True Blood's first season of twelve episodes is a pretty exhilarating experience. It's also one of the most assured television debuts I think I've seen to date with characters and situations that immediately hook you in and compel you to keep watching the episodes. So, how best to describe the certain 'je ne sais qoi' of the series? Especially when I still haven't fathomed what exactly makes a series like this so attractive, witty, scary, sexy and tragic when it's jumped straight into the rather stagnant waters of that old favourite of ours: the vampire genre.
Think Buffy but, and this is really crucial now, think Buffy where just about everyone has stopped talking about sex and is actually just getting on with it, blatantly and pornographically. Yes, there is a lot of flesh on show in True Blood. It's a Buffy that dispenses with the white teen angst of California and embraces the sweaty, sultry, dirty, mangrove festooned corners of Louisiana. Instead of the Hellmouth, we get vampire Bill, his Area sheriff Eric, the vampire club Fangtasia and most importantly of all the fact that vampires have 'come out of the coffin' and are amongst us, trying to live as citizens with the human population. They're fighting for equal rights and they even have their own blood substitute, the Tru(e) Blood of the title.
Think Twin Peaks too. Yes, we've got a rather inept police captain and his deputy but more importantly we've got some of the strangest storylines and situations: grisly murders, a man who can change into a dog, a telepathic waitress and voodoo are some of the day to day odd occurences in the small town of Bon Temps. Just as Twin Peaks unearthed the bizarre underworld of that famous Washington state town, True Blood reveals the seedy underbelly of the Deep South, its inhabitants and their relationships with the undead.
The subtext is very clear: the vampires fighting for their rights to live equally with the living are as much reflecting the continuing battles of the black civil rights movement and especially the gay community's fight for equality (the opening titles ironically flash up a meeting hall with signage declaring God Hates Fangs). The series deliberately deals with religious radicals and political injustice and mirrors many of the issues we are facing today. Much of this subtly plays out in the background but often there are storylines that blatantly discuss these topics.
So, it's a knowing, satirical series and the fact that Alan Ball, the creator of the sublime Six Feet Under, is producing, writing and directing it, based on the The Southern Vampire Mysteries series of novels by Charlaine Harris, should also tell you that in his inimicable fashion he uses the series to critique ideals of the typical American family, heterosexual norms, the fluidity of gender roles as well as indulge in his trademark fascination for death.
Strange Love, the season opener, basically outlines the broader concept with the first sequences of a young couple going into a drug store to buy bottles of Tru Blood (the Japanese created blood synthetic marketed to vampires) and having a very scary confrontation with a vampire. From there we are deposited to the, what will become familiar, environs of the Merlotte's bar and the town of Bon Temps, the bar manager Sam, waitress Arleen, cook Lafayette and the main character, waitress Sookie Stackhouse (a really endearing and fabulous performance from Anna Paquin). And we learn about Sookie's gift as all the inner thoughts of the bar customers pile up on the soundtrack when we hear what Sookie hears. The series on-off romance begins here when 174 year old vampire Bill Compton (pasty faced, gaunt looking Stephen Moyer) walks into the bar.
The first episode eases us, fairly gently, into the universe of the Harris novels. The sex and nudity is very up front. For instance, I'm convinced that Ryan Kwanten, who plays Sookie's wayward brother Jason, must have it in his contract that he loses his clothes at least once an episode. Not that I'm complaining, Kwanten is not only very lovely eye candy but he's also a great actor and he imbues Jason with equal amounts of stupidity, innocence, loyalty and charm. And those with an eye for the ladies will not be disappointed either as it's an equal opportunities nudity show and there plenty of women deshabille, including Paquin, for your own delight. It also sets up the season long story arc about a series of murders in the town, for which Jason continually gets the blame, and how the real killer is unmasked in the final episode.
