True Blood

The premise of the show is that a Japanese firm has managed to synthesize human blood, bottle it and sell it, removing the need for vampires to kill humans and allowing them (those that desire it) to re-enter society. But choosing to go mainstream isn't easy. In the illiberal South where the show is set, the vampire Bill Compton has to confront small-town ignorance, and the disdain of other vampires in his attempts to fit in.

This setup means the show can easily comment on issues of privilege and minority-rights, and to its great credit, it takes those opportunities. Characters have passionate arguments about being black, gay or female and dealing with prejudice. But how exactly can a vampire metaphor reflect these different experiences? Before the invention of True Blood, vamps were, of necessity, murderers. Even when this necessity is removed, many choose to continue living outside the law. The show is clever in balancing the value of tolerance (Sookie) against the very real danger vampires pose to human life (Sam). To me, the closest parallel that suggested itself is the attitude many Bulgarians have towards Roma gypsies, who have a reputation of keeping to a way of life that is incompatible or even hostile to the majority. Now, I would argue a priori that Roma gypsies, and other such racial-cultural minorities, have been criminalized by society. By portraying these issues using vampires (who certainly have inhuman powers, and seem to have difficulty restraining their lust and bloodlust) the show is in danger of suggesting that real-world minorities are discriminated against because they have something in their nature that is wrong with them.

This sounds pretty sensitive, even for me. But imagine if the show managed to confront this difficulty head on. Why are vampires so anti-social? Maybe because they are products of society just as everyone else is. Maybe their anarchic libertinism is just another social construct. Maybe they haven't so much created their identity, as believed the identity others have thrust upon them. A natural conclusion to Bill's story might be the re-establishment of that normal boring domestic lifestyle he lost so long ago.

Needless to say, I don't think True Blood is going in this direction. The social-commentary aspect of the show seems to be a cool little side order to the fiery main meal. In the words of creator Alan Ball, this series is all about the 'terrors of intimacy'. Louisiana is hot, sticky and very very sexy. God and public approval try (and usually fail) to keep a lid on passionate excess. Our heroine Sookie is a telepath constantly facing up to the hypocrisy that results. Eavesdropping on everyone's dirty little secrets for most of her 25 years has miraculously resulted in a open and benevolent disposition. Like her brother Jason, Sookie is dim enough get into some pretty hairy situations. But while Jason is led into innumerable scrapes by his egoism, Sookie gets there by being nigh-suicidally selfless.

Sookie's superpower isn't telepathy so much as the ability to not be ruined by telepathy. You would expect her to be withdrawn or misanthropic, resigned or angry. Instead she's awkward but cheerful, and bursting with goodwill. This despite not being able to go on dates because she is able to hear all the beastly things prospective boyfriends are thinking about. But Bill is a vampire, thus unreadable. Plus he's tall, dark, handsome, and seems to be playing nice. Romance ensues, with much gothic archness. The traditional thematic features of vampire stories are retained: lust and pain, sex and death. But Sookie's telepathy, and some self-awareness, could allow for a deeper exploration of the psychological drives behind such desires and fears. Why does she forgo dating the safe and dependable (and pretty cute) Sam? At points I wonder if her unlimited reserves of generosity concerning vampires is pathological: an obsessive need to will a malevolent world to be better, or get torn to pieces. Sookie's optimism often looks more like a death wish.

I'm in the middle of season one as I write this, and am still unsure of whether the show is able to go in these directions. We are saddled with a murder mystery plot, and various side-plots involving knockout supporting characters: Jason, Tara, Sam, Lafayette. Diverting as these guys are, they often drain time and interest away from the central couple, and leave the potential depths that could be explored through that relationship unvisited. And if the main characters remain in Edward and Bella mode, then I don't think I'm going to stick with them through to Season 2.

1 comment:

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