True Blood Spoiler Alert. You've been warned.
True Blood finished its third season this past Sunday night with a boring episode where everyone yelled a lot about love and there was concrete and then Sookie went into the light. I wish there was more substance to describe there, but that's really about it.
I... don't really understand the fuss about True Blood.
I understand that the show employs very attractive people, and that those people have very attractive sex quite often. I also understand that it involves stories about vampires and werewolves, which increasingly seems to be the only growth industry left in the American economy. I also understand that we are going through a time in the culture where escapism is an increasingly attractive alternative to everyday life. I further have not read the books that form the basis for the show; I admit they may be better than the televised version.
But this is a show which features dialogue that is George-Lucas levels of terrible, horrible, no-good and very bad, delivered by actors whose amusement with the campy material they are being offered appears to have been exhausted by the time they've appeared in more than three episodes. (See, e.g., "Tonight Lorena and I have fucked as only two vampires can," intoned by Stephen Moyer with the air of a man undergoing a root canal. Without anesthesia.). It is also a show that has a plot line which honest-to-God involves the main character being a fairy whose "light" is being allegedly stolen by vampires. Talk about your re-inscriptions of purity myths.
Folks, I'm not looking to mix up a glass of haterade like the kind that gets poured on every franchise that women tend to like. I too find it troublesome that we feel we cannot allow women in this culture to have fantasy lives that are every bit as flat and cliched as those of your average Internet-porn-addicted dude. Furthermore, I do not demand that every bit of our culture have defensible artistic merit, nor do I imagine my taste the only acceptable taste out there. I know camp has its place. But I seriously just don't understand how anyone can claim this show as anything other than a guilty pleasure. And not a particularly interesting or progressive one at that.
Not every show has to be groundbreaking and new, of course, but I expect more of True Blood. At a very basic level, it's on HBO, which means that, thanks to that entity's vaunted production process, the writing staff enjoys a degree of independence from the demands of advertisers and market share. It can aspire, in other words, to greater depth of feeling than those depicted in Internet porn. It's also a show whose opening credits are designed to gesture at the grittiness of life in the backwaters of Louisiana, where the show is set. The dirty aesthetic of the credits serves as a weekly contrast to the candy-colored, heavily sanitized, smooth-skinned version of it we get in the show. It's too bad the people who did them don't seem to be in charge of the whole damn show.
I suppose you could make a claim for the transgressiveness of True Blood on grounds of the aforementioned ubiquitous sex. I wouldn't buy it, though, largely because of the show's near-exclusive focus on hetero sex. While there are gay and lesbian characters, they are comparatively few (Pam, Lafayette, the King of Mississippi). And their sex scenes are heavily edited and perfunctory when juxtaposed with those between say, Sookie and Bill, Jason and any of his girls-of-the-month, or Jessica and Hoyt. My favorite character, for example, Lafayette, the gay, possibly genderqueer (my term, he hasn't self-identified to my recollection) cook at Merlotte's Grill has, for this entire season, had a relationship whose sexual aspect has occurred almost entirely offscreen. The treatment of that relationship, with a nurse-turned-witch called Jesus, felt delicate and careful in a way that seems retrospectively suspicious. And even in depicting fantasy lives, the show seems squeamish about gay sex; in one of its cheekier moments this season the show had Sam Merlotte, the "shifter" barman-turned-collie, daydream about Bill Compton, but the scene did not go beyond heavy breathing and shirt removal. I'd say it seems like the network is involved, if I didn't have the impression that HBO is actually pretty hands-off, creatively, with these big shows of theirs. Which leaves, uncomfortably, the conclusion that the writers' own queasiness is at least somewhat at fault here.
With regard to the show's address of race, what little of it there is, it has to come to terms with what I've come to think of as the Tara Problem. I'm not the only one who finds Tara's characterization very questionable. If there is a character on television who's been kicked around and traumatized more than she has in the three short seasons of this show, I'd be shocked to hear it. Tara spent much of this season, for example, in the hands of a sadistic vampire admirer who raped her, repeatedly, onscreen. Last season she was brainwashed into betraying all of her friends, including Sookie and Lafayette, who, we are told, are the closest things she has to family. In a show with such flat characterizations and blunt writing I suppose the fact that one character is given little to do other be abused is hardly surprising. But add to that that it's a black woman who has been placed in those target sights, and that the only other trait the writers seem to directly imbue her personality with is a sharp tongue, and suddenly there's some pretty awful messages being sent by the show about black femininity. Those writers should be counted their lucky stars that they cast Rutina Wesley. In a less skilled actress's hands, one who was less good at showing nuance where none appears to exist in the script, their apparent love of punishing Tara would come off even worse.
(And let's not even talk about the racial implications of having the white lady be a goody-goody fairy who always saves the day with her bottomless internal well of goodness. I like Anna Paquin as much as anyone can like a media figure they don't actually know, but the character strikes me as horribly embarrassing, with her bad accent and little-girl dresses and fits of faux-feisty Southern pique. I'd take Scarlett O'Hara over Sookie any day of the week, and that is saying something, in my world.)
True Blood's failures provide a good lesson for people seeking to ground their progressive work in camp: simply put, that "transgression" is as "transgression" does. Not everyone can be John Waters. Not every depiction of the shocking and/or sexual opens doors, or at least not the right ones, to places you want to go in the culture. Bare gestures at inclusivity don't amount to actual inclusivity. And while I won't put words in the creator's mouths and say they wanted to do better than your average vampire camp this time around, I like to assume everyone has the best intentions. It's just that, as in everything, sometimes good intentions aren't enough.