Tuesday, September 16, 2008

True Blood: CLUNK!

That's the sound of Alan Ball attempting to deliver to viewers True Blood's central metaphor.

You'd think the images in the opening credits of white children in Klansmen gear and a church sign reading "God Hates Fangs" would be enough, but no: we also need at least one scene per episode of the spokeswoman for the National Vampire League advocating on television for vampire rights legislation. And we definitely need protagonist Sookie Stackhouse telling her best friend who thinks that vampires can put humans under their thrall, "Yeah right, and black people are lazy, and Jews have horns."

CLUNK! Did someone just drop a boulder on my head, or is Ball once again reminding us that vampires are not just vampires, they're also Jews, blacks, gays, disabled people, Alaskan Natives, Maoris, and [insert oppressed population that has at one time or another fought for their civil rights here]?

This parallel is condescendingly, repeatedly spelled out, and then bafflingly undermined, as in last Sunday's episode when the vampire Bill Compton tells Sookie he can, in fact, charm humans into letting him bite them.

Perhaps True Blood still hasn't quite found its legs. Ball's Six Feet Under, too, is embarrassingly heavy-handed in its earliest episodes.

But I can't help comparing this show to my gold standard for all vampiric programming, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy, too, relied upon a metaphorical foundation (high school is hell) but made that truth literal through action, rather than awkward dialogue, over the course of multiple seasons. If Buffy was written by Ball, a scene from its first season might go a little something like this:

Buffy: You guys, weird things keep happening here. I found a dead lunch lady in a locker today. She had bite marks on her neck.
Xander: Wow, that's super scary! Like something out of my worst nightmares.
Willow: I would even call it "hellish."
Buffy: Well, high school is hell after all!
(They all laugh wildly. Then they stop abruptly and stare at each other with expressions of dawning horror. Then they embrace. Exeunt.)

True Blood is not without its merits: I like Brit actor Stephen Moyer as the charming/menacing vampire Bill, and the sweaty Louisiana setting is dark and romantic and unusual in disproportionately-urban TV land. I just hope Ball and his writing team stop treating the viewers like dum-dums who need it explained, again and again, what makes the show's subject matter both alluring and relevant.

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