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Tube Tied: "The Bridge of You and Me Ain't Never Gonna Happen": Against True Blood

True Blood Spoiler Alert. You've been warned.

True Blood finished its third season this past Sunday night with a boring episode where everyone yelled a lot about love and there was concrete and then Sookie went into the light. I wish there was more substance to describe there, but that's really about it.

I... don't really understand the fuss about True Blood.

I understand that the show employs very attractive people, and that those people have very attractive sex quite often. I also understand that it involves stories about vampires and werewolves, which increasingly seems to be the only growth industry left in the American economy. I also understand that we are going through a time in the culture where escapism is an increasingly attractive alternative to everyday life. I further have not read the books that form the basis for the show; I admit they may be better than the televised version.

But this is a show which features dialogue that is George-Lucas levels of terrible, horrible, no-good and very bad, delivered by actors whose amusement with the campy material they are being offered appears to have been exhausted by the time they've appeared in more than three episodes. (See, e.g., "Tonight Lorena and I have fucked as only two vampires can," intoned by Stephen Moyer with the air of a man undergoing a root canal. Without anesthesia.). It is also a show that has a plot line which honest-to-God involves the main character being a fairy whose "light" is being allegedly stolen by vampires. Talk about your re-inscriptions of purity myths.

Folks, I'm not looking to mix up a glass of haterade like the kind that gets poured on every franchise that women tend to like. I too find it troublesome that we feel we cannot allow women in this culture to have fantasy lives that are every bit as flat and cliched as those of your average Internet-porn-addicted dude. Furthermore, I do not demand that every bit of our culture have defensible artistic merit, nor do I imagine my taste the only acceptable taste out there. I know camp has its place. But I seriously just don't understand how anyone can claim this show as anything other than a guilty pleasure. And not a particularly interesting or progressive one at that.

Not every show has to be groundbreaking and new, of course, but I expect more of True Blood. At a very basic level, it's on HBO, which means that, thanks to that entity's vaunted production process, the writing staff enjoys a degree of independence from the demands of advertisers and market share. It can aspire, in other words, to greater depth of feeling than those depicted in Internet porn. It's also a show whose opening credits are designed to gesture at the grittiness of life in the backwaters of Louisiana, where the show is set. The dirty aesthetic of the credits serves as a weekly contrast to the candy-colored, heavily sanitized, smooth-skinned version of it we get in the show. It's too bad the people who did them don't seem to be in charge of the whole damn show.  

I suppose you could make a claim for the transgressiveness of True Blood on grounds of the aforementioned ubiquitous sex. I wouldn't buy it, though, largely because of the show's near-exclusive focus on hetero sex. While there are gay and lesbian characters, they are comparatively few (Pam, Lafayette, the King of Mississippi). And their sex scenes are heavily edited and perfunctory when juxtaposed with those between say, Sookie and Bill, Jason and any of his girls-of-the-month, or Jessica and Hoyt. My favorite character, for example, Lafayette, the gay, possibly genderqueer (my term, he hasn't self-identified to my recollection) cook at Merlotte's Grill has, for this entire season, had a relationship whose sexual aspect has occurred almost entirely offscreen. The treatment of that relationship, with a nurse-turned-witch called Jesus, felt delicate and careful in a way that seems retrospectively suspicious. And even in depicting fantasy lives, the show seems squeamish about gay sex; in one of its cheekier moments this season the show had Sam Merlotte, the "shifter" barman-turned-collie, daydream about Bill Compton, but the scene did not go beyond heavy breathing and shirt removal. I'd say it seems like the network is involved, if I didn't have the impression that HBO is actually pretty hands-off, creatively, with these big shows of theirs. Which leaves, uncomfortably, the conclusion that the writers' own queasiness is at least somewhat at fault here.

With regard to the show's address of race, what little of it there is, it has to come to terms with what I've come to think of as the Tara Problem.  I'm not the only one who finds Tara's characterization very questionable.  If there is a character on television who's been kicked around and traumatized more than she has in the three short seasons of this show, I'd be shocked to hear it. Tara spent much of this season, for example, in the hands of a sadistic vampire admirer who raped her, repeatedly, onscreen. Last season she was brainwashed into betraying all of her friends, including Sookie and Lafayette, who, we are told, are the closest things she has to family. In a show with such flat characterizations and blunt writing I suppose the fact that one character is given little to do other be abused is hardly surprising. But add to that that it's a black woman who has been placed in those target sights, and that the only other trait the writers seem to directly imbue her personality with is a sharp tongue, and suddenly there's some pretty awful messages being sent by the show about black femininity. Those writers should be counted their lucky stars that they cast Rutina Wesley. In a less skilled actress's hands, one who was less good at showing nuance where none appears to exist in the script, their apparent love of punishing Tara would come off even worse.

