Having sat through six back-to-back episodes of HBO’s new Southern Vamp-Gothic series “True Blood”, I am reasonably pleased to report that there’s more to this Alan Ball infection confection (based on the Sookie Stackhouse book series by Charlaine Harris ) than I first believed. But we’re not home and safe yet, tenderloins, so don’t you put away that garlic just yet.
Let me first say that I’ve been guilty of bailing out on a number of TV shows before returning to them with my tail between my legs. Ball’s “Six Feet Under”, his first foray into the ultra-permissive theater of HBO, had me stifling a gag reflex at every melodramatic touch. There also seemed to be a statement being made about everything from gay sex to family dysfunction in every single narrative beat. It felt forced and self-righteous, and I began to wonder if Ball had any idea that other people besides himself lead real lives where some of these issues were serious, everyday matters and that he wasn’t being revolutionary and brave simply by dramatizing them in as graphic a manner as he could. At some point I was expecting one of his more depressed and neurotic puppets to start humping the scenery. To say the least, I switched off and waited for “The Sopranos”. Being from Jersey, that rung a little more true, even if it also tread a little heavily now and again.
Then, several years later, I returned. I’m not even sure why. Prompted by nothing whatsoever I switched it on and began to notice the color schemes of the various scenes. Then for some reason, the dialog began to hum and refresh like a finely tuned water pick. Maybe my life had gotten more interesting over the gap years, or maybe the show had loosened up a tad. Whatever it was, I started tuning in from the first minute it kicked off, and once I saw what was probably one of the most hilarious opening death scenes wherein a family man accidentally runs over his own head while trying to retrieve the paper without leaving his SUV, I got it. The uncomfortable high humor, the tragic and twisted honesty, the unbridled passion and love – I got it all. It became my favorite hour of TV, and yes, I had all the air crushed from my lungs when the last episode showed me it had been holding my heart in the mortuary refrigerator the whole time and then proceeded to bury it in an avalanche of blessed and perfectly pitched melancholy. Damn you, Alan Ball. I’ve not been as tough in any way, since.
So after loving American Beauty, and now Six Feet Under, you could imagine my delight when learning that Ball was at it again, and this time with a series about vampires. I could scarcely believe my good fortune. It had taken me at least a year to properly mourn the Fisher family, and even though a part of me still wanted them all to come back to life (except for maybe Billy, who nearly drove me and Brenda to will ourselves to death), serving up a tasty portion of the undead was the next best thing. Anna Paquin only sweetened the pot. Sure, vampires had been done to death by then, but I knew that Alan would find a way to steal my soul again. And there I was, leaving the doors and windows unlocked, waiting as one does for it to happen.
The opening, as are most of HBO series’ openings, was as appropriately interesting and mouth-watering as the food photos on a Friday’s menu. But once I took my first taste, I spit it right back out. I was horrified, alright, but not from the danger of a vampire’s hunger, but instead from the thick “I do declare” southern dialog that rolled off the character’s tongues – not like freshly withdrawn blood – but more like warm chocolate milk. It was Tennessee Williams as envisioned by the Podunk Senior Center doing a play written by third graders from Podunk Elementary. And then came the nudity and sex, slathered over top like extra butterscotch on a butterscotch sundae with butterscotch morsels. In short, I thought it was a gratuitous mess that seemed to have no point but to present yet another allegory for fringe societies done with a paint-by-numbers grid. I’m mean it: I was confused, and more than a little pissed-off.
Shaking off my initial reaction and recalling how I’d made the mistake of bailing too early before, I got stuck in and waited for the second episode. Then the third. By the middle of that one, I’d switched over to something else and to be quite honest, forgot the damn thing was even on. I didn’t want to admit to myself – someone who had taken a year to catch on to the wondrousness that is “Battlestar Galactica” – that this time I’d gotten it right. True Blood was just bad. Ball had failed me. Finally. Badly.
So after a few weeks of saying as much in as many online horror forums as I could find, I began to listen again to those who had agreed with my initial reservations but had stuck it out and had come to find that there was something here besides hokey blood-sucking humor and overwrought performances. There were “surprises” apparently, and things had taken a turn for the bizarre. Some had even mentioned that, despite the wicked humor, they’d felt “disturbed”. And as I took it to mean in a good way, I decided to take the weekend, retrace my steps and take the show into another few episodes. And that’s what I did. Having gone all the way to episode 6, I’m hear to tell those who may be curious about this series a secret…
…the magic number is 5. I’ve yet to go back to SFU and see if the same holds true there, but it would appear that by episode 5 I forgot I was watching a new show and started to feel something for some of the characters. A good sign is being a little annoyed with the cumbersome way one needs to download the next episode in order to keep the train rolling. And I can tell you now, I was annoyed – take that to mean in a good way.
So, I’ve three more episodes to go before I’m all caught up, and I reckon I’ll be watching at least one of ’em tonight. Possibly two if I get started early on my supper. I still don’t know if I’d pay two bits for a peek at the rest, but daggone-it, somethin’s tellin’ me I need to stick it out fer a coupla more.
Hmm…maybe a bloody mary whilst viewin’ would spice things up a notch.