John P. Johnson/HBO

Fangs for the memories: Where did ‘True Blood’ go wrong?

This final season of True Blood has felt akin to watching an accountant balance a ledger.

Each character and plot thread is being treated as an open account that needs to be squared before the end of the month. It feels very safe, comfortable, predictable, and frankly has not been very interesting to watch. Even the deaths of major characters are plainly and obviously risk-free ways to usher things along in the direction of tidy, inevitable closure.

This final season has left me questioning why I was hooked into the show in the first place. What was it about True Blood that got me interested enough to want to see it all the way through?

To answer that question, I went back and started watching the first few episodes of the first season. Several things really stood out: True Blood has never been a “great” television show like The Wire or Breaking Bad. Even from the earliest episodes, the show featured campy soap opera acting and steamy sex scenes, but there was a spirit of humor and satire which made the entire show that much more interesting.

HBO

The series opens with a funny scene where some drunk, sex-crazed Louisiana kids stop into a convenience store to get some of this new-fangled, synthetic “True Blood” only to be confronted by a genre-subverting swamp redneck vampire.

Digging a bit deeper into these first episodes made me realize that the initial hook that got me invested in the show was the idea of a world where vampires had just “come out of the the coffin.” There is time spent dealing with the logistical problems vampires face integrating into our society. The character relationships and a lot of the conflict that drives the show forward are all derived from that basic background premise.

Sookie has to help Bill find an electrician to restore his familial estate, which will accommodate the vampire’s nocturnal hours. The small town constabulary of Bon Temps presumptively have vampires in mind when a series of murders start taking place in their bucolic town. The vampires have to deal with people who would kidnap them and drain them because vampire blood is a potent drug for humans. The characters are defined and fleshed out by these conflicts happening in the world around them, and given opportunities to demonstrate their personalities by how they act.

joe manganiello shirtless true blood

In later seasons, and especially the most recent, the emphasis eases off of the world’s surrounding characters and focuses more on the drama of the characters themselves. It’s understandable and makes sense. Human drama is comprehensible, compelling and easy to digest. There’s only so much exploring the trials and tribulation of how vampires can integrate into society that can be done before— Ooh, look! Alcide’s abs!

There were some missed opportunities, though. As the show progressed, a wider variety of supernatural beings was revealed to be living amongst the humans, still hiding in secret from mortal human eyes. The characters eventually came across immortal maenads, faeries, witches, shapeshifters and werewolves.

It seems surprising to me that all of these magical beings were able to stay hidden, especially after the revelation that vampires are real. You’d think just that revelation would have inspired at least someone to say, “Well if vampires exist, what else is out there?” Sadly, none of the other mythical creatures get the same, thorough treatment that vampire culture got in the first season.

Maybe I underestimate the audience for the show, but the producers seem concerned that people will tune out if it spends too much time impersonating a National Geographic special without some panting and heavy petting to mix things up. Sex likely sells more HBO subscriptions than a show about the complex ecology of werewolves in society today.

John P. Johnson/HBO

This season, the vampires started out having to deal with the threat of Hepatitis V. The disease is a man-made mutation of Hepatitis D which kills vampires, worse than “the true death,” marring their perfect appearance with big purple veins. As campy and tongue-in-cheek as that premise sounds written out, it has been played perfectly straight through the season with little sense of the satire or whimsy that drew me into the show.

The virus plot is an afterthought: It is a very calculated device propped up with some eye-rollingly bad “TV science” to contrive the convenient deaths of some characters and force labored choices from others.

There is something to be said about writers who can wrap a show up with a tidy, satisfying conclusion. But there’s a problem when the accountant’s calculator and spreadsheet become obvious in the writing of the show. Resolving outstanding plot threads of the show doesn’t necessarily have to mean carefully and predictably piloting each idea to its logical conclusion, but in the case of True Blood that seems like what the producers have settled for.

Pete Schwab

About Pete Schwab

Pete is a professional computer nerd, gaming blogger, movie aficionado, coffee chemist and craft beer geek. He lives in Chicago with his lady friend and their dog, Kubrick.

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