(And let's not even talk about the racial implications of having the white lady be a goody-goody fairy who always saves the day with her bottomless internal well of goodness. I like Anna Paquin as much as anyone can like a media figure they don't actually know, but the character strikes me as horribly embarrassing, with her bad accent and little-girl dresses and fits of faux-feisty Southern pique. I'd take Scarlett O'Hara over Sookie any day of the week, and that is saying something, in my world.)

True Blood's failures provide a good lesson for people seeking to ground their progressive work in camp: simply put, that "transgression" is as "transgression" does. Not everyone can be John Waters. Not every depiction of the shocking and/or sexual opens doors, or at least not the right ones, to places you want to go in the culture. Bare gestures at inclusivity don't amount to actual inclusivity. And while I won't put words in the creator's mouths and say they wanted to do better than your average vampire camp this time around, I like to assume everyone has the best intentions. It's just that, as in everything, sometimes good intentions aren't enough.

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Comments

25 comments have been made. Post a comment.

OMG. Thank you!

I've been completely perplexed by the popularity of True Blood. After my best friend whined at me for well over a year to watch it, I forced myself to watch the first season about a month ago. I don't want to see anymore. Everything you mentioned was something that bothered me as well (the opening credits are awesome and such a deceitful tease, the dreadful dialog, the overabundance of straight sex and pretty much no other sort, Sookie the virginal white savior, etc.) The only part of the show I liked was Lafayette, but even his character is troubling. He's gay . . . and a prostitute. He's black . . . and a drug dealer. I mean his character is fantastic, but couldn't that be shown in a manner that isn't predicated on tired stereotypes?

Anyway, thank you for writing this. It's a relief to find out other people aren't impressed by True Blood, either.

I'm a fan of True Blood, but

I'm a fan of True Blood, but I agree with pretty much everything you wrote. While I can get over bad writing and bad acting for the sake of campy sexy fantasy, this past season was just bad plot. And the stereotypes are incredibly bothersome. Let's add another one: the feisty bitchy bossy redhead (Arlene). I'm a natural redhead so it bothers me when TV/movies go there too. At least Jessica is a feisty redhead who isn't a bitchy or bossy.

But Tara's character is just awful, in terms of what they put her through. You forgot one: her black, ex-outlaw boyfriend gets shot and the cops cover up what really happened. I haven't read the books, but my friend who has tells me that Tara is white in the books. Although I have no idea if Tara goes through so much crap in the books.

tara is indeed white

She is still dating Eggs, the highschool football star and runs a lucrative bussniess in Bon Temps.... in the books. They just made up this new Tara to throw some drama in the show.... I really hate it it makes me mad when she is on screen. I'd love to have her be black.... and the strong character that she was in the book however it's nto to be thanks to HBO.

Actually, Tara is a pretty

Actually, Tara is a pretty minor character in the books, and she spends an entire book under the abusive spell of a very Franklin-esque vampire. I'm not sure having them re-write TV Tara as Book Tara is the answer.

"The bridge of you and me..."

...is actually one of my favorite lines in the whole series. While I'm a huge fan of the show, it is largely for the escapism, and I agree wholeheartedly with this post.

I do tend to give the show a lot of benefit of the doubt, partly because I loved Alan Ball's earlier HBO series, Six Feet Under, so very much, and partly because I think True Blood started out a lot more cohesive than it is now. I really loved the parallel drawn between vampires and the GLBTQ communities, with the "God hates fangs" billboard in the opening credits and all the references to Christian-fundie anti-vampire rhetoric. In the subsequent two seasons, the narratives have spread themselves way too thin. I still enjoy the show, but with a lot of reservations. I wish the writers could scale back on some of the plot points. It's getting a little ridiculous. Is Felix the armadillo going to get his own plotline soon? 

The dialogue has been pretty schlocky all along, though. I chalk this up to it being nearly impossible to make vampires not sound overweeningly pompous. (See also: Twilight; The Vampire Diaries.)

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Andi Zeisler, cofounder and editorial/creative director

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Andi Zeisler, cofounder and editorial/creative director

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FELIX!!!

Oh my gosh when Terry mentioned Felix last episode I really hoped that he was going to get some screen time. Of course, then we'd find out he was a were-armadillo or whatever I'm sure.

I'm with Andi here in that I like True Blood, but I think you really nailed some of the problems with it, Michelle. It could retain most of what makes it great (camp, action, humor) and be a much more interesting show if things were reigned in a little.

