Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Review: TRUE BLOOD, 4.1 - "She's Not There"

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The third season of this vampire drama was a sprawling, undisciplined clutter of malformed ideas. It survived on the captivating performance of Denis O'Hare (as vampire king Russell Edgington) and a regular dose of signature what-the-fuck cliffhangers, but it wasn't enough to prevent the season being a misfire. The majority of its distended cast were trapped in tedious storylines, the addition of werewolves didn't add anything worthwhile, its big reveals were disappointing (Sookie's half-fairy?), and a feeling of desperation smothered the whole venture. I know season 3 has its supporters (mainly people who prefer gore, sex and nudity over plot, character and common sense), but for me it was a disastrous year of a show whose erotic trashiness I really enjoyed in its infancy. Consequently, I approached the premiere of True Blood's fourth season with great caution and lowered expectations...

Interestingly, True Blood picks up both immediately after Sookie (Anna Paquin) was spirited away to Fairy Land by her "Fairy Godmother" Claudine (Lara Pulver) and, upon her swift return, thirteen months later for the residents of Bon Temps. The opening scenes are both absolutely awful and awfully wonderful, as Sookie mingles with the clichéd faeries (who dress in white and eat glowing orange fruit), before meeting her long-lost Grandpa Earl Stackhouse (Gary Cole), who doesn't even realize twenty years have passed on Earth as he's only spent an hour in this idyllic realm. Of course, trouble's afoot, as Sookie deduces the serenity of Fairy Land is an illusion, as the sweet faeries are actually demonic creatures who inhabit a barren, rocky wasteland. And their Queen Mab (Rebecca Wisocky) has ambitions to enslave humanity, forcing Sookie and Earl to go on the run, chased by fireball-flinging Fae—narrowly managing to return to Earth through a canyon portal, resulting in Earl's death in a Bon Temp graveyard because he made the mistake of eating some luminous fruit.

It's utterly bonkers. In these opening scenes, True Blood becomes Charmed with a budget, and it's a far cry from the days when the show apparently wanted to explore what humanity would do if it had to co-exist with vampires. The emergence of so many supernatural species (vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, were-panthers, fairies, witches) has given the show a different feel in recent seasons, and it's not one I'm especially keen on. It can be fun, sure, but too often it feels like True Blood's less interested in characters and story than it is delivering cool moments and monsters for us to gawp at. Still, this premiere got one thing right over the majority of last year's episodes: the pace wasn't so hectic that it felt like you were beaten into submission, but instead took time to setup various changes to the characters.

Jason (Ryan Kwanten) has become a cop, modeling his look on Scream's Deputy Dewey, and is taking care of his absent girlfriend Crystal's urchin family; Tara (Rutina Wesley) has found work as a New Orleans cage fighter and, naturally, this means she's turned lesbian; Sam's (Sam Trammell) hanging around with a shape-shifting support group, helping him deal with the fact he shot and injured his own brother; Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) has grown a "gay Mr T" mohawk and is being introduced to the world of witchcraft by boyfriend Jesus (Kevin Alejandro), who takes him to a séance; Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) and Hoyt (Jim Parack) are struggling to adjust to domestic life together, with Pam (Kristin Bauer) suggesting Jessica abandon monogamy during her "date night" to Fangtasia; Arlene (Carrie Preston) is convinced her baby's inherited his biological father's "evil", when she notices he's decapitated some dolls (why are they buying him dolls?); Eric (Alexander Skarsgård) is helping restore vampire-human relations in a "post-Russell Edgington world" by filming a commercial for PR hotshot Nan Flanagan (Jessica Tuck); and Bill (Stephen Moyer) has become a respected politician and Vampire King of Louisiana.

As usual, this was less an episode and more an hour's worth of random subplots—some of which are appealing, most of which aren't. It remains a key problem that True Blood has far too many characters, and the silly proclivity to give everyone something to do from the start. It would make more sense to prune the ensemble down to a more manageable size, or temporarily write a few characters out of the show for awhile, but this never seems to happen. It seems to me that Alan Ball and his team are aware that most of their characters aren't strong enough to carry a show themselves, so they need to always be reacting to horrors, dealing with tragedy, or trying to negotiate their way through a supernatural world. It's all very busy and breathlessly told.

So the idea of jumping forward in time by a year was a good one (even if it means last season's situation with Jason and a young pretender using V to improve his athleticism has been brushed aside) because the chronology of True Blood is abnormally compacted. I don’t think more than a month has passed since the day Sookie met Bill in Merlotte's bar three seasons ago. So at least the show's now found a way to give us some distance, so various off-screen changes could take place that might otherwise have taken years to get to at the show's usual pace. It just strikes me as strange the show didn't use that opportunity to cut loose the show's dead weight (characters who served their purpose and are now just hanging around for plot scraps).

Overall, "She's Not There" was largely business as usual for True Blood, if slightly more restrained than normal (even the cliffhanger felt very reserved, given this show's standards). I also enjoyed seeing Sookie's tearful reaction to finding and losing her grandpa, which delivered a few moments of emotion from Paquin that felt convincing and from the heart. (Although there was a very unfortunate cut from Paquin sobbing over the death of Earl, to her leaving the graveyard with a spring in her step!) I just can't believe they cast the outstanding Gary Cole (who has form with Southern horror with American Gothic) but gave him a role that amounted to an extended cameo, so I have my fingers crossed for an Earl Stackhouse return at some point. The show worked better when Sookie and Jason had their Gran to go to for advice in season 1, and she anchored that family unit, so it would have been nice to get another Stackhouse adult like Earl into the show full time.

We'll have to see how most of this premiere's events pan out across season 4 (the witches could be a great addition or clichéd nonsense), but True Blood has something to prove because its last few seasons spluttered to disappointing endings. What they really need to do is put the emphasis back on the characters, have a less slapdash attitude to plotting, cut back on the stupid or tedious subplots, lose a handful of characters, and remember its real strength lies in showing the ways human and vampire societies clash...


  • Earl's pocket watch must have some greater significance. Is his soul trapped in there? Does it have the ability to reverse time, so Jason can save his grandpa's life? Too silly? I wouldn't put anything past True Blood these days! They have fanged fairies who throw fireballs now, did you not see?
  • How did Bill become the Vampire King? And how does Eric feel about that, as a vampire who's considerably older and more experienced? Do people even know Bill's the King? It was presented as a surprise to the viewers, but is everyone else aware of Bill's new position?
  • So now we know for sure: vampires have no need for toilets.
  • Look, how long are we going to suffer Arlene's behaviour around her baby son? Where's this headed exactly? There seems to be only two options, both bad: she'll realize the error of her ways and get over it, or the baby really will become some kind of pint-sized sociopath.
  • You can avoid police interrogation by claiming you've been gone over a year on "vampire business"?
written by Alexander Woo / directed by Michael Lehmann / 26 June 2011

Coming Soon...