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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » True Blood: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray)
True Blood: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray)
HBO // Unrated // May 19, 2009 // Region A
List Price: $79.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 22, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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solid state calculator. The camcorder. Karaoke. Instant ramen. Pokémon. Japan has hammered out all sorts of things that've revolutionized the world at large, and what's next on the docket from The Land of the Rising Sun...? Synthetic blood. Oh, and it's cheap to boot -- cheap enough to stock in every 7-11, Piggly Wiggly, and backwater convenience store from coast to coast. 'Course, you don't put fake blood on the shelf next to the Yoo-hoo and Donald Duck O.J. unless there's a market for it, like...oh, an entire race of creatures of the night that are using Tru Blood as their gateway to finally come out of the coffin. Yup, vamps are real, and they're everywhere. Even a sleepy little town like Bon Temps, Louisiana has itself its very own vampire: Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), a quietly intense holdover from the Civil War days.

The townsfolk are kind of split down the middle. Some of 'em look at Bill like a shiny new toy: some fad to fawn over until they're distracted by whatever other sparkly thing hoves into their field of vision. Others...? Fear. Mistrust. C'mon, it's the Deep South; you know the drill. Anyway, there's a lot more about Bon Temps that's left of center than a guy with a couple of fangs, but they're just a little more subtle about it. At the top of the list is Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a waitress down at Merlotte's Bar and Grill. Pretty much everyone else shrugs her off as batshit crazy, but the reason Sookie's kinda unhinged is that she's a telepath -- that she gets overwhelmed as all the ambient thoughts around her seep into her pretty little head. The people who are closest to Sookie know about this and deal -- her brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten), a himbo who'll screw anything on two legs, her lifelong best friend Tara (Rutina Wesley), her boss Sam (Sam Trammell) who's been lugging around a torch for Sookie forever, and her sweet ol' Granny Adele (Lois Smith) -- but her gift-slash-curse has kept her at arm's length from ever being in anything in the same time zone as a relationship. She can barely touch anyone without their most closely guarded thoughts flooding into her brain...everyone except for Bill. Sookie couldn't care less than he's a card-carrying member of the walking undead. When they're together, it's at long last quiet...comfortable...relaxing...and his chiseled good looks don't exactly hurt.

Whatever weirdness there may have been up till now in Bon Temps, it's pretty much stayed bubbling under the surface. It's at a full boil not long after Bill breezes back into town after a century and change away, though This used to be a Cajun-flavored Mayberry, and now it has a vampire and a sudden string of grisly murders under its belt. C'mon, that can't be a coincidence, can it? Well, that's the main Mystery-Du-Season, one that's flanked by acid-trip lifeblood that's drained out of vamps and shilled on the black market, the
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sticky underworld of vampires (who don't just have their own bars but their own legal system to boot!), multiple exorcisms, other critters that go bump in the night, and...zydeco. That's scary, right?

I have to admit that I kind of...hated True Blood at first. I dug a lot of the bulletpoints -- y'know, vamps not just being out in the open but being kind of trendy, a psychic waitress, vamp blood as a drug, and the conflict between "mainstreaming" vamps and the fangs-in-the-neck old guard -- but at least in its first few episodes, those plot points never really gel into anything. A lot of the dialogue in the early stretches is creaky and clunky, the supporting cast can be really one note (Jason spends most of the opening stretch bare-assed naked, and Tara might as well have a nametag slapped on her chest reading "I'm the Sassy Black Best Friend: Ask Me How!"), and I really just never felt sucked into the starcrossed romance between vamp and telepathic twentysomething. I couldn't really get a firm grasp on Sookie at first either, in part because the character seems more like a troubled teenager than the detached, tortured 25 year old she's supposed to be. True Blood is also aggressively campy at the outset, and as much as I usually dig that sort of thing, I just can't get emotionally invested in a TV show with that sensibility. Between its particular sense of humor, so many scenes sopping in the red stuff, and its need to get pretty much everyone in the cast nekkid and screwin', I halfway expected to see Lloyd Kaufman score the executive producer credit in the first couple of episodes rather than Alan Ball.

