Monday, 17 May 2010
This Blood Could Be Truer or Orgies, Orgies, We Want Orgies!!!
Finished the second season of True Blood last night, and thought the year as a whole deserved a post. Obviously, there are some spoilers below.
Well, that was... OK, wasn't it? I guess. There wasn't really anything - or at least not much - that I could point to and say "That was freaking terrible", but the overall feeling is very much one of ambivalence.
I've spent a while trying to work out exactly what went wrong this season, and I think I've narrowed it down to five issues, some of which overlap. In no particular order, they are as follows.
In fairness, I think the overall map for the season works well on paper. Having the events in Dallas build to a head whilst Maryann's takeover of Bon Temps simmered away was a fine idea in theory. In practice, though, the former ended at least one episode too soon, leading to the series feeling like it was running out of steam at the exact moment it needed to be building momentum. Both Bill's mission to find the Vampire Queen and Sam and Andy's attempts to avoid capture felt too much like last minute additions to take up time (and much as I like the idea of redeeming Andy, I think they'd already done too much damage to the character to make his last-minute conversion into someone half-useful-a-bit-maybe convince), even before you start wondering about exactly how much of the last three weeks you've spent watching mindlessly grinding mechanical group sex. Which leads us neatly onto...
Obviously, I have my problems with him as a director in any case, but whatever else he did, Kubrik pretty much demonstrated with Eyes Wide Shut that it's impossible to film an orgy scene that comes across as anything other than confusing and faintly risible. Partially that's because sex scenes actually a very difficult thing to film and seem believable - as oppose to stylised - and that problem is multiplied when you have a huge number of extras to deal with. Mainly, though, I think orgy scenes have the same problem as the battle scenes in the Star Wars prequels (and one hopes I am the very first person to link those two things, though knowing the internet I'm far from convinced) ; there's just nothing to focus on. The screen is filled with movement and the eyes and brain just get confused. It just sort of boots your consciousness out of the experience, leaving you blinking in bafflement. I'm not sure having Doctor Phlox involved helped, either, but that's just personal taste.
In any event, there was waaaaaaaaaay more of the bump 'n' grind going on at the tail end of this season. I mean, I like to look at naked women as much as the next guy, but even without the problems mentioned above, by the end the orgies felt distinctly like they were filler, and that just doesn't sit well with me, to say nothing of the fact that essentially an entire town got date-raped and the writers are apparently just having everyone (bar Tera, one presumes) forget it because that's easier.
The big problem with the vampires this season was simply that they weren't scary anymore. Now, I realise True Blood isn't really horror (my choice of post label notwithstanding), so much as it likes to dress up in horror's clothes from time to time. Nonetheless, the vampires of the first season were occasionally played as straight up murderous forces of nature, and never as anything less than an unknowable alien presence that was generally doing little more than tolerate you (remember how truly out of her mind with terror Jessica was in the moments before Bill turned her?) We knew Sookie was going to be OK when Longshadow jumped her, but Paquin absolutely played it like she was convinced her throat was about to be torn out. Hell, Eric and (most especially) the Magister managed to convince us that there were vampires who were scary as all fuck to other vampires.
This year, the vamps lost an awful lot of their (sorry!) bite. Eric has become more complex, which is welcome, but has lost much of his menace, which isn't. The lethal femme fatale Bill remembers turning him proves to be a petulant whiner. Rather than the genuinely unsettling Magister, we get the Vampire Queen, whose hedonistic excesses are not necessarily uninteresting (though given the orgy issue discussed above, perhaps ill-timed), but again lack all menace - something which isn't helped by her baffling jumps between cod philosophy and implausibly modern sayings ("That blows" is quite simply not something you can have your Vamp Queen say to someone and hope to have her retain any mystique whatsoever). Bill himself feels distinctly house-trained (and note how well his killing of Sookie's abusive uncle in last year's season was handled compared with Sookie's discovery of same in this one's). Godric's seconds are a lovesick worrier and a violent buffoon. And Godric himself... well, I really liked Godric. I'm not sure how much of his actual actions I buy, but I liked him. His world-weary stoicism was a nice take on the vampire myth, and his suicide-by-sunlight one of my favourite moments of the entire season.
He sure wasn't scary, though. Thank God Jessica - probably the most interesting character throughout the season - seems determined to make people leery of going out alone at night once again.
To a certain degree this is inevitable, of course. Monster creep is the bane of almost all genre TV shows. From vampires in Season 1 we jump to a Maenad in Season 2. God only knows what's coming next. The same thing happened in Buffy, in fact. Crucially, though, this matters far more in True Blood, because the central metaphor in Buffy was never about the vampires themselves, but the pressures of high school, so just as long as something was around to threaten the Scoobies, it was all fine. In True Blood, however, the vampires are central to the point. you can't just have the characters level up and fight a new Big Bad.
I was about to start this paragraph with the sentence "At its best, True Blood is all about the metaphor". Immediately, though, I rethought the idea. It isn't what I mean. I mean, perhaps the show really is at its best when it's in its most bodice-ripping throes of melodrama - certainly the way the second season has been constructed suggests a lot of other people thought so, and wrote to Alan Ball to let him know. Perhaps I should say at its most interesting, True Blood is all about the metaphor. Now, Adam Roberts has written a pretty compelling piece of why the central metaphor doesn't entirely work; the short version being that it's difficult to see vampire/human relations as being an analogy for racial tensions in the Deep South when the program already has black people in it who nobody seems to dislike, but you can just as easily read it as a metaphor for the struggle for gay rights in any case. Hell, in some ways that works better; the church's obsession with demonising the vampires, the idea that anyone could be one, Lafayette's AIDS outburst.
In other words, you can still get a great deal of mileage out of the idea even in this bizarre universe where the Louisiana bayous are filled with people of all colours and creeds sliding down rainbows together on the backs of unicorns. Crucially, though, this season seems to have left that behind. Or worse, taken what was presented with a light touch - by this show's standards - last year and reduced to its simplest possible elements. Compare Bill's attempts to talk to the Bon Temps History Society in the face of childish mockery with Steve Newlin's constant lunatic raving. As I say, subtlety was never this show's strong suit, but there was at least a complexity of character that Newlin seemed entirely unburdened with. It's especially frustrating when you consider that the most interesting thing you could do with the church's hatred of homosexuality is posit what would happen in some alternate universe where they actually kinda had a point. I'd like to think that any writer with an ounce of real sense would use that situation to make the church more sympathetic (which is naturally not to suggest we should be sympathetic to that kind of stance now), not dial up the evil/crazy to 11.
Not enough Lafayette. This is probably the greatest sin ever committed by a TV series in the last ten years. This makes failing to make Racetrack the star of every episode of Battlestar Galactica seem entirely reasonably in comparison, and when I'm recommending a male character above the universe's sexiest Raptor pilot, you just know something has to be up. Note for Season 3, guys. All Lafayette, all the time. Unless you want to give him his own show, of course. Hell, you could just have Nelsan Ellis reading the phone book suggestively to camera, I don't mind. I'm secure in my masculinity...
Like I said, I don't think any of the above made the second season objectively bad, so much as it feels like an awful lot of opportunities were wasted. Maybe next year can pull it out of the fire. Time will tell.
(A shiny penny for the first commentator to name the source of the latter half of this post's title, by the way.)