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Second Bite: Another Look at HBO's "True Blood"

Back in May, I wrote a pretty negative review of the original pilot for HBO's upcoming Alan Ball vampires-in-the-South drama True Blood, based on the novel series by Charlaine Harris. (You can read my original review here.)

Since then, I was contacted by HBO, who asked me to take another look at True Blood's revised pilot ("Strange Love"), which recast one major character and altered a few scenes, and the series' second episode.

Always willing to take another look at something, I agreed, especially when the project in question is the next HBO Sunday night lynchpin and comes from such storied auspices. So did writer/director Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) and producers manage to fix some of the problems I had with the original pilot for True Blood? Let's discuss.

For those of you who didn't read my original review of True Blood (and shame on you if you didn't!), here's the quick recap of the plot of True Blood: vampires have "come out of the coffin" thanks to the advent of a Japanese synthetic blood called Tru Blood but poor, misunderstood telepathic waitress/social pariah Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) hasn't seen a single vamp in her sleepy Southern town of Bon Temps, Louisiana... Until, that is, a vampire named Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) comes into Merlotte's, the bar Sookie works at, and changes her life forever, especially when Sookie realizes that she can't hear his thoughts for a change.

If that reads like the near perfect set-up for a series, you'd be right. However, the earlier version of the pilot jumps around uncomfortably in terms of tone, offering a mishmash of satire, soft-core porn, horror, domestic drama, supernatural thriller, and race relations metaphor. The revised pilot tones down these disparate elements slightly but still meanders a bit too much for my liking. While the pilot episode is an improvement over the original, there's still something... off about the production that I can't quite put my finger on. It's almost as though it's itself missing a soul.

Special effects still grate, especially the transformation from human to vamp; given how smoothly Buffy the Vampire Slayer managed this effect so many years ago, it seems both cartoonish and clunky here: the fangs themselves seem too oddly close together and when they drop into position, as it were, they're accompanied by a silly clicking noise. Another attempt at effects wizardry is the combination of sped up and slowed down footage when Bill "quickly" comes to Sookie's side. It's clearly intended to be spooky and jarring but it's just downright funny to watch. Not the intended result.

One of the major improvements, however, that the series has made is the casting of Rutina Wesley (How She Move) as Tara; she replaced the original pilot's Brook Kerr (Passions), whose shrill, unsympathetic performance made me want to smash my television to smithereens. Kerr's Tara was as irritating as nails on a chalkboard; Wesley imbues her character with a vulnerablility that she masks with hard-edged armor and gives her an added ironic twist: how is it that this strong woman who feels the need to tell everyone exactly what she's thinking at that moment can't bring herself to tell the truth about her long-standing feelings to Sookie's brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten)?

An added scene between Sookie, Jason, and their grandmother Adele (Lois Smith) adds a dimension of believability to their characters' connectivity, giving them a moment of domestic bliss before things start to go off the rails. It also allows Sookie and Jason to display some semblance of emotion towards one another, which was somewhat lacking in the original pilot.

The revised pilot also alters the climactic showdown between Sookie and the Rattrays, the trashy couple who capture Bill at Merlotte's and begin to drain his blood in the parking lot. After telepathically hearing their intentions and noticing that Bill has disappeared, Sookie sets off to rescue him. In the original pilot, a female vampire lurks nearby and appears to assist Sookie in her quest to free Bill and punish the Rattrays. In the revised pilot, however, this woman is removed altogether, leading us to believe that Sookie was somehow able to take down Mack and Denise on her own. Though there still is the matter of that dog that's always seemingly lurking about Merlotte's as well... Hmm.

As much as I still didn't connect with the pilot episode, I do have to say that the series' second episode ("The First Taste"), also submitted for review, is a vast improvement over the premiere installment.

Tonally, the series seems to have settled down a little bit and the characters all seem a hell of a lot more comfortable in their own skins. Additionally, the story kicks into high gear with Bill repaying Sookie by rescuing her in turn from the sadistic Rattrays when she is savagely beaten as payback for robbing them of Bill's "v-juice." This being a vampire drama first and foremost, Bill is able to save Sookie through some unconventional means that bring them much closer together than either could have possibly realized.

If there was a way to skip the first episode (which does, unfortunately, set up the series) and watch the second, I would definitely advise you to figure that out. The second episode is a clearer realization of Charlaine Harris' novels, blending together backwoods humor, underworld menaces, and homespun wisdom into a much more appealing package and we're given a much clearer sense of Sookie's world and how each of the characters interact.

Wesley's Tara and Paquin's Sookie definitely seem like mismatched best friends and we learn that Lafayette, the bar's drag queen short order cook, is Tara's flamboyant cousin. Likewise, the murder investigation of Maudette Pickens (who still, to me, looks way too old to have attended high school with Sookie) takes an interesting turn, especially once Jason Stackhouse gets to see the video tape that Maudette secretly recorded of their sex session, and Sookie finds herself in way over her head when she drops by Bill's house one night and discovers that he might not be the only vampire in Bon Temps.

