When it comes to “True Blood,” as far as I’m concerned, focus is everything.
I cringed through nearly every minute of the show’s first season, keeping up with it almost entirely for those two pronged reasons which should guide all responsible critics. In no particular order, those two reasons would be the desire to track something which was so clearly wedging its way into the zeitgeist, and also nudity.
For the second season, I approached “True Blood” through a revision of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer: HBO grant me the serenity to ignore the subplots I cannot stand, the screentime to enjoy the subplots I can and the patience not to judge people who can’t tell the difference. Watching one episode at a time, enjoying one gory orgy at a time.
In Season Two, it came down to celebrating Michelle Forbes scene-stealing, the icy confidence of Alexander Skarsgård, the unexpected comedy of Ryan Kwanten and the myriad skills of Deborah Ann Woll. I didn’t come to love the show, but I found the ability to set aside my broader concerns and concentrate on the gems within the sprawling Southern Gothic vampire-soap tapestry Alan Ball is weaving. Like I said: Focus.
Having seen three episodes of Season Three, my position remains unchanged. I’m not convinced that “True Blood” is evolving past its Guilty Pleasure status (for me), but I’ll take its pleasures as they come.
Review of “True Blood” Season Three, with minor spoilers, after the break…
When we left “True Blood,” Bill (Stephen Moyer) had just proposed to Sookie (Anna Paquin) and then was promptly kidnapped. Jason (Ryan Kwanten) had just shot Eggs (Mehcad Brooks), which was traumatizing for him, but perfectly reasonable for me, since I’m never cared about that character for a single second. Lots of other things were happening as well and it sure helps if you remember all of them, because Season Three picks up practically the second Season Two left off.
Time works oddly in the “True Blood” universe. I’m not sure exactly on the in-show duration of the first two seasons, but it’s something like four or five months, right? There’s always so much happening that Ball and company can create the illusion of busy-ness when the reality is that whole seasons can be spun from a chaotic couple weeks for the residents of Bon Temps. The time frame gets even more condensed to start the new season, as I’m pretty sure the first three episodes take place over two days.
For the most part, this means that the characters haven’t needed to change all that much through the run of the show. Eric’s (Alexander Skarsgård) vamp-crush on Sookie may be growing and Jason’s number of recycled personalities is approaching a half-dozen, but on a broader scale, it’s not as if Sam (Sam Trammell) has had the chance to come to terms with his lineage or like Jessica (Woll) has ceased to be an awkward baby vamp. “True Blood” has to keep things condensed, because otherwise you’d start to wonder why the citizens of Bon Temps (and the Louisiana authorities) haven’t started to worry about the soaring mortality rates [something that finally gets to William Sanderson’s Sheriff Bud in an early episode].
Season one was just a basic mystery, with a standard whodunnit providing an entry-point for viewers to experience this Spanish Moss-cloaked world. Last season was all about taking our established characters and having them give in to their passions and their depravity, with a helpful assist from Forbes’ visiting maenard. Season Three, at least thus far, seems to be about… Vampire government?
HBO has “Game of Thrones” coming sometime next year, a TV adaptation of a literary franchise that’s more political intrigue than fantasy whimsy, though you can be sure the network will sell the fantasy and let viewers stumble upon the bureaucratic machinations on their own. Is “True Blood” positioning itself to whet appetites? Yeah, there’s still ample sizzle — Skarsgård and Kwanten lead off the season’s nudity, while vampire sex and homoeroticism abound — but the substance of Season Three looks to be a ninth grade civics-level digression into the vampire power structure. We already met Evan Rachel Wood as the Vampire Queen of Louisiana and early episodes this season feature the exceptional Denis O’Hare signing on as the Vampire King of Mississippi. We get insight into the process through which sheriffs are selected and the way in which fiefdoms are consolidated.
There’s a turf war a-comin’ and you can be sure it’ll provide an insightful peek into undead redistricting and zoning. I hope we also meet the Vampire Alderman, the Vampire School Board and possibly the Vampire Secretary of the Interior! How does a vampire bill become a vampire law? Is vampire gerrymandering a problem? The “Twilight” saga makes it seem like a bunch of effete vampires with red eyes living in an Italian dungeon rule the world, but things in “True Blood” are a good deal more formalized and less likely to be run by Dakota Fanning.
And, fortunately, Season Three also introduces werewolves, though they aren’t just any werewolves, they’re werewolves with a familiar looking insignia and ties to several Great Moments in History. The werewolves are presented as being offshoots of human biker gangs. I’d say “hairier offshoots of human biker gangs,” but I’ve seen Mark Boone Junior and the stars of “Sons of Anarchy,” so I know it’s a toss-up.
