TV Review: 'True Blood' makes an anemic Season 5 return
Too many characters, too many plotlines and minimal intrigue mar the HBO vampire dramedy
It's probably appropriate that "True Blood" makes me say and do and write stupid, out-of-character things.
Like last summer, when I reviewed the fourth season premiere, I briefly convinced myself that it was totally OK that "True Blood" was a glib, bloody, utterly soulless enterprise, because Alan Ball didn't aspire to make a series of substance. I even took the blame upon myself and wrote, "I am at fault for wanting 'True Blood' to be more than it is."
I wrote those words, but it wasn't true. "True Blood" is at fault for not even being a good version of what it aspires to be, which is doubly bad, because what it aspires to be is so low-brow and trashy. And by failing to be effectively and deliciously low-brow and trashy, "True Blood" has had the odd effect of activating an inner puritanical streak that I didn't know I possessed.
Last season, during the sixth or seventh lackluster sex scene between Sookie Stackhouse and Eric Northman, I actually found myself thinking, "Geez, maybe it's time for Anna Paquin to put on some clothing."
Those thoughts are not in character. Why would I ever think that? Why would Alan Ball want to make me think such awful thoughts?
Early in Season 5, during a sequence in which a newly born vampire zips around a house at accelerated speed, upending lamps and knocking over furniture, I actually found myself musing, "Geez. It's going to take a long time to clean up this mess."
I'm not Martha Stewart. I'm not an especially neat person. And no matter how much of a mess is made on-screen in "True Blood," nobody is ever going to force me to restore order. And yet, in lieu of providing material for my enjoyment, Alan Ball triggered my vicarious OCD tendencies.
Put a different way, what "True Blood" has managed to do, after four-plus seasons, is deaden my appetite for chaos and haphazard anarchy.
A show about the most primal and basic of human desires has battered my poor, defenseless Id into submission.
If you hated the fourth season of "True Blood," with its overacting witches, neutered Erics and less-than-engaging Shifters, I'm here to provide the saddest of warnings: It doesn't get better.
[More after the break...]
Coming off a season that I sense was largely disliked by even dedicated fans -- I base that sense on exactly how few people popped up on the blog to disagree with my evisceration of the last finale last summer -- "True Blood" was in desperate need of a speedy return to form. Already on Twitter, my preliminary reaction to the season has been greeted by several people saying, "I'm only giving the show a few more episodes." Any viewer hoping for a speedy and efficient resetting of the creative table will be woefully disappointed.
The season could end after Episode 4 and there isn't a single storyline that I'd be sad to see truncated, a single question I'd be disappointed to have go unanswered.
The first four episodes of Season 5 find "True Blood" at its most directionless and meandering. Despite using nearly the full hour for each episode -- padded by "True Blood" standards -- Ball and his team of writers haven't generated enough forward narrative momentum to fill even a single episode. A show which, at its best, was compulsively watchable junk food has become so glutted with uninteresting characters and ill-conceived story arcs that the four episodes moved with a glacial, jittery stop-and-start lurch.
It's here that readers who found this review only on Google are preparing their, "If you hate the show so much, why do you keep watching?" comments. Save yourself the time. I write about pop culture. It's my job. I don't get to choose what media folks are consuming and I don't think that there's any point in only paying attention to the things that I love. If "True Blood" is in the collective conversation, I want to be able to take part in that conversation, even if my role is an under-my-breath grumble.
And also, as I keep insisting, with the proper ratio of Jessica/Pam/Eric/Lafayette-to-Everybody Else, "True Blood" was once able to be a show that amused me. It's not that show anymore. It may never have been that show, even if the ratio has sometimes been more in my preferential favor.
Accepting and acknowledging that people who love "True Blood" already either stopped reading or stuck around only to leave hostile comments at the bottom, I'm going to break the rest of this review into a series of questions and answers that cover the basis that most people -- fans or hate-watchers -- want to know. If there are any other questions you have, I can add to this review. I aim to please!
Note that there are going to be *some* spoilers here.
What's happening this season, plot-wise?
Nothing. Lots of vampire bureaucracy. You remember Eric and Bill's problems with the Vampire Authority? There's a lot more of that, as well as a lot more of the two characters standing around together as they ponder a group of extremist vampires who believe that people are cattle. Terry's finally returned to his Iraq War PTSD. Jason's returned to feeling like a himbo and wishing people would take him more seriously. A few characters have finally realized and begun to get resentful of the lengths everybody goes to keep Sookie alive. Jessica's throwing frat parties, Pam's having flashbacks and there are ripples from what happened with Debbie and Tara in the finale.
Is Tara off the show, permanently?