Additionally, True Blood's second episode sets up a seedy underbelly of Bon Temps involving fangbangers, drugs, rough sex, and all sorts of illicit behavior, all of which mirror the inclusion of a literal underworld invading this sleepy town in the form of vampires. While at times a little heavy-handed with the metaphors for vampires as a recognized minority group (a subplot involves a racist preacher and an ACLU-type organization fighting for vampire rights), the inclusion of vampires and the ghost of slavery in the Deep South is an intriguing proposition and provides real sparks during a heated discussion between Bill and Adele as he talks about his family's slaves during the 1860s as Tara sits uncomfortably nearby.

All in all, I do think that HBO made some improvements to the open installment of True Blood but the overall effect isn't enough to salvage that pilot episode. However, I do think that they seemed to fix some of my issues in time for the series' second episode, which gives me a much clearer idea of where this series is going creatively and sets up a slew of intriguing subplots.

Based on the pilot, I don't know that I'd stick around to see True Blood take flight. However, the second episode's relative strength does make me a little more willing to come back again for another bite.

True Blood premieres September 7th at 9 pm ET/PT on HBO.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Greatest American Dog (CBS); Last Comic Standing (NBC); Smallville (CW); Ugly Betty (ABC); Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? (FOX)

9 pm: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS); Last Comic Standing (NBC; 9-11 pm); Supernatural (CW); Grey's Anatomy (ABC); So You Think You Dance (FOX)

10 pm: Swingtown (CBS); Hopkins (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching:

8 pm: Greatest American Dog.

I think this looks absolutely cheesy but my dog gave me her saddest eyes when I was setting up this week's TiVo To Do List so I'll record it for her to watch when I'm not around.

9 pm: Dragons' Den on BBC America.

It's the US series premiere of the British reality series, in which inventors pitch a variety of products--like a machine that helps babies sleep--to a panel of multi-millionaires (a.k.a. the Dragons). I'm still feeling burned that BBCA cancelled my beloved MI-5 but I'll check this out anyway.

10 pm: Burn Notice on USA.

I wasn't crazy about Burn Notice's first season but I am crazy about BSG's Tricia Helfer and she joins the cast with tonight's sophomore season premiere ("Breaking and Entering"), in which Michael discovers he's been recruited by the very same people who burned him, tries to get to some intel that's being guarded by some mercenaries, and meets his new handler.

10 pm: Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List on Bravo.

Okay, I know, I know, but I find her acerbic overeagerness somehow calming. On tonight's episode ("Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace"), Kathy looks forward to performing at a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden and sets out for Manhattan to spend time with her friends. Something tells me not everything will go according to plan...

10 pm: Swingtown.

On tonight's episode ("Friends with Benefits"), the green-eyed monster rears its ugly head when Trina meets up with her high-school sweetheart, leading Tom to get jealous; Susan attends a ladies' lunch to try and help promote Bruce's career but Janet ends up making more of an impression on the organization.


Anonymous said…
I really want to like this show. The changes they made in the pilot are definitely a step in the right direction (thank god for the new Tara!) but it's still not as good as it *should* be.

I found some of the vampire "fangbanger" stuff to be gross rather than scary and it was really off-putting. The improvements in the second episode are encouraging, though, and I'm hoping that, maybe, by the third episode they'll get it right. Third time's the charm?
Anonymous said…
I totally agree with you about the fangs. they are all wrong and just dumb looking. Not only are they in the anatomically incorrect position, but they should slide down from up in the gums, not flip out like a snake's fangs.

I really want to like this show as well, but it seems like when the vampires DO vamp out they are totally un-sexy. I think it will turn people off.

I really want to like the show. I love Charlaine Harris' novels. So at least there are those if the TV series is not good.

Oh. Psst. I don't think the vampire helping Sookie is a vampire. ;)
The CineManiac said…
I just got my hands on some version of the pilot, but I'm not sure what.
First off the version I saw had the original Tara and the women in the shadows, but it also had a breakfast scene with Sookie, Jason, and Grandma is this the new scene you were talking about?
All in all it was a decent effort, and I'll at least tune in to the 2nd episode to see if it gets better.
Anonymous said…
I can't wait for this series. I to saw the pilot and while it had 'problems' I think that this will end up being an interesting and original vampire TV series.

I just hope HBO treats this show better than CBS treated Moonlight or Lifetime - Blood Ties.
Anonymous said…
reading this now that I've seen the show. I don't know how bad the original Tara was, but I thought this Tara was pretty bad. Over the top, and completely ridiculous.
Anonymous said…
True Blood reminds me of Heroes at first glance (just rented the first episode from Blockbuster), though the show still has an original feel overall
Unknown said…
The pilot is the weakest episode so far. I am not sure why I even kept watching after that, but I did, and "True Blood" ended up being my one of my favorite new shows. For me, the further away from the source material it gets, the better the series becomes. Even my favorite major characters are minor characters in the books if they exist at all. "True Blood" is best when it uses Harris' books as a jumping off point for better and more complex stories and characters.

For similar reasons, I am not a fan of the season finale. Too bad you can't watch a mystery series like this without watching the first and last episodes of the season...

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