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Sunday, August 2, 2009

‘True Blood’ improves the drama and the sex

‘True Blood’ improves the drama and the sex
Aaron Barnhart, tvbarn@gmail.com

SAN DIEGO | Let the record show that Hollywood’s vampire obsession reached its inevitable point of convergence at the Comic-Con International show last weekend.

During a panel with the cast of HBO’s “True Blood,” a young woman in the audience asked the show’s producer, Alan Ball, if “we could expect a half-human, half-vampire baby on the show.”

To his everlasting credit, Ball looked like he didn’t know what she was talking about. Then the audience called out, “Twilight! Twilight!”

Someone on the dais explained to Ball that it was a reference to the popular teenage novels and movie adaptation. Ball nodded and leaned into the microphone.

“No,” he declared. Loud cheers followed.

Well, you can’t blame a girl for asking.

After a mostly blood-soaked first season, “True Blood’s” second season has provided the sexual release viewers were expecting all along. This, in turn, has raised the stakes for everybody involved in the fangbangers-in-the-bayou drama ... and made the show a lot more interesting.

Indeed, judging from all the nuttiness going on in Season 2, a hybrid Dracu-baby is one of the few options Ball seems to have ruled out.

I was asked, after the Emmy nominations were announced last month, why “True Blood” hadn’t picked up any major nods. “Because it didn’t deserve any,” was my answer. (Only Season 1 episodes were eligible for this year’s Emmy consideration.) Last year the blood flowed like water, and the story line moved like molasses. This season, at least, the drama and the plasma are keeping pace with each other.

Next year, I think “True Blood” has a legitimate shot at Emmys, although I must say I wasn’t encouraged by the sizzle reel that was brought down to San Diego to wow the 4,500 cheering fans packed into the ballroom for the “True Blood” session.

Before we get to that, though, here’s that part in my column where I take a moment to explain to readers why they should invest time in a convoluted TV series like “True Blood.” (This problem didn’t exist back in the days of Quinn Martin Productions.)

At its core, “True Blood” is a love story between Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), who’s old enough to remember the movie “The Piano,” and a vampire, Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), who is old enough to remember the first Steinway.

Sookie works at a roadside bar and grill, along with many of the show’s more colorful characters. Also, she is telepathic. (You’d think being able to hear the thoughts of everyone around her, she’d have picked another career besides waitress.) As you can imagine, that creates barriers of intimacy between herself and others. In fact, it took her a whole season and change to get it on with Bill.

Sadly for our heroine, Bill is caught up in a movement that’s larger than himself. That movement is both political and mystical. Political, in that vampires are demanding equal rights because the Japanese have developed a synthetic blood substitute that, in theory at least, allows blood-suckers to go legit.

Mystical, in that novelist Charlaine Harris has set her series of Stackhouse mysteries in the deep rural areas of Louisiana, where all manner of crazy stuff like shape-shifting and bodily possession takes place that they just don’t allow in those uptight, conservative big cities.

These literary decisions have helped the adaptation, “True Blood,” stand out in the suburbanized television landscape. For instance, the clever British series “Being Human,” now airing 8 p.m. Saturdays on BBC America, doesn’t seem as imaginative because with the sound down, it looks like just another program with three good-looking young city dwellers (who happen to be a ghost, a werewolf and a vampire).

There’s simply no room in these other series for some of “True Blood’s” more appealing characters. Take Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis), a drug-dealing, gay-prostituting short-order cook who got some of the biggest cheers from the Comic-Con crowd. I think some of his appeal comes from the comeuppance he has suffered at the hands of the local vampire sheriff, Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard). And I know what you’re thinking: How bad can a program be that has Alexander Skarsgard playing a local vampire sheriff?

Michelle Forbes has a juicy role as Maryann, a shape-shifting matron who lives in a mansion and is responsible for one of the pairings (besides Sookie and Bill) that has been steaming up the windows of Season 2.

That would be between Sookie’s best friend, Tara (Rutina Wesley), and handsome stranger Eggs (Mehcad Brooks). The preview reel that we saw suggests two things about their relationship: one, that they will continue to get it on, and two, that their eyes will turn a spooky shade of death. I’m not sure if one leads to the other — that’s why it’s a preview reel.

Finally, amid all of the blood-shedding (mostly non-synthetic) and clothes-shedding (ditto, from what I can tell), there is a subplot involving a holy-roller church of sorts, the Fellowship of the Sun. And here is where “True Blood” has the potential to lose me just as it was starting to reel me back in.

When “Six Feet Under” was on HBO, I was glad that Ball had the foresight to include Christianity as a major force in a TV drama about death and being gay. Ultimately, though, I decided it was of little use to anyone working on that show other than as a dramatic foil.

Sookie’s brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten) has gotten involved with the Fellowship, which believes that “God hates fangs.” This is an obvious reference to our friends from Topeka, once again putting them on the national stage and treating them as a much bigger deal than they are here.

From what I can tell, in the rest of this season’s episodes the church is going to launch a major offensive against Vampire Nation, and unlike the sheriff, they ain’t taking prisoners. In the clips, as in the episodes I’ve watched, the Fellowship of the Sun looks angry, maniacal, cartoonish and unlike any house of God I’ve ever been in.

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