HBO's True Blood is like Twilight for grown-ups, and it is such deliciously dirty, ballsy, operatic fun that it would be easily confused with great television. It isn't, and I don't think it wants to be. Unlike most great HBO shows (The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under) it doesn't transcend its roots; it's having too much fun rolling around in them. It's occasionally soapy and often borderline ridiculous, but hey, that comes with the territory.
The show was created by Six Feet mastermind Alan Ball (he also penned American Beauty and wrote and directed the unfortunate Towelhead), from the "Sookie Stackhouse novels" by Charlaine Harris. The setting is the town of Bon Temps, a Louisiana backwater; the time is an alternate present, in which vampires have "come out of the coffin" and live among us, supposedly able to satiate their lust for blood with a synthetic blood drink called Tru Blood.
Bon Temps is one of those little towns where everybody knows everybody (and everybody's business), so when brooding vampire Bill (Stephen Moyer) wanders into Merlotte's Bar and Grill, waitress Sookie (Anna Pacquin) takes notice. Much of the first season is the run-up to and culmination of their intense attraction, and Moyer and Pacquin have very good chemistry. The show needs it pretty badly; on reflection, the scripts don't really spend enough time exploring and explaining their initial attraction. They're hot for each other, sure, but the mingling of vampires and humans (clearly meant to mirror interracial dating) is a complicated thing, and we never really get why they're so immediately willing to buck a taboo--unless it's just to buck a taboo, an interesting notion that isn't explored much either.
The pure skill of Paquin's performance keeps us from asking a lot of those questions. Her accent is a little dodgy, but other than that, she's phenomenal; she reportedly campaigned hard for the role (to the surprise of Ball, who figured her a movie star who wouldn't want to stoop to the small screen), and it's easy to see why--it's a helluva role. Sookie is a wide-eyed virginal square (she doesn't even curse), excited by her draw to this forbidden stranger, and Paquin is doing something very tricky here--she's playing the innocent who is, at long last, bursting with her own sexuality (and enjoying it). The character's arc gives her plenty of compelling notes to play; she's frightened, at first, by Bill's power and taste for blood (as in a very good scene where he completely intimidates a Highway Patrolman who has pulled them over), then turned on by it. She plays the turn to sexual satisfaction beautifully; her costumes get smaller and her smiles get wider.
Not all of the supporting characters fare quite as well. As Sam, Sookie's boss, Sam Trammell spends most of the season without much to play beyond his infatuation with Sookie and jealousy of Bill. The reveal, around episode 10, of his peculiar secret is unsuccessful; it's one of the show's few detours into outright silliness. And poor Rutina Wesley, as Sookie's BFF Tara, can't catch a compelling plotline. She gets an unfortunate introductory scene that's too, too on the nose and proceeds as less a character and more a collection of clichés (her mom's an alcoholic, she has an unrequited crush on Sookie's brother, she has rage issues, she becomes an alcoholic herself). The same could probably be said of her cousin Lafayette, a swaggering gay drug dealer and hustler, but he's played with such gusto by Nelsan Ellis that you hardly mind.
As Sookie's brother Jason, Ryan Kwatan is likable, sexy, and dumb as a box of hammers. His primary plotline is his addiction to "v", the vampire blood that gives mortals a fast and effective hit of life force; the show ingeniously plays with the notion that "v" is an addictive Ecstasy/Viagra/acid hybrid, bought and sold and sometimes taken by force from weaker vamps. They get some dramatic and comic mileage out of this idea, though Jason's thirst for the stuff is sometimes written as hackneyed as if it were a conventional addiction subplot (Tara actually yells at him, "Look at you! I don't even recognize you anymore!," but it's not played for laughs). Most importantly, his little problem introduces him to Amy, played by Lizzy Caplan in the show's most compelling supporting performance. Amy seems, at first, to be an insufferably pretentious pseudo-intellectual, and she is, but Caplan (and the writers) give her more dimension than that--she is also enchanted by Jason's gaucheness, and reveals herself to have a genuine heart, albeit one that is easily forgotten if there's more "v" to be had. Caplan, a frequently underrated actress (she was in Mean Girls and Cloverfield), is terrific in the role; she's smart and charming and occasionally ruthless (and frequently nude).