The murder mystery isn't the series' strength. It provides plenty of shocking moments, including the death of Sookie's grandmother and attacks on the vampire community but it's the fascinating relationships between men and women, human and vampire that keep the viewer engrossed and intrigued. The drama often veers off into camp and farce and a particular highlight of this is Mine, Episode 3 and, in which Jason persuades Lafayette to sell him some V - vampire blood - to sass up his sex life after a failed conquest. The consequences, a massive hard-on that has to be drained in an emergency room, provides laugh-out loud comic moments and establishes Jason as a loveable rogue.
As the series progresses we slowly start to learn about the various characters and their backgrounds, Sookie's friend Tara and the shame she bears of her alcoholic mother; bar owner Sam and his odd behaviour and crush on Sookie; and Bill's Confederate soldier past which is stunningly realised in perhaps the first season's best episode Sparks Fly Out. In Escape From The Dragon House we also learn much more about how vampire society operates and get our first introduction to the vampire night club Fangtasia and Eric (the brilliant Alexander Skarsgård), a Viking vampire who is the most powerful bloodsucker in the area. Cold Ground proves the series can do something so unexpected to an already established character and continues to add emotional depth to the series which can sometimes slightly struggle to elevate itself above the genre in which it is working, especially when the farcical moments wander out of control. When the episodes concentrate on character development it becomes less of a comic book and more of a, pardon the pun, full blooded drama. This is probably Alan Ball's influence and long may it continue.
From The Fourth Man in the Fire onwards there is also a beautifully realised relationship between a gay vampire, Eddie, and Jason. Jason has fallen in with Amy, an addict to V, and they kidnap Eddie to drain him of blood for their ecstatic sex sessions. But Jason, for all his muscles and impressionable red-neck bluster, is actually a sensitive soul and has a conscience. He and Eddie develop a platonic understanding, rather along the lines of a mutual Stockholm syndrome, and it's devastating when Amy finds out. Finally, I Don't Wanna Know will certainly make you double take at what is revealed about Sam and will no doubt reward your puzzlement over the bar owner.
As the first season heads towards its conclusion various sub-plots are resolved and new ones are clearly being set up for the second season. The resolution to the main murder plot is rather underwhelming. It's a kind of 'is that it?' moment when the finale deals with the identity of the murderer. But don't let that put you off. True Blood has an awful lot going for it and some of the episodes are quite simply genre television at its very best and it's how you relate to the characters that's the most important thing here. Superbly directed, visually quite stunning in HD, and full of immensely charming and not-so-charming characters played convincingly by a talented ensembled cast, the series manages to find its own territory within a recently crowded vampire genre and certainly takes an adult route in the way it depicts sex, gore and violence.
Blu Ray features: The first season arrives on Blu Ray in a beautifully packaged set. However, it is rather thin on special features. On the positive side we get an abundance of commentaries, “In Focus: Vampires in America”, a documentary that chronicles the integration of vampires into the human world; “Tru Blood” beverage ads marketing the synthetic blood product to “out of the coffin” vampires; Public Service Announcements created by groups on opposite sides of the “Vampire Rights Amendment” debate; and vampire-targeted product ads for dating, motel and lawyer services. It's the True Blood Enhanced Viewing on Blu-ray that somewhat disappoints, sporadically weaving pop up clips introduced by Lafayette through the episodes. It's hardly 'enhanced' in that sense. Rather anaemic, in fact.
Episode One – creator/executive producer Alan Ball
Episode Two – Anna Paquin (Sookie Stackhouse) and director Scot Winan
Episode Four – director Michael Lehmann and writer Brian Buckner
Episode Five – Stephen Moyer (Bill Compton) and director Dan Minahan
Episode Seven – director Marcos Siega
Episode Eleven – director/writer Nancy Oliver
True Blood - The Complete First Season: (HBO Blu Ray - Region Free - DB2767183 US Release May 19th 2009 (Not rated), UK Release October 26th 2009 Cert 18)
Cathode Ray Tube True Blood