TV Review: HBO’s ‘True Blood’ returns for Season 4

06.26.11 6 years ago 50 Comments


In all of the frustration that some of my colleagues and podcasting partners have had with Veena Sud, AMC and the end of “The Killing,” one of the most nefarious charges that’s been thrown around is that viewers were lied to, either by the showrunner, the network or the promotion/structure/genre of “The Killing.” They (we?) were allegedly sold a bill of goods and betrayed by a show that entailed a 13-hour investment of our hard-earned Sunday nights.
Leaving aside who did or didn’t lie to whom in the “Killing” case, I want to make one thing clear here: Alan Ball never lied to me about “True Blood.”
For years, Alan Ball has insisted that “True Blood” wasn’t metaphorical or allegorical in any way and even if you felt that vampires were being used as vehicles to discuss any or all manner of potentially ostracized or misrepresented minority groups, they were just vampires to him. 
And for years, I always chucked and figured he was just being disingenuous or trying to keep from limiting the audience for “True Blood.”
After all, I rationalized, how can a man who wrote the most over-literal critique of the sickening rot of suburbia in literary history — Yes, “American Beauty,” as much as I love it in places, makes “Stepford Wifes” and “The ‘Burbs” look subtle in comparison — and who tackled so many hot-button topics over the years on “Six Feet Under” be working in the horror genre without any attempts to create an undercurrent of anything meaningful within its storytelling?
I asked Ball about subtext on conference calls and on red carpets and I’ll confess that I never actually believed his answers when he said things like “I think a lot of people read a lot of allegory into it that is not really that intentional.”
After watching three seasons of “True Blood” and now the first three episodes of Season Four, I’m finally ready to tap out and give it up to Alan Ball…
“True Blood” really isn’t about anything. 
Sure, characters may pop up on TV talking about vampire segregation or vampire/human marriage and you might be inclined to think, “That sounds like rhetoric borrowed from the Civil Rights movement or the Gay Rights movement.” But that’s all it is, borrowed rhetoric. Alan Ball isn’t shy about stealing words and themes that have held political meaning for millions and slapping them glibly into the mouthes of vampires or werewolves as nothing more than disconnected, meaningless, fictional agitprop.
But Alan Ball never lied and claimed meaning where no meaning exists, intellect where no intellect exists, value where no value exists.
I am at fault for wanting “True Blood” to be more than it is. 
And maybe I’ve finally made my peace? Maybe I’m ready to stop trying to care about undead characters who can never be in any real physical or emotional jeopardy, because they’re monsters. Maybe I’m ready to stop trying to care about human characters who, in almost all cases, are just repositories for abuse, sexual fetishism, violence and a never-ending string of stupid decisions. The vampires aren’t anything more than vampires and the human characters aren’t anything more than compilations of bad writing. 
And that’s OK. 
Because “True Blood” is violent, gory, flippantly funny and a really great place for attractive actresses to go when they feel like a little on-screen nudity on a buzz-worthy show is worth permanent screenshot/mpg enshrinement in various corners of the Internet. It’s a show that will never hesitate to sacrifice the integrity of any of its characters for a cheap punchline, a bit of torture or a relationship that only makes sense because the two characters haven’t been paired up previously and don’t immediately seem to share DNA. And it’s a show that will never hesitate to abandon or abruptly jettison a plotline because things got too complicated or convoluted for the scribes to draft a plausible exit strategy. And it’s a show that solves the problem of how to service a ridiculously good, ridiculously huge cast of talented actors not by becoming more focused and honed, but by becoming more and more populated and diffuse.
If I expect more than that, that’s on me. If I dislike “True Blood” because it fails to live up to my hoity-toity ideas of what good television (or good fiction) should be, that’s a problem with my standards and not with the show’s ability to live up to its own aspirations. 
“True Blood” returns on Sunday (June 26) night with too many new characters, not enough time with the characters I like, a general evasion of the most prickly parts of last season’s finale, some plodding hints at a lumbering dramatic direction for this season and some breasts. 
[More after the break…]
Let’s see…
What to say about the start of the “True Blood” season?
Well, HBO has made the first eight minutes in Fairyville, where Alan Ball and company rip off The Land of the Lotus Eaters, available online and on HBOGo and in a variety of other forms. It’s a bad sequence, but it’s pretty much only designed to make viewers darned grateful to get back to Bon Temps where… stuff is happening. I don’t know how much I’m not supposed to spoil involving plotlines featuring our beloved characters. There are a few surprises, I guess. The two most surprising things: First, that the Tara plotline suggests that Ball and his writers were big fans of Season Four of “The O.C.” and second that Ball and his writers are content to rely on a now familiar TV trick that renders the first episode an amorphous blog of exposition and explanation.
The only thing the episode really has time to do, when it isn’t expositionalizing, is to introduce this season’s new supernatural being. Following maenads and werewolves and fairies, the time has now come to spend time with… Witches.
I hate witches.
