Monday, 14 July 2008

PREVIEW: TRUE BLOOD 1.1 - "Strange Love" (Pilot; Early Edit)

Monday, 14 July 2008
Writer & Director: Alan Ball

Cast: Anna Paquin (Sookie Stackhouse), Stephen Moyer (Bill Compton), Nelsan Ellis (Lafayette Reynolds), Michael Raymond-James (Rene Lenier), Alexander Skarsgard (Eric), Stephen Root (Eddie Gautier), Ryan Kwanten (Jason Stackhouse), Sam Trammell (Sam Merlotte), Brook Kerr (Tara Thornton), Michael Raymond-James (Rene Lenier), Carrie Preston (Arlene Fowler), Jim Parrack (Hoyt Fortenberry), Josh Kelly (Frat Boy) & Danielle Sapia (Maudette Pickens)

In world where vampires coexist with mankind, a young waitress with an extraordinary gift encounters one in the bar where she works...

Please note: this review is based on an early cut, with a few missing shots and one missing scene. A later cut already exists with changes and improvements, so the finished episode will hopefully be much better. Therefore, this is by no means a definitive review of True Blood's first episode, just an early indication of its general quality...

Alan Ball, writer of American Beauty and creator of Six Feet Under, turns his attention to the supernatural, adapting Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Mysteries. Its premise is an intriguing twist on the vampire mythos, positing a world where humans and vampires have an uneasy co-existence, thanks to the creation of synthetic blood ("TruBlood") to quench their thirst...

Anna Paquin (X-Men) plays heroine Sookie Stackhouse, a perky blonde waitress working in a Louisiana restaurant called Merlotte's. As a slight hangover from the X-Men films, she has another superpower here: the ability to hear thoughts. We're also introduced to her enamoured boss Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell), motormouth best-friend Tara Thornton (Brook Kerr) and brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten).

The plot kicks in when Louisiana gets its first vampire visitor, Bill Compton (NY-LON's Stephen Moyer), whose arrival creates a wave of interest, fear and excitement -- particularly in Sookie, who is thrilled to discover she can't hear Bill's innermost thoughts. She later forms a bond with the bloodsucker, after rescuing him from two opportunistic "thieves" -- out to capture Bill and drain his blood, which works as a narcotic for regular humans.

The best thing about True Blood is the sense of discovery, as the script does an excellent job in drip-feeding information about its unusual premise and characters. The human/vampire coexistence is an intriguing notion and written very plausibly; avoiding specifics to draw you into the story, looking for answers. It would have been very easy to explain all the rules and background to the series, but I enjoyed building up a picture myself from character reactions, pieces of dialogue, a background news report, etc. The relationships of the characters are likewise woven into the story, meaning you discover who are friends, enemies and relatives as the plot progresses.

The worst thing about True Blood is its uneven tone. There's a vein of dark-comedy running through everything, but an uneasy atmosphere stops the humour punching through, and there's a moment of soft-core porn that's unexpected and jarring. Being a HBO product, you expect something grittier than usual, and True Blood certainly has a granite edginess that would have been smoothed to porcelain by a network. In one eye-opening scene, Sookie's brother Jason realizes his lover Maudette Pickens (Danielle Sapia) is a closet "fang-banger", and they watch a tape of her having kinky sex with a vampire -- a sequence that resembles CGI cartoon bestiality!

Alas, True Love's characters aren't very likeable -- beyond Anna Paquin, who gives an excellent, textured performance. Everyone's mostly stuck in the background, and not given much to do. British actor Stephen Moyer is handsome and enigmatic as Bill, but I didn't feel any chemistry between him and Paquin. In fact, given the shocking vampire sex from earlier in the episode, and a simmering sense of threat about these "outed" vamps, I was more concerned about Sookie's safety than a love-match. I suppose that was the intention (as this definitely isn't aiming for a clich├ęd human/vampire tragic-romance), but I still think audiences needed to feel happier about her first step to romance.

Tara Thornton is irritating as Sookie's best-friend Tara, given a garrulous personality of little nuance, and choosing to shout most of her lines. Thornton has since been replaced by actress Rutina Wesley, who will hopefully tone down Tara's volatile nature and form a more believable affiliation with Sookie. Ryan Kwanten gives a slightly empty performance as pretty-boy Jason, despite being involved in a murder subplot, while Sam Trammell doesn't have much to play with as Sookie's good-natured boss -- a man who never vocalizes his love for her, but mentally showers her with compliments.

Sookie's ability to hear thoughts are enjoyable, and better executed here than in Heroes -- which is always inconsistent with its own telepath's abilities. True Blood's cacophony of overlapping mind-chatter gives you a realistic insight into what Sookie would have to contend with every day -- primarily, uncensored thoughts betraying people's spoken words, and the difficulty in filtering out the background noise.

The production is slick and appealing, and I've loved the idea of a sweaty Southern setting for horror since TV's short-lived American Gothic. There's just something interesting about the humid, sticky Deep South as the locale for the supernatural -- as the genre typically takes place in temperate cities. And I'm a sucker for the twang of a Southern accent; which can sound friendly, retarded, frightening, or all three.

Overall, I really enjoyed the first 20 minutes of True Love, but then the unevenness became more noticeable and the pace began to drag. By the time it was over, I was left disappointed, but heartened that the problems aren't insurmountable. The high-concept idea is enough to ensure you give this a whirl, while Paquin's winsome performance sustains interest through the rockiness. I'm assuming the occasionally silly CGI will be cleaned up before transmission, although the lunacy of animation for the "man-beast" sex scene was probably responsible for half its shock-value.

Basically, despite its many faults, I can smell the possibilities. And I can't write-off the talent of Six Feet Under's Alan Ball, a gay man who obviously saw potential in Charlaine Harris' novels for a TV show using "outed" vampires as a sly, dark, satirical look at the treatment of minority citizens in a modern backwater society. If it can settle on a tone, develop the Paquin/Moyer chemistry, and give the supporting cast decent material to work with, True Blood could develop some bite.

Premieres: 7 September 2008 (HBO)