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Kids, you know my luv of the fabulous Charlaine Harris is a crazy thing. Her Southern Vampires series have been must-do reviews for us (- See here and here) and I’ve had the unmitigated pleasure of interviewing the gracious Ms. Harris with the release of her heroine Sookie Stackhouse’s most recent adventure From Dead to Worse. During that interview, we discussed the advent of the then still in production adaptation of those books, the HBO TV series, True Blood (Click here to read that exclusive interview). At that point, she hadn’t seen an entire episode yet, but had complete confidence that producer/director Alan Ball would do a faithful and respectful rendering of book one of the series Dead Until Dark, despite her lack of direct involvement with the screenplay. Having now seen the first two episodes of True Blood, it truly pains me to learn that Ms. Harris’ faith has been sadly misplaced.

One of the things I brought up during our interview was how very young the cast looked in the set photos released at the time. Seeing the characters in motion, the main cast does look younger than described, but not terribly far off. However, the further point I made about how the show seemed to be skewing its focus toward a young demographic was right on the mark. Unfortunately, this is achieved in the cheapest, lowest way possible. One of the many delightful aspects of the Southern Vampires series is that, unlike other urban fantasy books which manage to thread some “plot” between unsexy pornography, is how only minimal use of T&A is employed and the books still manage to captivate their readers. Craziness. Yes, there is certainly slap ‘n tickle – and very well done slap ‘n tickle, at that - but it’s done sparingly in a way that makes sense. Just like in real life, sometimes you have to work to get that payoff and boy, is it worth it. From True Blood’s opening preface, a young couple in a car careens down a dark road, the driver barely able to keep the wheel for his girlfriend’s digital manipulations, you know what you’re going to get.

That sequence sets the tone for the whole show, sleazy and more than a little stupid. Through it we discover a Japanese concoction marketed as Tru-Blood, a plasma substitute has made it possible for vampires living secretly amongst us to come out of the coffin and join humanity, albeit after dark. We learn the vamps are a curiosity both lusted after and feared by society at large. We also find out that however unlikely, there are some seriously ugly vampires running around out there. I’d like to meet the sire of the rotund, flannel-clad good ol’ boy that shows off his sad-looking toothpick-thin choppers in that first scene.

Presumably, the focus of our story is Miss Sookie Stackhouse, Louisiana barmaid par excellence at Merlotte’s Bar and Grill. The young Miss Stackhouse is a singular creature; that rare breed who is content with her lot, imperfect as it may be. The curvy blonde is astonishingly single due to the misfortune of being able to hear the mostly lurid thoughts of the guys she dates. Sookie is a telepath, which never leaves her a peaceful moment without the intruding buzz of the secret notions and machinations of everyone around her. Her habit of answering questions and commenting on statements never spoken aloud has labeled Sookie as an oddball in her small town of Bon Temps. It is an unusual blissful silence that tips Sookie off to the fact that a vampire has come in for a quick bite at her establishment (N.P.I.). This liberating quiet only draws Sookie even closer to The Vampire Bill (- Yes, they kept the name) and the Tru-Blood sucker seems equally interested in the blonde barmaid. Unfortunately, their courtship is interrupted by a slimy couple whose chosen profession proves trouble for Bill and any other vampire unlucky enough to cross their path. Since their outing, it’s been discovered that vamp blood holds all sorts of fabulous properties for their human prey, health, strength, healing and of course, sex are all vastly improved by ingesting the plasma; the trick is how to acquire the highly-profitable stuff without getting eaten. Bill’s pernicious new pals have perfected the technique and thanks to Sookie’s inadvertent eavesdropping, she arrives in time to put a stop to their get-rich-quick scheme and save one very grateful vampire.

Bill is so appreciative that by episode two, he is having dinner at the Stackhouse home. Sookie’s grandmother has invited the nightcrawler in the hopes that he will share his recollections of his days as a Civil War soldier with her history group. All is not rosy for the tentative new couple as Sookie’s reckless brother Jason is vociferous in his objections and various associates also protest their living friend dating a fellow who’s not so much alive. Already put in the “weirdo” corner around town, Sookie begins to suffer even more gossip and conjecture as word gets out about her acquaintance with Bill. When the bodies of the couple who attempted to juice Bill turn up in a freak accident, she then becomes an object of suspicion. Everything seems against this unlikely relationship but Sookie’s not about to let anyone make her decisions for her, especially when it comes to breaking her dateless streak with such a gorgeous beau. Those are the nice details folks, there’s so much else to discuss that I can’t keep under my shoes where it belongs.