If you’re a wiccan and any other pagan or neopagan off-shoot, I don’t necessarily hate you. Worship your Earth gods and goddess and whatever other core beliefs you have that I don’t understand because Hollywood almost never depicts regular, old fashioned wiccans who aren’t trying to tap into some Dark Power (or even some Light Power). 
But I’m not a fan of fictional witches. The frequency with which I care about witching plotlines on any of my favorite shows that have delved into such things is low, a feeling that’s also got me a bit nervous about The CW’s “Secret Circle.” As fictional beings, witches tend to have too much power and they tend to have too much power too quickly and you can never almost never have a witch step back on her power, so you’re invariably left with a character who can do anything and thus becomes a convenient out for any excessively complicated plotline. [Obviously the extended, multi-season Willow arc on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is one of the rare exceptions. I’m also partial to Wicked Witches of the West and, in Updikean form, witches who hail from Eastwick.] 
This season’s “True Blood” witches waste almost no time delving into powers surrounding life and death, yet another group of characters who seem not to have grasped the timeless message of “Flatliners.” 
What do the witches represent? Nothing. Don’t even try looking for allegory. That’s the kind of thinking that got me in trouble.
They’re fronted by Marnie, played by Fiona Shaw as the latest theater-trained actress to come to “True Blood” because the stage was no longer offering the opportunity to go broad enough. “True Blood” is becoming a vehicle for really talented actors and actresses to play to the back row of a packed auditorium even when they’re being shot in close-up and Shaw seems determined to make us think that Denis O’Hare’s performance as Russell Edgington was muted. The key difference is that O’Hare was having an infectious amount of fun. Shaw is twitching and talking with accents. The only good thing about the witching plot is that it promises to eventually give good material to Nelsan Ellis, whose Lafayette is routinely one of the series’ most ill-used pieces.
Other ill-used pieces aren’t immediately being better integrated. I credit Ball and company for at least remembering that Deborah Ann Woll exists and for giving Jessica the chance to be sexy and fiery in the early going, but the formerly quaintly sweet relationship between Jessica and Hoyt (Jim Parrack) is now dully discordant. 
Some other characters? By the end of the second episode, Alexander Skarsgard’s Eric takes a turn that should make fans of the books happy and yielded a slightly-more-entertaining third episode. And by the second and third episodes, Stephen Moyer’s Bill is sent off an an arc that probably won’t make anybody happy. I watched every second of the Jason Stackhouse arc going “Really?” and wondering why the writers forgot how marvelously funny Ryan Kwanten was in Season Two and decided that was never an attribute they wanted to use again. Terry (Todd Lowe) and Arlene (Carrie Preston) are off in their own weird world, but it’s a world that makes me laugh, even if it isn’t likely to ever connect with anything else. I still don’t care about Marshall Allman’s Tommy and I wish he’d been another in the show’s long line of introduced-and-forgotten characters. And Tara? Well, we should all throw a bit of a fiesta because nobody has raped, beaten or enslaved her through three episodes. Oh and I know it’s a spoiler, but it feels charitable to warn you that you have to wait until Episode 3 for Joe Manganiello’s Alcide to come back. 
There are lots of new faces and most of them are quite pretty. Early guest stars include Alexandra Breckinridge, Courtney Ford and Janina Gavankar, all actresses I’ve liked in other places. Normally I’d be like, “Darnit, I wish they’d just concentrate on mining drama from the characters they already have, or else start killing off a few of the characters they have no use for so that at least the new characters aren’t required to make impressions based on two minutes per episode,” but that would be a complaint the Old Dan would make about “True Blood.” That whiner would also lament that Sookie keeps becoming more and more of a secondary character on what was once a show about her. For people who hate Sookie, this will be a relief. For people who like Sookie, or at least appreciated that she provided the storytelling with a spine and helped hold this sloppy mess together, it’s less good news. “True Blood” is currently a series without a core, without a heart and New Dan just assumes this was an intentional decision, what with this being a show about creatures with no pulse.
There’s a subplot about how vampires are in the midst of a PR campaign to recover their acceptable identity in the post-Russell Edgington world. Old Dan would probably point out that because “True Blood” has never wanted vampires to be anything other than vampires, it has never made a convincing argument that vampires have any reason to expect equal rights and thus this plotline offers nothing for you to sink your brain-teeth into. Old Dan laments that if “True Blood” were a show that gave a hoot about subtext, this plotline might have been an interesting opportunity to comment on bullying and cyberbullying. New Dan thinks it’s funny that Eric is making a commercial for Fangtasia and has no interest in logic or the lack of continuity this represents for Eric.
I don’t quite see how any of the plotlines introduced in the first three episodes are going to gel together  in the season’s second half, but since none of last season’s plotlines ever gelled together, that may just be the new normal.
And New Dan is all about the New Normal. 

“True Blood” returns to HBO on Sunday night and it’s everything Alan Ball wants it to be!

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