On a side note, I am getting a huge kick out of remembering that horrible line of Bill's about he and Lorena "fucking like only two vampires can." Of all the schlocky line-deliverers on the show, Bill Compton is THE WORST. I hope he meets the true death soon, but I have a feeling we'll have to put up with more from him in seasons to come.
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Kelsey Wallace, web editor

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Kelsey Wallace, contributor

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I haven't seen the latest

I haven't seen the latest season, but I just had to comment on the comparison between vampires and queer folks, because I enjoyed it too...until I thought about the actual implications. Do we really want to be comparing GLBTQ people to a group whose entire existence is based on murder? And what is it saying about queer people when sex and violence are so closely intertwined among the vampires? The more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I became.

i love it.

i think sookie stackhouse is a bad ass female character and i love charlaine harris and the show. i am as feminist as it gets and i can see a lot of brilliance behind the show.

I'll second that

My personal wall in regards to this show it early. I've learned to be skeptical of any work that can't get an accent right especailly southern ones (hits closer to home.) It feels like they really don't care either enough to realize it's wrong or to work to get it right or even to come up with a alternate solution. I would have made it farther than two episodes in if someone had just made Sookie talk like whoever is doing the local news in Baton Rogue instead of butchering a gulf coast sub-dialect.

I would also disagree that

I would also disagree that the show is mostly hetero. Out of most tv series, true blood has all kinds of homo-erotic going on.

i see a lot of people obsessed with mad men who think the show is intelligent but it showcases heteronormativity much more than a show like true blood. one of the reasons i enjoy the show so much is its emphasis on sexual fluidity (the show does it much more than the books does).

so true.

I liked this show the first season, but not since then. I keep watching because other people keep telling me how awesome Alan Bell is, (I've never seen 6 Feet Under) and I've been waiting and waiting for the show to carry thru on the promise of the credits (always my favourite part) and I'm pretty over it.

I've read all the books and enjoyed them, but as the series went on its plots got stretched a little thin also. I think most people are reading now cause they're on Team Eric or Team Bill and they just want some resolution. At this point--the books aren't high literature, but they're still so much better than the show, and Charlaine throws in little tongue-in-cheek references and nods to her fans that carry over the increasingly worn out plots.

On the other hand, I think the Vampire Diaries, from WAY thinner and more embarrassing source material (check out LJ Smith's website and her awful Mary Sue fiction for a good laugh) have really transcended the books (and the diary entry heavy first episodes). Stefan is, of course, embarrassingly pompous, but the rest of the cast makes up for it. And, to refute an earlier post on Bitch (I forget by whom) VD has an upper crust snotty rich boy werewolf.

Quick Note

Just a quick note in regards to Tara; in the (unbelieveably worse) books that True Blood is based off of, Tara more or less has the same trials and tribulations as her TV counterpart, but is also a bland and personality-free white girl.

Yeah.

A few people have mentioned this now, am only replying to the first comment.

That Tara was "originally" white does not, in my view, negate the bad optics of having your African American character selected for continual punishment alternating with neck-snapping stereotypes. It maybe says that Charlaine Harris herself cannot be pinned with the problem. But just because the book's character is white doesn't make Rutina Wesley any less black onscreen, and I don't think the audience for the show is identical to the books.

I do wonder whether they considered that the character they were using to expand the racial diversity of the show would end up sending all these unfortunate messages...

Thank You

I haven't seen season 3 yet, but I pretty much jumped ship on season 2. Like you I watch that awesome beginning credit and expected great, gritty things from the show. Season 1 delivered some of that, but not enough IMHO. They lost me during season 2. I suppose I'll watch the beginning of season 3 -- a friend is taping it for me since I no longer get HBO -- but I'm not exactly jazzed about it. And BTW yeah the books are worse than the series. The creators weren't following the books too closely in the beginning which is good IMHO, but all I could think while watching last season was "What the hell happened?" Ah well. More important things to do in life than watching TV. Like reading Bitch. Love the unicorn cover, BTW.

hahaha!

i just wanted to call attention to this line:
"I also understand that it involves stories about vampires and werewolves, which increasingly seems to be the only growth industry left in the American economy."

this sentence alone is just beautifully hilarious.

I've read all the Sookie

I've read all the Sookie Stackhouse books. The show is far more lurid and explicit. I'd also say it's more queer friendly. Lafayette is a minor character in the first 2 (?) books (and dies). Tara in the books is peripheral to most of the action, boring, and she is white. I don't think the actor who plays Tara was very good until the last few episodes of the 3rd season, but I don't have a problem with her being a black character going through all kinds of mess. Jason Stackhouse (and Sookie for that matter) have been through all kinds of hell, too; why shouldn't Tara? I like that Tara's not sitting around trying to braid Sookie's hair or serve her tea or some other "supportive" best friend behavior. Instead, she's out dealing with her own stuff independent of the Stackhouses.

