sat 02/07/2022

True Blood, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

True Blood, Channel 4

True Blood, Channel 4

Sex, body parts and haemoglobin in the quaint southern town of Bon Temps

Love never dies: Sookie (Anna Paquin) and Bill (Stephen Moyer) in 'True Blood'

How did vampires manage to stage a near-total hijack of the popular media? It used to be just Christopher Lee in a cloak with Hammer Films’ home-made cardboard bats hanging on wires over his head, but now we’re up to our throats in Buffy, Angel, The Twilight Saga, Blade, Van Helsing… and True Blood, HBO’s somewhat superior exercise in blood-squirting southern Gothic, now back for its second series on Channel 4.

Is the lionisation of vampires a way of embracing the “other” in a suffocatingly formatted society? Is it an artistic metaphor for sexual liberation? Or is it just a celebration of being able to live forever and do whatever the hell you want, while remaining impossibly pale and slender? Being cold to the touch, vampires are the embodiment of cool.

Search me, but True Blood brings style, brio and some fiendish frissons to the old blood-sucker clichés. Developed from Charlaine Harris’s series of novels, The Southern Vampire Mysteries, by Alan Ball (who created Six Feet Under), it transports us to the steamy Louisiana town of Bon Temps. This being the Deep South, there are some folks who harbour certain prejudices and a fondness for the extreme Christian right, and they’re not comfortable with the fact that Bon Temps has its own vampire ghetto. A Japanese corporation has invented a brand of synthetic blood which allows vampires to live without having to snack on humans, prompting the vampires to campaign for equal rights and staking (if you will) their claim to rejoin “normal” society. Real vampire blood, meanwhile, is known as V-Juice and is keenly sought after for its spectacular aphrodisiac properties. Vampire hunters can make big bucks by trading the stuff on the black market.

America is weirdly dysfunctional in its relationship with sex

You don't have to be Camille Paglia to discern that the notion of vampires as an embattled minority trying to carve out their own niche in an ignorant and intolerant society has clanging contemporary resonance. Creator Ball, who’s gay, has commented that “I feel as if America is weirdly dysfunctional in its relationship with sex,” while “the puritan streak that was there at the beginning is still in place”. No doubt there are those of a fundamentalist persuasion who would consider gay sex no less deplorable than the vampire version.

But if True Blood was just a political manifesto, viewers would be fleeing in droves. It’s the show’s audacious mix of undead fantasy, sly cultural critique and rampant sexuality among an impossibly nubile cast that has powered it up the ratings, with an extra boost from its fine soundtrack of eerie, bluesy swamp-funk. The central relationship between vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) and Anna Paquin’s blonde, hot-panted waitress Sookie Stackhouse is designed to create the link between the central themes of outsiderness and acceptance, since Sookie (although telepathic) isn’t a vampire. The fact that their love is surely doomed only makes it more frantic and intense.

MaryannA disorientatingly diverse cast of characters can make the show tricky to grasp, not least because a vampire may have a history stretching back a couple of hundred years (I’m a newcomer here myself, but I’m trying to play high-speed catch-up). There's alarming potential for chaos in the seductive shape of Maryann Foster (Michelle Forbes, pictured right), who's set to loom ever larger as the new season progresses. Apparently she’s a maenad, which means she has the power to create a Dionysiac frenzy wherever she goes (as she did this week in Merlotte’s diner, as well as turning Sam the proprietor into a dog to teach him some respect). Also staging a major power play is the veteran vampire Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgård), who runs the vampire bar Fangtasia and keeps prisoners chained up in a cellar full of exsanguinating body parts. He’s about to send Sookie off on a dangerous mission to Texas, where vampires are vanishing without trace. Bill isn’t happy about this. There’s trouble and puddles of bodily fluids ahead.

A disorientatingly diverse cast of characters can make the show tricky to grasp

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