The writing gets a little soapy in places, though the acting and direction frequently elevate it above that base level. The show also cleverly utilizes a season-long mystery arc to offset the multiple romantic entanglements, and of course, there are copious amounts of blood and gore to provide the occasional jolt--along with the show's beloved shock endings, which give us a quick turn or unexpected shot, followed by a fast cut to black and music in big over the end credits. Its moments of levity and humor are sparse but well-placed (I liked the fat tourists buying T-shirts at the vampire bar), and the series makes fine use of vampirism as a broadly-painted metaphor for gay rights--the objections of religious fundamentalists, the phrases "out of the coffin" and the Phelps-esque "God Hates Fangs," the hypocrisy of an anti-vampire rights politician with a taste for "v", even the vampires' occasional use of the slang name "breather" (read: breeder) for the living.
Some of the dialogue (especially the early, expositional stuff) is a little clunky, and the show lags a bit around episodes five and six, as they're delaying the inevitable consummation of Bill and Sookie's attraction. But Ball, his writers, and several skilled directors--including Michael Lehman (Heathers), Nick Gomez (Laws of Gravity), and the great John Dahl (The Last Seduction)--are clearly having a great time, splashing around buckets of blood and soaking in the sweaty, swampy atmosphere. True Blood is nasty fun, and that's probably good enough.
True Blood's twelve episodes come spread generously over five discs (in a handsome, foldout cardboard case), with two to three episodes per disc, plus the non-commentary special features on the fifth.
The show's 1.78:1 anamorphic image is a bit of a disappointment. Daylight exteriors and well-lit interiors are not a problem; color saturation is rich, contrast is good, and brightness levels are well-controlled. But this is a show about vampires, who can't come out in the sun, so there's an abundance of nighttime exteriors, and the majority of them don't look good--the grain is entirely too heavy and the black levels are wildly uneven. Many of the darker interiors (particularly Bill's house) are similarly messy. It's only occasionally distracting, but one would expect better from a recent HD program.
The 5.1 audio presentation, on the other hand, is stellar--this is one of the finest, fullest audio mixes I've yet heard. Every environment is rich and immersive, from the chatter-and-music heavy bar to the loud crickets and locusts of the woods near the bar. The vivid effects and even the shock music cues are well-placed and unexpectedly dimensional. It's a great-sounding set.
As is often the unfortunate case with HBO boxes, the plate of special features is a little on the thin side. Most of the substance comes from the Audio Commentaries, which are featured on six of the season's twelve episodes. There's a lot of good stuff here; Ball flies solo on the pilot (which he wrote and directed), and he is insightful and chatty, shedding light on some of the subtler themes of the show and sharing some interesting anecdotes on how it came together. Paquin and episode two director Scott Winant share a good-natured chat; both are frequently funny, particularly as she notes that she's "like twelve and laughing at all the sex stuff." Writer Brian Buckner and episode four director Lehman relate some good nuggets (particularly in relation to the writer's strike, which shut the show's production down between episodes three and four), while director Dan Minahan and Moyer (who is very articulate and very, very British) share a laid-back track for episode five. The other solo tracks don't come off quite as well--episode seven director Marcos Siega's track is smart but a little dry, while episode eleven writer/director Nancy Oliver is a little too stiff and formal, and her track is burdened by too many long pauses.
The remaining special features are mostly quickie promotional items that helped establish the vampire world of the show: The "Tru Blood Beverage Ads"--both American (:44) and French (:49)--are followed by the "Vampire Service Ads"--for a dating service (:37), vampire-friendly motel (:47), and vamp rights lawyer (:37)--and a pair of "Public Service Announcements" (1:04), both in favor of and against vampire rights, which really drive home the gay-rights analogy. All of these clips are clever and worth checking out, though they're so short that a "play all" menu option would have been welcome. The lengthiest bonus is "In Focus: Vampires In America" (14:41), a TV magazine-show style set-up of the show's reality and context. It has some good moments, though some of it is forced and some opportunities are missed (where's the required O'Reilly-style cable news host, screaming about keeping them out?).
Each disc also includes a goofy Series Index, which is just a graphic of an episode list.
For all of the skill of its energetic performances and its high style, True Blood is not one of the great HBO shows; the writing and plotting are too trashy and, occasionally, too obvious to reach those heights. But there are plenty of moment-to-moment pleasures to be found in it, and a lot of fun to be had in the twelve hours of its first season. It may not be good for you, but it is awfully enjoyable junk food.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.