The books are sort of light romance, light horror, and very very Sookie-centric. I watch the show as a guilty pleasure - read the books for the same reason. Some episodes I think push the envelope too far (I loved Six Feet Under but also thought they went too far at times). But sometimes the camp is pretty fantastic, as in the 2nd season with Jason Stackhouse trying to save his town, and in the 3rd season when the King of Louisiana addresses America on the TV.

yarp

This is pretty much exactly how I feel about the show; thanks for the anti-haterade comments too.

I've read all the books but

I've read all the books but so far never seen an episode of the series. But Sookie is a fairy whose light is being stolen???Wtf is that shit about? I mean (book spoilers ahead), yes Sookie is PART fairy in the book. But that part is so small and diluted that she has no fairy abilities (esp. not a light). And the vampires aren't stealing anything (although her fairy blood makes her more irresistible to them). They're fucking her and she very much enjoys it. I stopped liking Bill when her raped her in the third book though. Not sure if they've done that on the show (and no, I don't mean that rough graveyard sex scene; that was very much consensual, at least in the book).

Vampires and Werewolves

"stories about vampires and werewolves, which increasingly seems to be the only growth industry left in the American economy"...
I can´t agree more with you, there must be plenty of other good areas of fiction that made a good entertainment, vampires and werewolves are over saturated.

Could it be possible that

Could it be possible that the actors themselves aren't comfortable engaging in simulated homoerotic sex? I think it's a little unfair to pin that on the writers or producers.

Having not yet seen season 3

Having not yet seen season 3 other than in random clips, I think that the actors who play Eric and Sam have all seemed to be OK with portraying same-sex yearnings, and the actors who play Sophie, Pam and Lafayette are definitely fine with it. Stephen Moyer is another thing entirely (he's either a horrid actor in this role or just fundamentally unappealling to me), but I don't think a universal discomfort among the actors is an issue.

Regardless, if presenting queerness directly is important for the writers & producers, it's their job to have the actors get over it, or find a way around it. That said, I'd heard from some straight acquaintances that this season of True Blood was becoming 'like gay porn,' so the amount of queerness def. depends on your lens.

For me, the show definitely displays some internal conflict on all of this, and I think it's because it starts from such an escapist premise. They start with centuries-old vampires, most of whom are pretty unabashed about all sorts of sex, but then hide almost all of the queer sex in the narrative. While the show may be pretty inclusive compared to a lot of the other stuff that's out there, that internal inconsistency is grating.

sookie

FINALLY! Great to hear that Sookie bothers someone else as well. It's not just the fairy stuff (though I genuinely burst out laughing when that was revealed) it's her ridiculously stereotypical portrayal as some kind of Christian Ultra-Feminine Robot that drives me up the wall. She's objectified and held on a pedestal by practically every male on the show because of her looks and preachy brand of self-righteous, vain morality. She stomps around judging and pitching fits when she doesn't get her way.

Even worse, the portrayal of Bill (and Eric) as bland, archaic samples of masculinity. They're broody, they're stoic, they're aggressive, they're cavemen! ....Take me, take me now? Is that my line?

It's true...

I have to agree with the majority of observations made about the show, but I am still a fan. It is our job as viewers to take in what we are being presented with, and make with it what we will. True Blood is in fact, a tv show, meant for escapism and pure entertainment value, but there are some relevant issues that are brought up in each episode and although subtle, they do leave a mark on viewers.

Many of the underlying messages in True Blood are those of tolerance and accepting people for their diversity (however imperfect and flawed the show's depiction of this may be). In the most recent episodes, the character known as The King of Mississippi, talks much about the societal problems that humans face in regards to materialism, capitalism, and environmental sustainability. In regards to the Layfayette situation, I was really excited to see them start a sexual/romantic relationship for the character, however tame it may be; but look at the world we live in...Gay and Lesbian characters are still treated very carefully in media and I am happy they are even addressing it.

I can understand why many people "don't get" True Blood, but I see value in the show. I also see the writers making more of an impact to step outside the box the more secure they get with the success of the show.

i've watched all the four

i've watched all the four seasons past summer
i don't see fuss around the show and if i saw i wouldn't understand it either
i watched it out of boredom (i was unemployed)
i laughed a lot. i can't say it is interesting or compelling, it is just one more way to kill the time.

This is pretty much exactly

This is pretty much exactly how I feel about the show; thanks for the anti-haterade comments too.