I don't think it will be a revolutionary statement that how one feels about Alan Ball's new HBO series, True Blood, will have a lot to do with how one generally feels about vampires. Me, they've never really been my thing; they're OK and all, but the mere mention of fangs wouldn't necessarily get me to tune in. This review, then, is for (and by) the vampire-agnostic.
So here's the takeaway: I don't doubt at all that True Blood could develop into a deeply fascinating series for people at all points on the vampire-fan spectrum. But in the two episodes HBO sent me, the vampire parts were something I just needed to get through so I could get back to Alan Ball's witty writing in the more human realm. The second episode is stronger than the first; I've heard from some critics who got a full batch of five episodes that each one gets better. But the fate of many a TV series has been determined in episode one, and in True Blood's case, that's cause for some concern.
True Blood's protagonist is Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a Louisiana waitress with an unfortunate "gift" for reading people's minds that makes her daily life a struggle to tune out the thoughts of those around her. It's somewhat of a relief, then, when a pale stranger named Bill (Stephen Moyer) settles himself into her bar one night and asks for a drink of Tru Blood, the synthetic blood substitute that has made it possible for vampires to live among humans. Sookie can't read his mind but still quickly figures out that Bill's a vampire; "Am I that obvious?" he drawls in return. Why yes; you just asked for fake blood at a bar at night. It's not hard to guess. For more on the highs and lows of True Blood, just read more.
What Ball has done best — in American Beauty, and then in Six Feet Under — is give a voice to people's unspoken fears: that intimacy is scary, that suburbia is soul-sucking, that death is really the end, or not the end. I'm not convinced that talent translates to the unspoken fears of the immortal. Bill's lines are the clunkiest, his characterization spotty. The second episode fixes that somewhat, giving Bill a set of chivalrous, 1800s manners, but in the first episode, I had a hard time understanding why Sookie was so attracted to this bloodsucker.
Part of that might be because of Sookie, who also could use a little more character development. Sometimes she's a Southern tart; sometimes she's a complete innocent. The second episode hints more at her family backstory, which was a relief; every little bit I learned about her helped. But in the first episode, I had such a hard time justifying her actions that finally I gave up trying to make rational sense of it.
The Sookie/Bill story gets some support from wild cast of supporting characters, some successful and some less so. To date, my favorites are Sookie's "My stars!"-saying grandmother and her sassy best friend, Tara, who can't stop running her mouth. Sookie's brother, the lady-crazed Jason, is introduced in a fairly odd way, but there's enough hinting at a dark past that I'm curious about him.
There's been a lot made of True Blood's sex and violence (or, maybe more accurately, violent sex), and it's true — there's a lot of it. There's definitely a spirit of abandon about the whole thing, which is something Ball's other shows have definitely lacked. It's more melodrama than drama, despite the occasional heavy reminders about how vampires are an oppressed class just trying to find their way in a world set on denying them their rights, and at times it's very, very enjoyable. But is it enough to — sorry, sorry — sink your teeth into? Well . . . that might well just depend on how you feel about vampires.