I have to say this for HBO’s True Blood, which returns Sunday for its second season: It begins and ends better than possibly any show on TV.
By beginning, I mean the theme song (Jace Everett’s “Bad Things”) and the amazing title sequence. By ending, I mean the way nearly every episode ends on a dizzying crescendo of melodrama—some horrific/gross/shocking thing happens, SCREEEEEEAM!, then cut to black. It’s the moment in each episode that gets the show’s ideal tone perfectly: a stylized, escapist magical realism, whose ultimate goal is to mix a heady brew of lust and gothicism and top it off with a 120-decibel cherry of terror.
It’s the parts in the middle that I still have issues with. I’ve grown to like the show better since the early episodes, which I wrote last year were hobbled by a weak lead in Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and flat, if not caricatured, supporting characters. I thought the show improved over time, partly by fleshing out characters like Tara (Rutina Wesley) who went from the wisecracking-black-friend of the early episodes to one of the show’s most relatable and complicated characters.
But mostly, the show improved—in my eyes, anyway—by doing well enough by what was good about it that I could simply ignore the weaker stuff. Namely: Vampires cool; humans, meh. I love the show’s gradual revelation of the ancient social culture of vampires—their hierarchies, their infighting, their rules. (And their physiology: when you stake one, the blood stretches like taffy!) One of the best continuing storylines this season is Civil War-era vamp Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), Sookie’s gentleman caller, being forced to serve as guardian to a bratty teen vampire he was forced to “make” as a punishment last season.
(I won’t get into the unresolved issues from last season—Lafayette’s disappearance, Tara’s relationship with her mother—that would get into major spoilers here, but, minor spoiler alert, expect to get some answers fairly quickly at least.)
The larger human world of Bon Temps, however, is still disappointingly shallow, full of redneck-and-Bible-thumper cliches. (For all I know, True Blood may have a huge following in the rural South, but whenever I see how it portrays the townspeople—bigots, or well-meaning idiots, or closed-minded holy rollers, or fonts of southern wisdom—I start thinking that maybe Sarah Palin has a point.)
That hasn’t changed much so far, and as Sookie’s brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten, seemingly doing a young-George-W-Bush impression) gets sucked into a Christian anti-vampire-hate sect, it only becomes more pronounced. (In episode 2, he sees a concert by a Christian pop star who sings, “Jesus Asked Me Out Today.”) The thing is, the clash-of-cultures premise of True Blood is potentially fascinating: vampires have been integrated into society, but some have not truly given up feeding on humans, and others are victims of prejudice, or of hunting by humans who use their blood as a drug. Some vampires are good and some evil, just like humans. But it requires a subtlety that creator Alan Ball either can’t offer or isn’t interested in.
Maybe I’m just taking a basically sexy, escapist show too seriously. Certainly a lot of people disagree with me; True Blood is HBO’s biggest hit since The Sopranos and Sex and the City. But the show itself is trying to have things both ways. If it wants to be a good-time summer diversion, it should lose the homophobia-allegory parallels; if it wants to keep them, they deserve better treatment than the preachy, cartoonish setup they get here. As it is, the show seems to want to switch between social commentary and hey-it’s-just-a-monster-story, depending on what’s more convenient at the time.
As it is, True Blood is two shows: an often fascinating, beautifully styled supernatural story, and an often disappointing realistic one. There’s enough in the show that I like that I can usually overlook what I don’t. But I don’t think I’ll feel more compelled to follow season 2 than season 1; and it’s too bad, because shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer have proven a series can be both escapist fun and authentic, complex character drama.
Maybe I should stop overthinking it, sit back with a cold red one and just enjoy the show. But I’d have an easier time taking True Blood less seriously if it could make up its mind as to how seriously it wants to be taken.