July 1, 2011

True Blood

This past Sunday was the Season Four premiere of True Blood.

We just finished watched Season 3 on DVD only a couple of weeks ago. When I saw the new season was starting, I checked to see how much it was to add HBO for a couple months since the DVD wait is lengthy. The cost wasn’t bad, so I added it. For some time now, we’ve been talking about getting rid of cable all together and just using Netflix.I mean, comparing the amount of things we actually watch on cable to how much we’re paying, it’s just not worth it. I think of this as my last cable hurrah.

Besides that, some friends of ours recently moved back into town and one of them is a huge fan. True Blood is a show that lends itself to group viewing, I think, so she came over. We made snacks and sat down for premiere night.

As the opening riff of “Bad Things" played over the credits, it struck me as a little funny that I was this excited. I remember when Maria suggested watching True Blood, I wasn’t too keen on it. In fact, I’m pretty sure I groaned.

Aloud.

A lot.

I had these terrible visions of what I would be in for: Twillight for adults, cheesy special effects, bad writing—even if Alan Ball, the man behind Six Feet Under and American Beauty was the one adapting it. Oh, and all the shit I hate about romances whether paranormal or mundane.

But, I relented. It was Maria’s turn to pick what we watched next and she assured me the vampires in Bon Temps didn’t sparkle.

I was pleasantly surprised by the first season. The effects are good. The switchblade noise during the fang popping is an interesting and bold choice, even if it takes a bit of getting used to. The rough spots in acting, like the accents, improve through the course of the first thirteen episodes. It finds its dialogue voice fairly quickly after some early awkwardness. The pacing is good. The characters are interesting (True Blood has probably one of the strongest “secondary” casts on television). It’s well shot. The soundtrack is great.

And the show is just plain sexy as hell.

Plus, no one told me this—it’s funny.

I got it into. Watching it, I found myself really liking Sookie and Bill. (I do like love stories—I just hate “romances”.) The two of them work. It’s engaging. She’s not my type, but Anna Paquinn is pretty and fresh faced with big doe eyes. Stephen Moyer has the lonesome brood down pat without falling into the smugness that always put me off Tom Cruise. Paquinn and Moyer have great chemistry together (They ended up getting married in real life). Their character backgrounds mesh well; mutual loneliness and a dash of the old fashioned, coupled with an open mind. It makes sense that they’d find each other—hell, you even want them to find each other.

I could see possibilities for their relationship. I could see things thrown in their way, interesting things—dramatic situations and conflict. So, we surged through the first 10 episodes and I admit it, I was really hooked. I wanted to know what happened.

Then we hit episode 11 and I groaned. Character motivations and behaviors suddenly flip-flopped. People did things that made no sense based on what had been established. There was some convenient manipulation of the plot. Plus, the serial killer mystery, the overarching plot of that first season, was just plain piss-poor.

Now, someone did tell us when we first talked about watching True Blood, “You need to turn your brain off and not expect too much.” I can do that—I’ve read pulp that requires that from word one, page one. I would have done it for True Blood but the show was good in so many other ways that I actually cared about the characters, their relationships, and even the damned plot. My brain stayed on and that made the chump parts all the worse.

However, there was enough there for us to decide to stick it out through Season 2, a season with some big improvements. Better acting—top-notch all around. Soundtrack is A-1 bluesy without straying into white-washed BB King/Eric Clapton territory.

It’s chocked full of lots of great subplots. Jason Stackhouse and The Church of the Sun plot is genius. A wonderful character driven plot that’s funny, exciting, tense and sexy. Ryan Kwanten just shines in those moments. Also, Eric’s backstory is great. His search for his maker adds depth to his character, reveals more about vampire society, eventually connects to other subplots and complicates the Sookie/Bill relationship in a believable way. A way that’s interesting and doesn’t just feel like lazy writing. And the Jessica Hambly plot is one of my favorites. I absolutely hated that character when she first shows up, but the writers elevated the poor, little church girl getting turned into a vampire into one of the best bits of the show. So, many great moments with her: talking Sookie into taking her to see her parents, meeting Hoyt at the bar, dominating the guy at the airport and then at the hotel.