Threesomes and maulings and meandering corpses aside, the plotline for the new season of “True Blood” is more “interesting” than “intriguing,” insofar as I’m learning things without necessarily feeling the plot rush along. So maybe it isn’t surprising that in the absence of a broad Season Three Hook, Ball and company have ratcheted up the kink. It’s been a really long time since anybody on “True Blood” had straight-forward passionate sex, gay or straight. The sex in “True Blood” keeps getting dirtier and the violence keeps getting more visceral and you’d never think of taking your eyes off of the screen.
Let’s break down some of what’s happening in the early episodes in terms of the things I’m enjoying and the things I could do without.
Because I’m such a positive guy, let’s talk about the things I like…
Spunky Sookie. Anna Paquin won a Golden Globe for the first season of “True Blood” (which isn’t meaningful, but still…) and then in the second season, she ceased to be the star of the show. With a clear objective this season — Find Bill, Bring Bill Back — and some new scene partners, Paquin feels more involved this season. It’s still pretty diffuse, but the current version of “True Blood” holds together best when Sookie is strong and sassy.
Deborah Ann Woll. I say “the current version of ‘True Blood,'” because my fantasy version of “True Blood” focuses almost exclusively on Baby Jessica. Yes, I’m a superficial person who likes Woll because she’s beautiful and provides a spark in a show that often feels too dour. But, superficiality aside, Woll has great range and manages to make her unsteady, coltish vampire a vehicle for both humor and tempered sadness and confusion. And she makes the most of a role which is, at best, underwritten. In the early going, Woll has several great moments with fellow scene-stealer Kristin Bauer van Straten, now a regular. The Jessica-Pam series is one that I would almost certainly prefer to the “True Blood” we’re currently getting.
Alfre Woodard and Nelsan Ellis. The show has already struggled to give Nelsan Ellis enough to do, so he scenes whatever scenes he’s given. I’m not sure where Lafayette is going this season, but the one scene Ellis and Alfred Woodard share is one of my favorite in the early going. Woodard is an actress capable of going broad without going over-the-top and “True Blood” is an environment that can be fruitful for that kind of performer.
Several other new faces. James Frain, Denis O’Hare, Joe Manganiello and Theo Alexander are all worthy additions. That being said, how many new characters can the show contain? It’s a 13-week series and episodes run 50 minutes. That’s not enough time for established regulars much less new faces, much less new faces playing characters beloved by fans of the books.
Funny Jason Stackhouse (plus Andy Bellefleur). I really didn’t like Ryan Kwanten in the first season. I hated his Southern accent, didn’t buy his swagger, just didn’t care. Then, in the second season, the writers wisely decided to make Jason funny, rather than just more man-meat. It paid off marvelously, especially when Kwanten got to share scenes with Chris Bauer’s Andy. There’s certainly some good Andy/Jason stuff in the opening episodes, since they now share a very dark secret.
Team Eric. If you’re Team Bill, it’s either because you’re a fan of the books or you’re a firm believer in true love. If you’re actually watching the series, Eric and Sookie are the more interesting pair on every level. The risk the writers run is of making Eric too sympathetic and too safe, but they’re obviously making efforts here and there to remind viewers that Eric is still a hedonistic animal, even if it feels like they’re over compensating.
And what about the things I don’t like?
Bill. In two-plus seasons, has Stephen Moyer changed his expression or his tone of voice a single time? He’s dull and Bill and Sookie have become dull together. Yes. I get it. They’re in LOOOOOOOVE. But if the writers can’t find a way to maintain drama without having one or the other abducted, something needs to change. Unfortunately, the Bill/Sookie dynamic is supposed to be the show’s core.
Tara. I don’t care for Rutina Wesley’s accent, but I’m even less enamored of what the writers have done to Tara over the seasons. Her misery has become frightfully uninteresting and if I never see her overacting momma again, it would be too soon. [Said overacting momma, played by Adina Porter, appears in the premiere and it is, indeed, too soon.]
Serious Jason Stackhouse. You can hang a full comedic plotline on Kwanten. You cannot, however, count on him to do drama. The early season, with Jason having trauma associated with committing murder, attempts to hang a dramatic plotline on Jason. It’s a bad idea. The only good thing about Serious Jason Stackhouse is that attractive women tend to get naked around him.
I still take issue with many of the show’s tonal eccentricities, with the meandering nature of the plot and with the prolonged periods in which people I don’t want to see naked keep stripping down and people I want to see naked keep buttoning up. But I guess it’s possible I’m finding more to like each season and maybe less to dislike.
But my own problems aside, I’m sure that “True Blood” devotees will be satisfied with the form the show is returning in. The lustiness, the bloodiness and hamminess are intact.
“True Blood” returns to HBO on Sunday, June 13.