...and then True Blood figures it out. Yeah, it can be rough going in the first few episodes, but stick with it. For one, True Blood really starts to become an ensemble show after that point. Tara isn't just gratingly hitting that same "I'm mad!" note over and over and over again. She becomes more layered...more vulnerable...and maybe even the single best written character on the show. Bill is caught between two worlds: playing the vampiric Southern Gentleman type for the fleshies in Bon Temps but being forced to tow the undead line when he's around the vamp set. There's an internal conflict that's never spelled out on-screen either but shines through in Stephen Moyer's performance: the struggle between the feral vampire inside him and the tattered remants of the man he used to be. A mystery starts to build around Sam that slaps a layer of intrigue onto his character, and there's more of a hook once he lets his eyes rove in another direction than DianeSookie's. I absolutely have to give Nelsan Ellis a nod while I'm at it. Breathlessly funny and so much more than just another stereotype, Ellis steals every last scene he's in as the
Uh-oh! Vampire with a gun.
blunt and flamboyant-but-you-don't-wanna-fuck-with-him Lafayette Reynolds. Also on the payroll are two-time Tony Award nominee Lois Smith, the mighty William Sanderson, Ċ½eljko Ivanek, Stephen Root as a tortured (literally) gay vamp, Chris Bauer as a gruff, underappreciated detective, and Lizzy Caplan as a vamp-blood-swilling granola type. You could make the case that True Blood goes too far in fleshing out its ensemble, though, as Sookie winds up being underwritten as everyone around her is being drawn so much more richly. That's odd because her brother suffers through an awful lot of the same torment she does, but that spirals into a couple of arcs for Jason that really build him out as a character while Sookie stays relatively flat. She gradually gets kinda bitchy and flits from one love interest to the next too, but...hey! She's young. I get it.

As the season went on, I found myself not just laughing but outright cackling at a lot of True Blood's one-liners. The campiness that dominates the first few episodes opens up enough to make room for some emotionally devastating backstories, and I found myself feeling more and more drawn into these characters. I'm shallow enough to be impressed by the sheer volume of nudity, and because each episode ends on a hell of a cliffhanger, True Blood screams out to be devoured in a marathon. With everyone else sticking with the cold, steely veneer of Blade and Underworld with their vamps, True Blood taking more of a Southern Gothic spin really stands out too. What doesn't it do right...? Unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which wove its metaphors more deftly into the story, True Blood can be pretty transparent. As floored as I was with where Jason's addiction to V eventually took him, the early stretches feel nicked straight out of an afterschool special, and with the initial hiccups from the first few episodes in the rear view mirror, that's the only misstep that really lingers. Overall, though, I really got hooked into True Blood, and I'm definitely onboard for season two. On one hand, sure: it's trashy, campy fun...all blood, tits, and fangs...but as the season progresses, True Blood peels away to reveal just how layered these characters really are. That's what's bringing me back, and that's what's making me close out this chunk of the review with Recommended in bold and italics.

True Blood looks pretty terrific in high-def. At its best, the 1.78:1 image is inhumanly sharp and detailed, showcasing a really strong sense of depth and dimensionality. There's not any sign of clunky filtering or noise reduction after-the-fact either to stomp all over the atmospheric photography. It's a welcomed change of pace that the cinematography does skew warm...more towards the Southern Gothic end of things rather than settle into the usual vampire cliché of drenching everything in a cold, steely blue. It's probably worth a mention that this is an intensely grainy series. I think that works in True Blood's favor, personally; something impossibly clean with a silky smooth texture just wouldn't carry the same impact. As thoroughly impressive as True Blood looks at its best, crispness can be kind of erratic, with a fair number of shots looking softer than I'd normally expect. None of that's a hiccup with this Blu-ray set, though -- it's just the way this series was shot. True Blood may look a little uneven, but overall...? Sure, I'm impressed.

This season is spread across a mix of BD-50s and BD-25s -- five discs in all -- and each episode has been encoded with AVC.

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Alan Ball mentions pretty early on in his audio commentary for "Strange Love" that an enormous amount of time and energy was invested into True Blood's sound design. I believe it; True Blood sports a feature-quality sound mix, offered here in 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio. The sound design is unrelentingly immersive, and that constant sense of atmosphere and exceptional directionality are an integral part of the reason True Blood is as engaging as it is. I mean, take the waves of scattered thoughts that so frequently overwhelm Sookie: those stray firing synapses attack from every direction, and it just wouldn't be nearly as disorienting or effective in straightahead stereo. True Blood is also reinforced by a healthy low-end, most memorably the pounding, resonant drums that punctuate the exorcism in "Burning House of Love". Every last element in the mix is clean and distinct, and it's balanced so that even its most aggressive moments never drown out the dialogue. I think I'd have to give True Blood the nod as the single best-sounding television series I've experienced on Blu-ray...or any other format for anyone keeping track at home.

Lossy DTS dubs are served up in French (5.1) and Spanish (2.0). The list of subtitles includes streams in English (traditional and SDH), French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

True Blood
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doesn't really pile on any of the usual extras: interviews with the cast, smatterings of behind-the-scenes footage, outtakes, or deleted scenes. Aside from its audio commentaries, the bells and whistles on True Blood skew more towards the whole verité thing: y'know, that all of this is real life, and the extras are there to further flesh out this world of crawfish and fangbangers. The only way to dig into these extras is to dive into an "Enhanced Viewing" mode that overlays 'em on top of each episode. There's no reference index or anything to spell out what's in each episode and where, so if you want to...oh, I dunno...take a peek at a fake TV spot for a vamp online dating site, there's no way of knowing you'll have to skip to the 20 minute mark in "Escape from Dragon House" to give it a whirl.

