With True Blood, Six Feet Under’s Alan Ball has found a series with depth, dark humour and bite in equal measure, as Suzanne Black discovers
The TV schedules have succumbed to a plague of bloodsucking parasites ever since Buffy staked her first vampire. But have vamps lost their bite? True Blood puts the allegorical power back into the fangs of the undead, and triumphs over the genre’s other offerings.
Starting life as a series of supernatural detective novels, True Blood hits UK screens this month. The second series is currently airing in the US, with its first episode hailed as the most watched programme on subscription channel HBO since the final episode of The Sopranos.
Published in 2004, Dead Until Dark was the first of Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mystery novels. It supposed a contemporary world where vampires had gone public and, thanks to a synthetic O-substitute called Tru Blood, renounced that pesky bloodsucking habit in favour of campaigning for civil rights and a legitimate place in society. With an interesting concept but a disappointing delivery, it had definite screen potential. Alan Ball, well-known from his deadpan funeral parlour show Six Feet Under and also the scriptwriter of that haunting portrayal of suburban ennui, American Beauty, was perfectly placed to realise it.
Turning the first book into 12 one-hour episodes, he pared down the novel’s flabbiness and beefed up the action, adding new characters to flesh out the ensemble. Set in the small, quiet southern US town of Bon Temps, Sookie Stackhouse is a sweet-as-apple-pie waitress (who happens to be telepathic) and falls for Bill the vampire amid a spate of local murders, in which both vamps and vampire-haters are implicated. A woman writhing in her underwear, gospel choirs and river baptisms, a decaying fox crawling with maggots – the opening credits of True Blood amass scenes of nature’s ferocity and human intensity, underscored by Jace Everett’s sleazy country tune ‘Bad Thing’. Compiling images of evil and the transformative, from the first shot this obviously isn’t a soap opera with sanitised fairytale monsters. Vampire rights delegates clash with Christian cult Children of the Sun in the media; human women who sleep with vampires are pejoratively branded ‘fangbangers’ and, on top of that, some of the vampires have no intention of making nice with the daylight-going public. Suffice to say, the transition of vampires into society isn’t a smooth one. Rather, small-town mentality is writ large and applied to the human/non-human divide in a way that calls into question all forms of discrimination.
In a time when TV is proving its worth with cerebral programming that audiences are lapping up (Ball’s own Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, The Wire and latterly Dexter, Breaking Bad and 30 Rock), Ball has taken an age-old genre and forced it to grow up. The programme is by turns serious, funny, gory and often winningly campy, deflating genre stereotypes with some well-aimed comic capering. In a cultural landscape overridden with supernatural creatures, Ball never forgets to bring the message back to the real world.
True Blood starts on FX, Fri 17 Jul, 10pm.
Suzanne Black introduces True Blood’s leads
Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin)
X-Men’s Rogue swaps her ability-sapping powers for telepathy as a small-town waitress with a big heart who comes to the rescue of Bill and ends up embroiled in a murder mystery (and a necrophilic love affair).
Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer)
Brit Moyer plays an undead American who is trying to mainstream (aka get along with the humans) when a chance encounter with the intriguing Sookie pulls him into all kinds of drama with both the cops and the vampire authorities.
Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell)
Sookie’s boss who makes puppy eyes at her over the bar and seems like a decent guy, but also one harbouring a secret.
Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten)
One time Home & Away beefcake (but managing a flawless southern accent along with the rest of the cast). Sookie’s brother only takes time out from breaking hearts to get himself in more trouble.
Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley)
Sookie’s straight-talking best friend with an alcoholic mother and a huge unrequited crush on Jason.
Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis)
Gay, black and so flamboyant that you can’t ignore him and the prejudices he inspires in others, Lafayette is the anti-redneck and Tara’s cousin.