I liked seeing more of the out-of-the-coffin vampire society, things like Anubis Air and Hotel Carmilla. It’s that sort of world building and theorizing that still draws me to horror, fantasy, and science-fiction, even if I don’t write it so much anymore.

There are drawbacks. Some character inconsistencies, a couple of jarring what-the-fuck moments and an absolutely terrible overarching plot for the season. Just awful and dull and cheesy and unnecessary. It did nothing but muck things up and provide bathroom breaks without the necessity of hitting pause.

With Season Two being both better and worse (hard to believe that’s possible, but true), I was a little unsure how Season Three would be.

I’ll tell you—it’s the best season so far, very exciting and very sexy. It was plot focused and character driven. Easily, I think, the most cohesive season of the show. Denis O’Hare is absolutely stunning as the Vampire King of Mississippi. I mean, you didn’t want to miss a single moment when he was on the screen. And it was incredibly refreshing to watch something on television for once that had twists and surprises that actually made sense in terms of both narrative and character.

During the premiere, our friend commented on several things they changed in the first couple of minutes. After the premiere, I saw a lot of posts full of complaints. Another friend of ours, the one who really convinced us to give the show a try, has read the books too. The two of them like both the books and the show, though one freely admits the books are terrible.

I realized after the premiere and our conversations that I like the show the more it deviates from the books. That’s so weird for me to say… I had always thought books were better than their adaptations? But, shortly after we finished Season 2, I tried reading a couple and I knew that isn’t always true.

You see, every couple of weeks, my wife and her friend, Vanessa, get their nails done. I hang out in the local used bookstore until they’re finished, then we meet up with Vanessa’s boyfriend and we have dinner or some drinks.

Milling around the overstocked shelves, I noticed they had had several of the Sookie Stackhouse books. I didn’t have anything else to do and I liked the show, so I thought I’d give it a try. I grabbed all the books they had and sat down in one of the chairs nestled in the backroom and started reading.

They’re a fast read. I was able to plow through a good chunk of the first book, skim several others and read a couple of pages in the rest.

Dear Lord, they’re abysmal…

The dialogue is just terrible. I mean easily some of the worst I’ve ever read. It’s so bad that if I were teaching a creative writing class, I’d make students read it and just say, “Don’t do that. Don’t write that way.”

The characters aren’t much better. Stiff cardboard, they’re there only to propel us from sex scene to silly plot point. Character behaviors are just weird and kind of...off. Even characters I love in the series are barely mentioned. I mean, I knew Lafayette (one of the best characters on the show) gets killed off in the first book, but damn.

Oh, and the sex scenes are bad. Awkward and kind of smutty in a unappealing, juvenile way.

Sookie in the novels is just repellant. She’s vapid, emotionally stunted, shallow and really just an idiot. She blithely moves through life, loves, events, and plot points seemingly unaffected by much of anything.

And even Bill, one of my favorite characters from the show, is just dull and kind of there. He's massively unappealing.

There’s so many supernatural creatures (vampires, fairies, werewolve, werepanthers, weretigers) and junk thrown in as the series goes on, it just feels like a mess, a really bad role-playing chronicle your buddy would run in the basement during junior high. There’s enough punch in the vampires coming out of the coffin idea, the rest of it is unnecessary.

From what I read, what I skimmed through, and conversations with our friends, it seems to me the show deviates more and more from the books as it goes along—which is a good thing.

The whole thing is fascinating to me.

I understand the appeal of romance novels, I do. I'm fully aware there’s a whole contingent of vampire fans out there who will read and buy anything with a blood sucker. Likewise, no problem with the notion that people like their spray-cheese in different flavors.

All that is understandable.

What I can’t understand is how the fuck these things have sold as well as they have?!?! How do you not reach a point when you expect just a little more from your fun entertainment?

Not only that, how does something so blah, produce something so good? I can think of very few works whose adaptation outshines the source material, in my opinion. Maybe two—Showtime’s Dexter series (those books are terrible too) and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies (those books put me to sleep).

What do you think?
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