For what it's worth, this material is really context-sensitive. There are a few different types scattered around in here, including a map of Bon Temps showing where each setting fits into the geography of this sleepy Leeziana town, teasers about moments that'll prove to be important later, and broad vamp facts that are typically spelled out in the story anyway. It is interesting when the extras build on the mythology of the show. Every time a vamp bares his or her fangs on-screen for the first time, a name and brief backstory pop up with 'em. There are also a couple of vamp-centric advertising spoofs along with a 14 minute faux-news magazine piece called "Shedding Light on Vampires in America" that's even belted out in high-def. The footage that pops up the most is Lafayette -- in character! -- gabbing about damn near every single character on the show. The problem with all that, though, is that the picture-in-picture extras are really geared towards further exploring characters and concepts as they're introduced, but this means it runs out of steam pretty quickly. It gets really sparse in the second half of the season, hardly amounting to more than introducing a few new vamps and Lafayette rants like where Taye Diggs ranks against a kitty cat or how he wouldn't mind nibbling on a little Eggs Benedict. I kind of like the idea, but there's really not that much material, it's kind of a hassle to find what's stapled on where, and it's a borderline-waste of time once the last five or six episodes roll around.

At least there are audio commentaries tackling half the season to try and make up for it. Unlike the "enhanced" episodes that play it pretty safe for first-timers, these tracks do lob out some light spoilers for future episodes, so hold off on giving them a listen until you've polished off the entire season. Writer/director/high sheriff Alan Ball fields the commentary for the pilot, and his chat naturally revolves largely around getting the show off the ground: shooting at least this first episode entirely in L.A. despite its steamy Southern backdrop, lining up the cast, distinguishing this series from both the books and his own Six Feet Under, Nathan Barr's acoustic score taking the place of the usual electrovamp music, and devouring a stack of vampire movies so he'd know what clichés to steer clear of on True Blood.

Even though they're thousands of miles apart, Anna
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Paquin chats with director Scott Winant over "The First Taste", spending most of the track lobbing out random stories like having to guzzle gallons of sugar-free/no-carb fake blood and keeping the space time continuum intact by keeping Anna away from the pint-sized actress playing Flashback Sookie. "Escape from Dragon House" pairs writer Brian Buckner and director Michael Lehmann. Among the highlights in their track are True Blood marking Buckner's second time writing about priapism, highlighting some of the color the actors brings to their roles, winding up better off without Emm-Jay's "Thriller" in the soundtrack, and snickering about the palm trees and nicely-tanned vamp hands that creep into the frame. The second and last of the commentaries with an actor on-board is "Sparks Fly Out", which features Stephen Moyer and director Dan Minahan. Moyer notes some of the differences between True Blood and his last go-around playing a vamp on TV, pointing out one key scene that was filmed in chunks a month apart, the sheer volume of pork Moyer had to scarf down in his flashback, and...wow! pointing out a recurring role by Gwyneth Paltrow's wig.

Although I'd liked the other four commentaries well enough, the last two are the weakest of the bunch. Director Marcos Siega's track for "Burning House of Love" is kind of dry, really. A lot of his notes swirl around his hopping on-board as a visiting director on an established set and working with a script by freshman TV writer Chris Offutt. Some of the standout notes include Offutt writing his own personal collection of stones with holes in them into the story, hammering out the more spiritual experience of tripping on V compared to more familiar drugs, and pointing out how close the stretch near the climax is to what Siega had storyboarded even if he didn't direct that Louisiana-lensed stretch himself. The last of the commentaries is with writer/director Nancy Oliver over "To Love is to Bury". She's an engaging speaker with an amazing voice, but she all but runs out of things to say about halfway through, and the pace from there is really uneven. Oliver speaks at length about the different locations used in this episode, pointing out that there's someone on the payroll whose job it is to paint all the splatter, how she tried to unify the different disparate elements of this ep, and why blood rain isn't the winning idea you might think.

The five discs that make up True Blood's first season come packaged in a fold-out case more like a DVD boxed set rather than what I'm used to seeing on Blu-ray, and this is really how I prefer it. That box fits snugly in a thick, sturdy, embossed sleeve that has kind of a smooth, velvety texture to it. Classy! True Blood makes it a point to serve up the "previously on..." recaps and "next time..." teasers too, offered separately instead of being bolted onto each episode. First-timers will probably want to mash the center button on their remotes to try and steer clear of the light spoilers in the synopses that display alongside each ep.

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The Final Word
Its first few episodes kind of creak along, yeah, but once True Blood manages to find its footing, it's more than just another guilty pleasure. The extras are kind of underwhelming and a hassle to dive into, but at least the show looks great and sounds unreal, and at the end of the day, that's all that really matters, right? Recommended.
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