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Friday, September 11, 2009

Women hold the power

Women hold the power on ‘True Blood,’ ‘Hung’

By Matthew Gilbert Boston Globe Staff / Article Link

Summer TV has been quite the trip, largely thanks to a particular maenad and her shivery, incantatory fits. Featured in the second season of HBO’s “True Blood,’’ Maryann Forrester has brought all kinds of wicked primal energy to the screen. Her name may put you in mind of “Gilligan’s Island’’ and a pair of pigtails, but she is more of a maniacal Mary Poppins, dropped into the town of Bon Temps to make life a very jolly holiday indeed.

Played with awesome hauteur by Michelle Forbes, who deserves lots of awards love for this role, Maryann is the queen of every scene she’s in. Whether she’s feeding heart pot pie to her minions or casually shrugging off the death of her manservant, she is creepy, campy, forceful, and irresistible. Alongside the Michigan women of “Hung,’’ who have found liberation with a male escort named Ray, Maryann has helped create a group portrait of women accessing power by shredding inhibition. It’s HBO Animus.

As “True Blood’’ and “Hung’’ wrap for the season on Sunday night, at 9 and 10, respectively, they provide a provocative yin to the sexist yang that is “Entourage.’’

“Hung’’ has been only partially satisfying in its first season, losing direction and originality every time the writers veer into Ray’s family life. But the comedy-drama does consistently come alive with Tanya, a neurotic cosmic trooper played by Jane Adams. “Hung’’ is less far less effective dealing with Ray and his sexual endowment than it is with the women who use him. If you thought you were going to get an homage to male potency with this show, you were pushing your cart up the wrong aisle. As Ray’s pimp, Tanya is evolving beautifully into a poet warrior, gradually triumphing over maternal oppression, writer’s block, and professional stasis. Her development is the most coherent element of the series.

“True Blood,’’ on the other hand, has been thoroughly satisfying this season, and not only because Maryann has inspired ecstatic raves (in Bon Temps and from viewers). While “Hung’’ wandered among nonstarter plots - do we care about Ray’s kids’ romantic lives? - “True Blood’’ has expertly kept a number of rich, directed plotlines going at once. Even while a few different supernatural powers have come into play, including shape-shifting and brainwashing, the show has not succumbed to the glut of paranormal cross-purposes that helped make “Heroes’’ unwatchable.

Indeed, this season of “True Blood’’ has been a model of TV storytelling. As the volume on one theme lowered, with Sookie, Jason, and Bill escaping the clutches of the nefarious Fellowship of the Sun, it rose on another playing in the background: How to stop Maryann and save the town from devolving into pure, empty-eyed id? And like a backbeat, the Bill-Eric-Sookie triangle played throughout, with Sookie remaining one of TV’s most self-directed young heroines.

“True Blood’’ creator Alan Ball is taking full advantage of what has become a cable convention: season-long arcs. Because of cable’s shorter seasons and committed viewers, shows such as “Dexter’’ and “The Wire’’ have been able to give each batch of 12-or-so episodes a beginning and an end. While most network shows must plow endlessly forward, to fill 22 episodes per year for an indefinite number of years, the cable pace encourages more sculpted narratives. Each season can ultimately fold into a nice DVD set. The first season of “True Blood’’ revolved around Rene and his crimes; this season belongs primarily to Maryann. (No, I know nothing about what will happen Sunday night; Maryann may well survive to throw another wild party).

Within his tight structure this summer, Ball has given us countless small moments of grace, humor, and horror. The death of Godric on the roof at dawn was one of TV’s most dramatically evocative sequences of the year, with Sookie shedding tears for Godric, his ancient soul, and her own losses. The submissiveness of Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) toward the youthful-looking Godric, too, was powerful for being so unexpected. Anything having to do with the love affair between virgins Jessica and Hoyt was sweet; and anything having to do with Jason was funny.

“True Blood’’ is part of the vampire trend of late, with the “Twilight’’ movies and books, and with “The Vampire Diaries’’ on the CW. Why, there’s even a vampire pictorial in the new issue of Playboy. But, more than those other products, the HBO show has pushed vampire symbolism forward into new territory. I love the way “True Blood’’ portrays the unbreakable bond between a vampire and the one who made him or her, and the way the struggle for vampire rights raises internal conflicts in the vampire community. Those are the kinds of fresh twists that manage to keep the age-old vampire formula young.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

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