Developed by Alan Ball and based on the 'Sookie Stackhouse' novels by author Charlaine Harris, HBO's True Blood is a fun mix of horror, drama, romance, and dark comedy. 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 first season was pretty successful in the eyes of both critics and viewers alike, so hopes were high for the second chapter - but before we get to that...
True Blood 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 used to live with her kindly old grandmother (Lois Smith) but that all changed in the first season. And then there's her dumb sex fiend of a brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten) who is a whole different ball game all together. Sookie spends 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) has to deal with her own set of problems and eventually winds up tending bar at Merlotte's as well, while her gay cousin, Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis), works in the kitchen.
Sookie's life used to be 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) came into Merlotte's one night seemingly by chance, Sookie wound up falling for him and entering a rather unorthodox relationship that affects not only her, but many of those around her. As she and Bill try to figure out what they mean to one another and how to make their relationship work (if that's even possible) small town politics and treachery rear their ugly heads.
When the first season came to a close, the 'Bon Temps Killer' was dead at Sookie's hands and Bill had been burned and stuck in charge of tutoring a seventeen year old newly turned vampire (Deborah Ann Woll). Sam had come out as a werewolf and Jason had joined a cult. On top of that, Lafayette and Tara were dealing with problems of their own and things were generally a really big mess for all involved and Tara had found some solace in the helping hand offered by a Good Samaritan named Maryann (Michelle Forbes). This second season picks up where the first one left off and hits the ground running, fleshing out existing characters really nicely and throwing some new ones into the mix, like a vampire Sheriff named Godric (Allan Hyde) who has gone missing much to the chagrin of fellow vampire lawman, Eric Northam (Alexander Skarsgard). More locally, in Bon Temps, Deputy Sheriff Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer) and Bud Dearborne (William Sanderson) wrestle with their issues, Andy's badge being taken away from him for strange behavior being chief amongst those concerns.
Of course, the core of the series and its second season is the relationship that continues to grow between Bill and Sookie despite all manner of outside interference from various factions. As the story moves along, Jason gets pulled in deeper with the cult, The Fellowship Of The Sun, run by Steve Newlin (Michael McMillian) and his strange wife Sarah (Anna Camp), which obviously causes problems for Sookie who understandably feels for her brother but still needs to do her own thing. Complicating things, in regards to Jason's involvement, if the fact that Steve is in actuality trying to put together a team who can eliminate the vampires for good. Tara's quest for love, acceptance and what can only be described as redemption hits a boil when her involvement with Maryann becomes anything but normal. It's obvious when the first season ends that this character is not the saintly woman she seems on the outside but is rather a wolf in sheep's clothing. She becomes one of the more interesting villains in this second batch of stories and the way in which Tara's story mingles with Sookie's is not only quite clever but also allows for some of the second season's scariest moments.
The twelve episodes in this release of the complete second season are laid out across the five discs in the set as follows:
Nothing But The Blood / Keep This Party Going
Scratches / Shake And Fingerpop
Never Let Me Go / Hard Hearted Hannah / Release Me
Timebomb / I Will Rise Up / New World In My View
Frenzy / Beyond Here Lies Nothin'
What makes the series as compelling as it is isn't so much the plot or the storytelling but the characters themselves. The writing team behind True Blood has done an excellent job of making each and every one of the characters in the series believable, which is no small feat when you consider the subject matter. Everyone in the show has their good qualities, well almost everyone that is, but so too do they have their flaws and their problems. As it is in real life, people screw up in True Blood and so there are consequences to their actions. A perfect example is Sam, who is obviously quite in love with Sookie despite the fact that he knows she's not interested. Like so many other people in the world, this doesn't stop him from trying and when he's inevitably shot down, you feel for the guy even if you know that his persistence if futile. Traits like this, which serve only to further humanize, and in turn, endear, certain characters to the viewers are what really helps to make this show as watchable as it is.
