Based on the 'Sookie Stackhouse' novels by author Charlaine Harris, HBO's True Blood is a fun mix of horror, drama, romance, comedy and, well, it's got pretty much everything, including a kitchen sink or two. It isn't a particularly deep series and it probably owes a small debt to Twin Peaks but it's certainly an entertaining genre tinged soap opera that'll keep you coming back for more just to find out how it all ends.
The series is set in an America where vampires have 'come out of the coffin' and been kinda-sorta accepted by everyday living and breathing folk. The stories are based around a young woman named Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) who works as a waitress at a bar called Merlotte's in the small Louisiana town of Bontemps. She lives with her kindly old grandmother (Lois Smith) and worries constantly about her dumb sex fiend of a brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten) while spending most of her spare time working at the bar run by Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell), who has no qualms about his affections for the pretty blonde waitress he's hired. Sookie's best friend, a fiery black girl named Tara (Rutina Wesley) gets canned from her position at a 'Wal-Mart' style superstore and soon winds up tending bar at Merlotte's as well, while her gay cousin, Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis), works in the kitchen.
Sookie's life seems pretty normal for the most part, save for one thing - she can read people's minds. She doesn't want to, mind you, as it sometimes leads to some rather unsettling discoveries, but there are times where she just can't help it. When a vampire named Bill (Stephen Moyer) comes into Merlotte's one night seemingly by chance, Sookie notices him and he her. Their mutual attraction is instant, much to Sam's dismay and almost everyone else's disgust, and they begin a courtship that is simultaneously unusual both in its old fashioned traditions and in its taboo breaking. Sookie is soon introduced to Bill's world and he to hers as she travels to a vampire nightclub with him and he speaks at the local church about his experiences in the Civil War at the request of her grandmother.
Shortly after Sookie and Bill start dating, however, bodies start turning up all over town. The easy solution would be for the local cops, Detective Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer) and Sheriff Bud Dearbourne (William Sanderson) to blame the vampire in their midst but there are too many unanswerable questions for them to be able to do that. Jason Stackhouse can be linked to every one of the victims and Sam's been spotted running naked through the woods, raising some understandable suspicion. A few altercations, back stabbings, twists, turns and bizarre supporting characters keep you guessing while the soap opera romances and love triangles and horror movie elements entrench the series firmly within the roots of pulp fiction.
Adapted for the small screen by Alan Ball, True Blood turns out to be a whole lot of bloody, sexy fun. The copious scenes of bloodshed and nudity will keep exploitation fans happy, no doubt, but it's the clever dialogue, well written and reasonably believable characters and strong acting that gives the series the legs it needs to stand on. Paquin is at the forefront of it all, delivering a performance that bridges the gaps between innocent and compellingly sexual, flaky and intelligent and tender and tough with ease. She's fantastic in the lead role and does a fine job of carrying the series. Thankfully, however, she's not alone in the good acting department. Stephen Moyer can be as charming as he can be intense and frightening, doing a fine job of wrestling with his character's understandably heavy load and incessant inner turmoil. Also quite compelling are Rutina Wesley as Tara and Sam Trammell, who make an interesting contradictory pair of foils to Sookie's supposed innocent girl next door type. Ryan Kwanten also does a fine job exploring his character's development over the span of the first twelve episodes as we see him turn from a dim-witted sex maniac to a man who finds he is actually capable of caring about someone.
The series is similar to Lynch's aforementioned Twin Peaks in that there are times where the stories of the supporting characters are more interesting than the primary plot but that's not a bad thing. The whole 'serial killer in a small town' angle also reminds us of Lynch's series but True Blood definitely branches out on its own in more ways than just the overtly supernatural. The show isn't perfect but the good absolutely outweighs the bad and it's hard not to get sucked in after only one or two episodes. The cliffhangers are very successful in pulling you in and the political and social allegories, which the show is absolutely ripe with, serve to provide it with a seemingly endless supply of though provoking humor.
The episodes in this release of the complete first season are laid out as follows:
Strange Love / The First Taste
Mine / Escape From The Dragon House
Sparks Fly Out / Cold Ground / Burning House Of Love
The Fourth Man In The Fire / Plaisir D'Amour / I Don't Know
To Love Is To Bury / You'll Be The Death Of Me
Bring on season two!
The twelve episodes that make up the complete first season of the series are spread across five discs, each presented in 480p 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen. You'll definitely notice some grain in the nighttime scenes shot outside and there are spots where the black levels fluctuate a little more than most would probably consider ideal but the series doesn't look too bad overall. Color reproduction is fine and the detail levels aren't half bad at all. There are no problems with mpeg compression artifacts to note nor is there much edge enhancement to complain over. Are the transfers perfect? Nope, they don't really have that inky blackness that the nighttime scenes probably should have had and that it is a strike against the image quality but aside from that they look pretty solid.
The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix is quite good, spreading out the score and the effects throughout the soundstage to nice effect. The music comes at you from a few different directions and helps build atmosphere while smaller, sometimes very subtle sound effects tend to fill in the quieter scenes very effectively. Dialogue stays consistently clear during playback and there are no problems with level fluctuations, hiss or distortion. Optional English subtitles are included.
Six of the twelve episodes in the set feature commentary tracks from show creator Alan Ball, head writers Nancy Oliver and Brian Buckner, series' directors Michael Lehmann, Dan Minahan, Marcos Siega, and Scott Winant and last but not least, the two lead actors Stephen Moyer and Anna Paquin. Throughout the talks, you definitely get the feeling that all involved had a good time making this series. There's a welcome enthusiasm here that makes the tracks easy enough to listen to, and on top of that, they're filled with some really interesting stories about casting, scripting, location shooting other production related issues.
Disc five includes a few interesting supplements as well, starting with some fun faux commercials - two for the True Blood beverage we see Bill drinking in the series, one for a vampire lawyer, one for a vampire dating service and one for a vampire hotel. This work nicely alongside a pair of opposing public service advertisements, one for and one against vampire rights, both of which are quite amusing. Rounding things out nicely is a fourteen minute fake talk show clip called In Focus: Vampires In America that allows a few television journalist types to argue back and forth on the issues of vampire rights in the United States.
Each of the twelve episodes also contains a brief text based plot synopsis as well as 'previously on' and 'next on' bumpers that help put each episode into context. The discs all contain some classy animated menus and chapter selection options.
While there are times where the series dabbles with predictability and tired genre conventions, the performances are strong enough and the characters are interesting enough that True Blood is never boring. HBO's release of the complete first season looks decent enough and sounds even better and the commentaries definitely add quite a bit of value to this highly recommended release.