True Blood, Sucking the Life Out of HBO One Episode at a Time

ImageRemember the slogan, “It’s not TV, It’s HBO?” Well up until this past spring this marketing ploy actually rang true. HBO has long been the trendsetter of original series that break all boundaries and push audiences’ perception of what television is and should be. Unfortunately thanks to the culminations of the network’s most beloved quartet of series–Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and most recently The Wire–and the premiere of some less than desirable new original series the Crown Royal of premium cable programming is in threat of losing its edge over the best of the rest.


HBO’s newest contribution to Sunday night is True Blood, an overly erotic vampire drama set in the Bible belt Deep South. Created by Alan Ball, the brainchild behindSix Feet Under and the scribe of American BeautyBlood had the potential to be HBO’s saving grace, the new series to present the exciting future for the network. Sadly the series, which is currently ten episodes into its twelve-episode first season, has failed to match the brilliance of HBO’s past flagships series and remains yet another dud for the struggling network.

True Blood was at one point one of the more intriguing projects in the works at HBO mainly because after the success of Six Feet Under it’s difficult to imagine Alan Ball not delivering another hit series. After Deadwood creator David Milch proved that follow-up shows (John from Cincinnati) can also bomb, the niche vampire premise started to sound more and more worrisome. Then again pitching a show about a family of funeral home owners probably sounded equally as questionable when Six Feet Under was first proposed.

The main problem plaguing True Blood, which is one-part hokey throwback to pulp vampire novels (the show is based on a semi-popular series of books), one-part modern allegory for social discrimination (a bit of a stretch), and a dash of Lostesque intrigue and cliffhangers thrown into the mix for sensationalism, is the series lacks any meaningful substance. With the exception of possibly the mysterious main vampire lead Bill (played by rather convincingly by newcomer Stephen Moyer) the main characters are either too shallow to give a damn about or are simply begging to be explored in more depth.

Anna Paquin’s starring character Sookie has a mysterious gift that sets her apart from the living and brings her closer to the undead, still the show would rather focus on her budding (and overly erotic) love affair with Bill than anything else. Her horny brother Jason, who’s butt naked more than half the time while onscreen, appears to be nothing more than a pretty face to further the shows no-hold-barred eroticism (the link between vampires and sexuality are pushed to the limit on this series). The show has given Sookie’s best friend Tara (Rutina Wesley) a bit of a side story involving her alcoholic/possessed mother but her onscreen time is distracting from the show’s main strengths.

ImageAs for the show’s aforementioned strengths Alan Ball does a pretty good job bridging the gap between classic vampire iconography and modern times. The show’s main premise is that ever since the Japanese have concocted an artificial blood cocktail (a substitute for the real thing) called True Blood, vampires are suddenly able to “come out of the closet” so to speak, thus trying to fit in a society of the living. The show is littered with fascinating little tidbits about the cultural acceptance/rejection of the vampires and there is clearly links to gay rights throughout the show as Alan Ball is himself an outspoken advocate for equal rights for homosexuals.

Another strength revolves around the myth of vampires being driven by a hunger (addiction) to human blood. True Blood gives this classic vampire mythological theme a 180 twist with vampire blood (called V on the show, a play on ecstasy) serving as a hardcore psychedelic drug for humans to dabble in enhancing just about every human sense and pleasure. In one recent episode two V fiends seek out a shut-in middle-age gay vampire to capture and drain to feed their growing addiction to the stuff. Clever, to say the least.

Then there are the snippets of a vampire rights coalition working to gain the same rights and social status as everyone else. During the show’s pilot one spokesperson even appears as a guest on HBO’s own late night political talk show, Real Time With Bill Maher.

These few moments of brilliance show that Alan Ball is close to nailing the show’s full potential as a sly social statement featuring vampires but sadly he chooses to focus the show’s attention on the routine horror elements of the series. Rather than expand on the political aspects of the story, mainly that of a minority trying to fit into society the show seems more concerned with blood, unnecessary sexuality, and shocking episode cliffhangers, about the only element keeping viewers coming back for more (that and a brilliantly edited opening credits segment set to a raucous Southern rock tune “Bad Things” by Jace Everett).

One could argue that some shows need a season or two before they really find purpose and flow. A feasible argument for network television perhaps, but HBO has always held its standards higher. Six Feet Under is notorious for being the show that was renewed for a second season immediately following its captivating and universally applauded pilot episode. Likewise The Sopranos’ first season remains one the finest single season entities of any show out there. While Blood may have the potential for a turnaround, it has already proven to be rather sub-par compared to HBO’s previous trendsetting series.

The Sopranos will inevitably go down as one of most important series in television history. The advent of shows based on multi-dimensional characters that, despite their wrong doings, manage to captivate the audience paved the way for the gamut of most popular series today. Thanks to Tony and even earlier the inmates on HBO’s forgotten masterpiece Oz it was suddenly okay to sympathize and get sucked into the lives of the bad guys.

After Sopranos fever HBO was able to launch other hit dramas that pushed the envelope on how we soak up television. Six Feet Under took the stereotypical family drama and flipped it on its ass giving us one of the most intimate and shockingly truthful looks at a modern family who, although appear to be different, are surprisingly relatable. The network even managed to launch some fairly well-received niche dramas such as the Shakespearean Western, Deadwood, the Dust Bowl era Twin Peaksesque series Carinvalé, and the underappreciated history buff’s dream show Rome.

Then there was The Wire, the socially conscious, anti-cop show that was the last truly great series on HBO and without a doubt one the finest television series of all time.

True Blood currently leads HBO’s current programming lineup and looks destined to join the ranks of the network’s past mediocrities. There is the respectable but hardly hit series about Mormonism and Polygamists (Big Love) ready to start its third season. There was the failed spiritual surfing drama (John From Cincinnati) that followed The Sopranos’ fade to black finale. Last year an overly erotic (apparently a current HBO theme) show about relationships and intimacy (Tell Me You Love Me) premiered, a new five-night a week drama about a shrink and his patients (In Treatment) and recently a slew of comedy imports from abroad–the very British Little Britain U.S.A, and the Australian Summer Heights High, both which are for acquired tastes, lacking mass appeal–began airing.

Add this to, sigh, potentially more seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which officially jumped the shark around the fourth or fifth season, the consistently funny news talk show Real Time With Bill Maher and the entertaining but fluffy Entourage and you have the fairly uninspired future lineup for HBO.

With the disappointing True Blood about to wrap its uninspired first season it’s difficult to know what’s left for HBO? Will the network every truly be able to recuperate from the loss of its respected giants? Is it time for other budding networks (Showtime, AMC and FX come to mind) to take the reigns of the only television that matters?

It will be interesting to see where HBO is headed and which shows in the future (if any) can captivate a nation as much as The Sopranos or its other landmark series did during their run. Only time will tell whether HBO remains something new and exciting or really is just TV.

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