For a show that is purportedly about our perky blonde waitress, so much of the focus is placed on a number of other characters not nearly as appealing as Sookie, but a heck of a lot louder and utterly unpalatable. I’m giving my all not to let my love of the books get in the way, but one discrepancy must be addressed. In the contest for most obnoxious secondary character, the Golden Bat goes upside the head of Tara Thornton. I mention the books because Sookie’s best friend doesn’t even come into the series until the second novel, where she’s a perfectly likeable, responsible businesswoman and the owner of a clothing store. In True Blood, Tara is a raging sociopath. We first meet her lounging around her job at a K-Mart type store being rude to a customer, building her indignant act up to a crescendo that finds her actually slapping her boss in the face for no apparent reason and stomping off in a strop. She immediately calls Sookie to complain about how badly she’s treated and magically ends up with a job at Merlotte’s. Never one to embrace change, Tara begins her bartending career insulting Merlotte’s patrons and dictating to Sam, the owner, as to why she refuses to wear the required uniform – and gets her way!  Kids, I couldn’t care less that they turned Tara into an African-American, but I absolutely despised that they clearly inserted her to add the “Sassy Black Friend” into the proceedings. Tara’s an utter stereotype right down to the “attitude,” eye-rolling, and the inability of any other character to take her to task for her (- quite literally, criminal) foolishness. Then for some reason, she’s dropped into scenes that have nothing to do with her: Why is she at the family dinner being held for Bill, other than to pissily ask him if he owned slaves? Why is she even working at Merlotte’s? She posits to worried Sam that as long as she’s there, she’ll be Sookie’s guardian against the vampires and she can’t even do that right. The other African-American caricature offensive on so many levels is Merlotte’s cook, Lafayette, a queen so loud and flaming he’s a one-man Pride parade. Tara and Lafayette join forces and become running buddies possibly because they are the only ones who can stand each other’s company. It’s hilarious when dateless Tara moons over Sookie’s brother, who clearly knows better than to get with this psycho. There’s nothing that comes out of her mouth that isn’t an insult or accompanied by rolling eyes. I just can't picture this nutjob having any friends at all much less being best friend to gentle, kindly Sookie.

Poor thing has no luck in the sibling department, either. The final entrant in the obnoxious character trifecta is her brother Jason, a self-centered reckless horndog who exists only to get laid. It’s his propensity toward multiple encounters that lands the thin subplot of chapter one: After finding out his date for the evening has enjoyed the rough sexual attentions of a vampire, Jason is challenged to see how he rates and out come the ropes and winches. Unluckily for Jason, this same partner turns up dead the next day in a manner that would support their role-playing from the night previous, so Jason spends the better part of the episode in fear of Sheriff Bud Dearborn and Detective Andy Bellefleur.

Either because she’s not written interestingly enough or due to the others being so shrill, Sookie seems like a third-billed supporting player in her own story. The irritation factor of Tara’s and Lafayette’s characters and the immersion into graphic sex with Jason scream for the most attention. Sookie Schmookie.

A wonderful thing about the Southern Vampire Series is how very much the epitome of small-town America Bon Temps is; everybody knows everybody and a minimum of actual malice afoot. Bon Temps is not a sleazy place, which makes the advent of the vampires into the small town such a shock and Sookie’s increasing bonds with those vampires – who shake her up out of the small-town dead-end life she’d been contented with - so involving. In Alan Ball’s Bon Temps, everything looks like swampland. The entire production is covered with a layer of muck, from the oversexed porny storyline to the oversexed, Hooter’s wannabe waitresses in dank, filthy-looking dive that Merlotte’s is here (- It’s Bon Temps’ family restaurant in the books) to the flammable-looking low-end production values, all you see is cheap and tawdry. Everything is dark and nasty and kinky, so how can there be any true shock other than how graphic can the show get?

There’s no shame in Ball’s game of appealing to the lowest common denominator to grab viewers attention, starting with that seedy, dumb first sequence, to the opening credits featuring strippers, the Ku Klux Klan and time-lapse rotting animal corpses – Yum! The “shocker” for the night in episode 1 is a vampire/human porn tape that Jason watches. It was one of the most idiotic things I’ve ever seen on television and only remarkable for its laughable silliness and how ugly the vamp was. At no point in Charlaine's books did I ever read about unattractive snarling vamps humping in hyperdrive. Physically speaking, any woman who endured what the chick in the video does would have watched her uterus pop through the front of her body. Just plain stupid.

