he does humor or satire, to write caricatures and to show borderline contempt for his supporting characters. (Like many of the suburbanites in Beauty, the southerners in True Blood are largely two-dimensional bigots.)

But that’s not to say that Ball is a hack. Just the opposite; he’s a writer of great talent, with great ideas—I put SFU on my list of the 100 best TV shows ever—but one who, it seems, does best when he has collaborators. The pilot and early episodes of SFU had a deep understanding of some central characters, but it was also hamhanded at times (like the parodies of TV ads, which smugly and unnecessarily told the audience, “This isn’t one of those stupid commercial TV shows”). And characters like Ruth (who was much more the typical emotionally repressed matriarch in the pilot) got much better fleshed out when other writers came on board.

As I note in the review, Ball has said that HBO’s only meddling on SFU was to ask him to make it less safe and predictable. When I interviewed him, he told me that when he worked on network TV shows, execs would always order him to “articulate the subtext”; i.e., make sure the characters tell us exactly what they’re thinking. HBO, he said, told him the opposite. For all his talents, it seems that Ball, left to his own devices, does tend to articulate the subtext. Maybe its innate, maybe an unshakable bad habit from doing network sitcoms.

Either way, he needed HBO to tell him to trust the viewers more to interpret the show this time, and to treat his characters more as real people. Ball has said in interviews that he views True Blood as more of a pure entertainment than SFU, and I worry that he’s therefore given himself license to take his characters less seriously. This is a big mistake, and a shame on a show that has a lot of potential. The Sopranos was an entertainment. It was a mob show. But with maybe a few exceptions, its characters were always thought-through people. (Not to mention actual vampire shows like Buffy and Angel.)

And here’s where I would have made my review harsher if I had room—harsher not on Ball or the actors but on HBO. It surprises that HBO would be OK with making True Blood “just a vampire story,” and it makes me worry for what HBO might become. We have enough networks willing to aim low already. A gory, sexy vampire story, with no big ambitions: that’s what I might have expected from Showtime—and that’s the old Showtime, before Dexter and Weeds.

Last year, a lot of critics worried for the future of HBO when it made John from Cincinnati and Tell Me You Love Me. I didn’t; I was glad HBO was willing to make them. Each may have failed in its own way, but they were failed HBO shows. If, with True Blood, the new HBO is now trying to make someone else’s shows—and not too well, to boot—what do we need it for?

I’m not going to freak out after one series. (And True Blood might get better, as did Carnivale, which I didn’t like much its first few episodes either, even though I never loved it. Episodes 4 and 5 of True Blood do improve on the first three, Ball-written ones.) But on a cable spectrum with FX and AMC, among others, HBO needs to be more ambitious, not less.