When it comes to Alan Ball and his writing staff, perhaps no criticism is more clear and damning than their utter lack of creative ruthlessness with characters. This is a world in which vampires and other monstrous creatures are constantly prowling the countryside noshing on civilians, but our core cast remains impervious to The True Death. "True Blood" has become a show without any gravity and without any stakes because fans know that the writers are too weak to kill off core characters, even when they ceased to serve any purpose dozens of episodes ago. The show's solution to characters it doesn't know how to deal with has always been to just add more characters and let the established characters meander like zombie, zombies being one class of the undead yet to make an appearance on "True Blood." The gutlessness has progressed to a point where very few of the characters are interesting enough for their deaths to make any impact anyway. There were moments were an Andy or a Hoyt or a Tara or a Sam could have died and the emotional ripples could have lifted the show out of its moribund rut, but that time has passed.
So no. Tara's not dead. "True Blood" only kills off people you don't care about (and "hating" is still caring, Tara-haters).
Which of these plotlines were you LEAST interested in?
Oooh, that's a tough one. It's been a long time since I've cared about anything involving Sam. Lafayette pouting is pretty much a waste of everything great about Lafayette. Terry's war trauma may become fascinating eventually, but through four episodes it's a distraction that has literally no connection to any of the other characters, which makes it an impediment to smooth storytelling. The Jason stuff is a rehash of stuff they've done multiple times with that character. And as much as I like Chris Bauer, there's no compelling reason why Andy has to be involved with anything anymore. Oh and self-pitying Sookie isn't all that great either. There's too much going on on this show and without a demonstrable "A" story, there's equal worth given to "F" and "G" storylines which shouldn't be considered equal.
What's happening this season, subtext-wise?
Nothing, silly. Alan Ball insists that any allegory or satirical value you get from "True Blood" is a coincidence, which is convenient because it spares him from making any kind of coherent argument. So we've got our 20th or 30th different variation on hollow mockery of religious fundamentalism. Check. Fundamentalism... bad. Moving on?
It's not really subtext, but perhaps the only thing I enjoyed about these early episodes was the exploration of the sire bond between a vampire and his or her maker. We've seen how emotional this connection can be, but especially in the third and fourth episodes, there's some real depth.
Who's new and are they any good?
Scott Foley dropped in for last the finale as one of Terry's old war buddies and through four additional episodes, he hasn't been given anything to do. Playing a particularly powerful vampire, Chris Meloni doesn't appear until the second episode, but at least he's having fun, so I don't want to take anything away from him. Meloni's joined by a cadre of recognizable actors on the Authority council, including The Swede from "Hell on Wheels," Doctore from "Spartacus" and Barb from "Cougar Town." There's an attractive new vampire played by Lucy Griffiths and several family members to previously established characters and Salome -- Yes, THE Salome. That's a lot of new characters on top of our full returning cast and old friends like Steve Newlin and The Prospect of Russell Edgington.
Surely The Triumphant Return of Russell Edgington helps?
Here's one of those spoilers I don't mind providing, because I fear that there really are people out there who will be lured to watch "True Blood" by how sublimely awesome Denis O'Hare was in Season 3: In the first four episodes, Russell Edgington is on screen for less than five seconds. So I view this as less of a spoiler and more of a warning. If you're sticking around praying Russell is going to be a heart-removing life-vest for the series, you could drown before salvation arrives.
Sigh. Bottom line: Who gets naked?
I could be wrong about this, but I think that of the regular cast members, male and female, we see the most flesh from Bauer. That's Chris Bauer, not Kristin Bauer van Straten. I think that's all you need to know. OK. Fine. Meloni takes his shirt off. But Manganiello doesn't.
I'm going to keep watching, but I probably won't check in again in blog form until the finale. HitFix's Geoff Berkshire will be doing weekly recaps and I'm confident he likes the show more than I do, if only because he probably couldn't like it less.
Maybe Russell Edgington really WILL save the show when he makes his full-fledged return? Maybe Christopher Meloni's character will get out of the boardroom and wreak havoc? Maybe Terry's storyline will become the "True Blood" equivalent of "Generation Kill"? Maybe the writers will decide to do an entire episode that's all Deborah Ann Woll? Maybe the writers will remember why Lafayette was great, back in the day? Maybe Jason Stackhouse will get funny again?
One can always hope.
I wonder how much worse "True Blood" looks coming off of a second mostly exceptional season of "Game of Thrones." Seeing an HBO drama that successfully blends low-brow, potentially exploitative elements with high dramatic aspirations all within a familiar genre context and featuring a cast of dozens only puts a harsher glare on the HBO drama that fails in every way to do the same.
But that's unfair to "True Blood," which fails because it fails, not because "Game of Thrones" succeeds. And it's probably the subject for a totally different essay/review.
"True Blood" returns to HBO on Sunday, June 10.