Some of the plot shifts and chances may seem a little ridiculous but when you remember that this is a show about vampires and that, as such, a little bit of ridiculous isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's easy to take it all in stride. The cast all do a fine job here, with the oddly attractive Paquin playing her fairly sympathetic lead quite well while her male counterpart in the form of Moyer as Bill somehow seems a fitting match for her. The pair, who is an item in real life, has a strong chemistry together that's equal parts sympathy and sexuality and they really are very good together. The rest of the cast follow suit, with Rutina Wesley frequently stealing the show as she did in the first season.
The second season isn't perfect, however - like the episodes that came before it, the show does have a strange tendency to just sort of drop characters as it progresses. A few interesting characters from season one are basically just written off and pushed out of the way in order to introduce new, though not necessarily better or more interesting, people to play with. This results in a few choppy transitions from one plot line to the next but generally the series moves along pretty smoothly. The allegory that the series is heavily entrenched in, which is using the vampire as a metaphor for minority groups and the persecution they sometimes have to deal with, is a little overdone in spots and even a bit heavy handed in others but it does lend itself to some interesting themes and ideas which the storylines do often explore rather well.
True Blood is still very much a soap opera with supernatural trappings, at times not all that far removed from the gothic drama of Dark Shadows, but that doesn't make it any less entertaining. Critics often accuse the show of playing to clichés and delving into trashy exploitation but who cares, it's fun and interesting viewing. Think of it as Melrose Place with bare boobs and a lot more blood and you'll be on the right track. The series does occasionally get pretty clever, most notably when it allows its central characters to develop naturally and moments of brilliance are definitely evident throughout this second batch of episodes - but why over think it? Ultimately this is just really good entertainment. It all builds up to a pretty interesting climax that, of course, effects all of the main characters and leaves us wanting more.
The episodes that make up the complete second 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, Spanish, French, Brazilian and Portuguese subtitles are included while alternate language tracks are offered in French language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo.
The best of the extra in this set arrive in the form of the seven cast and crew commentary tracks that are scattered throughout the set. The participants are as follows:
Keep This Party Going: Director Michael Lehmann and Actor Nelsan Ellise
Release Me: Director Michael Ruscio and Writer Raelle Tucker
Timebomb: Actors Stephen Moyer and Alexander Skarsgard with Director John Dahl
New World In My View: Actors Ryan Kwanten and Sam Trammell
Frenzy: Series Creator/Writer Alan Ball, Director Daniel Minahan, and Actress Rutina Wesley
Beyond Here Lies Nothin' (commentary one): Actresses Anna Paquin and Michelle Forbes
Beyond Here Lies Nothin' (commentary two): Director Michael Cuesta and Writer Alexander Woo
The commentary tracks are good ones, all killer no filler so to speak, with the participants doing a fine job of dissecting storylines, character motivations and plot points while also elaborating on locations, effects, casting, acting, and storyline changes. Pretty much anything you'd want to have covered is given some thought here, with the Frenzy track really sticking out as it's a top down view of the entire series up until that point in the show which makes for pretty interesting listening. There's a good sense of humor present throughout each of the talks and you get the impression that the people involved in this series really enjoy working with one another and have a good time creating this material.
From there, we move on to The Vampire Report, which is twenty-four minutes of fake news reports that are done completely straight and in character and which cover some of the events that take place in the series. They're amusing enough and worth watching once but more of a novelty than anything else. More interesting is Fellowship Of The Sun: Reflections Of Light, which is a twelve minute segment that is along the same lines and which allows the two core members of the cult that Jason becomes involved with talk about their belief system and their values.
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.
True Blood - The Complete Second Season makes for pretty addictive viewing. It's as entertaining as anything else on television these days and HBO has treated it well on DVD, offering up solid transfers, decent audio, and some compelling extras as well. Those who haven't already seen the first season will want to start with that one but for those who are already up to speed and able to jump in, this set comes recommended.