Speaking of stupid, why do the vampires have incredibly thin fangs practically on the front of their teeth? They look like demented gerbils who haven't chewed enough wood. The fangs pop down at will and are a sterling example of what bad CGI looks like. I made more realistic-looking fangs out of a pair of straws in the second grade. The fangs are so thin and unscary that one good bop to the face would snap the feeble points in two. There’s nothing else to physically discern vamps from humans and Bill's way of letting us know he's a vampire is by tilting his head down in every scene and looking up through narrowed eyes - how moody.

The only actor that comes out of this variety of acting styles and competence levels is Lois Smith as Sookie’s doting grandmother. She’s a sweet little bundle of Southern grace and sensibility, supporting Sookie in her new relationship and shutting loudmouthed Jason down when he gets out of line. There’s no way to tell if Ryan Kwanten’s Jason is as strident and irritating as he is due to Kwanten’s acting skills or the writing of the character, since all Jason’s done so far is screw and yell, sometimes simultaneously. Nelsan Ellis, is one of the least gaydar-pinging actors I’ve ever seen playing gay in my life, but boy, does he try so very hard. I can’t even comment on Rutina Wesley as the loathsome Tara because I’ve now seen two different actresses play the role and I’m convinced that Olivier back from the dead could do nothing to put over this repugnant character. The Vampire Bill was never a ball of fire even in the books, but does that give Stephen Moyer leave do deliver his lines with all the enthusiasm and charisma of a block of wood? Yes, Stephen, you’re cute, now what? Sans his good looks, The Vampire Bill (- who actually looks older than I pictured) is a big ball of nothing. Don’t even get me started on the mélange of Southern accents, including one Cajun sounding guy who’s there to remind us we’re in Louisiana. Besides Lois Smith, the actors playing Bud Dearborn (Deadwood’s William Sanderson) and Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer) suit their roles nicely.

Which leads us to dear Sookie, played by Anna Paquin: Waterbra ahoy! The Oscar-winning X-Man looks ill at ease in the long blonde tresses and extremely skimpy, (- un-Sookie-like) frocks. She does a nice job of conveying Sookie’s naivety, mostly I think because despite the WonderBra and hot pants of her Merlotte’s uniform (- so not like the books) and the makeup she believes gets her better tips, she still looks about sixteen years old. The extreme highs and lows of her Southern accent take some of the snap out of her line deliveries. Also, as mentioned, there is so much focus on the goings on of the supporting characters that her sequences tend to be short and static, which makes me wonder if that’s the fault of the direction or because Ms. Paquin doesn’t have the stage presence to be the centre of the action. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed Rogue since she was a little girl helping Holly Hunter drag that Piano around, but here in her own starring series, she seems lost. The second episode features more scenes of Sookie on her own and with Bill, but they are pretty flatline, but I’m convinced it’s because so much of the wry humour of Charlaine Harris’ dialogue is missing (- There is one truly amusing look inside Sookie’s head as she recalls some of disastrous dates.)  We do get a ham-fisted analogy from Bill about the horrors of sending young men off to war “so the rich people can stay rich.” Right now the chemistry between the two of them - blood sucking aside - not so much.

I’m so sad to say that based on the sexual content alone, I’m sure True Blood will be a big hit, especially with those who don’t know the books and good gravy, what an aggressive marketing campaign! I so wanted to support True Blood and it breaks my heart that it doesn’t hold closer to the tenor of wonderful Southern Vampire series, or live up to its enormous promise. Instead, the producers seem to have stripped whatever elements from the novels they could to create a sordid, contrived attempt at being “edgy” with a vague relationship to the original story. I never supposed that we would see chapter and verse of Charlaine Harris’ original work, but even as a series in and of itself, I surely wasn’t prepared for True Blood to be this shockingly uninspired, unintelligent and low-minded.

Perhaps past these first two episodes that may change, but if nothing is done toot sweet about the many problems this show has, I won’t be around to see it.

 

At least I still have the books.

 

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

Sept 1st, 2008

 

 

 

© 2006-2017 The Diva Review.com

 

 

Photos

(Courtesy of  Home Box Office)

 

My only hope for Episode 3!

 

 

 

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