Photo credit: HBO
Genre lovers, rejoice! There’s some new blood in town, and he’s bringing a hell of a lot of baggage with him.
This Sunday HBO premieres True Blood, a hotly-anticipated new vampire series from Alan Ball, who of course broke new ground for gay visibility and overall existential angst with the brilliant Six Feet Under (after nabbing an Oscar for his American Beauty screenplay). And while overall Blood is considerably breezier than the trials of the Fisher clan, Ball infuses his fang opera with plenty of the juicy complications and complex characters that we’ve come to expect from him.
The series, based on the Southern Vampire Mystery novels by Charlaine Harris, is set in an alternate present where vampires, who have lived secretly among us for centuries, have decided to "come out" after Japanese doctors perfected a synthetic blood for them, meaning that they no longer need to feed on humans. (I don’t know why the fact that the doctors were Japanese is significant, but there ya go.)
Now that vamps can survive on TruBlood (available now at a mini-mart near you!), they want to assimilate into human society and enjoy all the rights that humans do. But their newly public presence also introduces a host of complications … some expected, some not. Yes, people are leery of vampires, for obvious reasons. But vampire blood is also a potent drug for humans, acting like a mix of ecstasy and Viagra, leading to the rise of "Fangbangers", humans who get off on sex with vampires. The emergence of an entirely new underground culture runs parallel to the surface, where vampires just want to get along and lead normal non-lives.
Enter Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a roadhouse waitress with a perky ponytail and the best-fitted bra south of the Mason-Dixon line. (Seriously, gravity-defying.) A bit of an outsider because she can hear people’s thoughts and doesn’t really like what that gives her access to, she also is the target of much suspicion from locals who think she’s either a witch, mentally disabled or just plain nuts.
When Sookie’s small town gets its own vampire, Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), she learns that she can’t hear his thoughts, and the unexpected quiet proves irresistible, as do his dark good looks and old soul.
And, honestly, Sookie could use some peace and quiet. Her world is loud, colorful, and not shy on disappointment and drama. Her brother, Jason (the impossibly gorgeous and often quite nude Ryan Kwanten), is a nymphomaniac with no sense of responsibility. Her parents are dead, and her grandmother is kind but looks like she needs a great deal of help and attention. Her boss, Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell) is clearly in love with her and her best friend Tara (Rutina Wesley) can’t keep a job because of her sassy mouth.
Photo credit: HBO
And then there’s Lafayette Reynolds. Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) is the fry-cook at Merlotte’s and works the highway construction crew with Sookie’s brother. He also wears makeup and sometimes women’s clothing, and makes equal-opportunity passes at about everyone who catches his eye.
But he’d also be able to kick the ass of about anyone who crosses his path.
Photo credit: HBO
Of course, fans of Six Feet Under know that Ball has a history of bringing to life unconventional and diverse gay characters. And there are similarities between the shows: both have eclectic ensemble casts that integrate gay and straight stories, both are unapologetically, almost aggressively sexual, and neither is afraid of shedding light on the darker corners of the human condition.
But while SFU was, in Ball’s words, "existentially exhausting" in its unflinching discussion of life in the presence of death, True Blood’s take on life in the presence of … well, undeath … is much lighter fare. Structured as a series of delicious mysteries (in the first episode alone we’re tipped off that everyone has their secrets and that there’s a serial killer lurking in their midst), this is thrilling, engaging, and more-than-a-little-dirty good fun.
I had the chance to speak with Ball about his approach to his first genre project and learned that, first and foremost, Lafayette is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gay characters (there will be others appearing later in the season) and gay storylines (there will be gay romances, and Lafayette will have more to do than flip po’boys and shovel gravel): "Certainly the vampires have this pansexual sort of thing. There’s Lafayette, and later on we’ll meet some more gay characters, and some more straight characters. There’s something for everybody."
When asked about his efforts to bring authentic gay storylines to the table, Ball emphasized that he’s not a supporter of "gay for gay’s sake" characters, looking at how gay inclusion has evolved over time:
"I certainly think one of the struggles for me in terms of being a gay man is not to let the culture define who I am, just by that. For the longest time when I was growing up gay characters in movies and TV were first psychopathic villains. Then the AIDS epidemic hit and they were these long-suffering, tragic creatures that sort of had to die so we could all feel really sorry. And then I think only recently have we gotten to the point where characters can be gay without being ’the gay character’. And that was certainly an intent of mine on Six Feet Under. I wanted David and Keith’s story to be of equal weight – not less less important and not more important – than Nate and Brenda’s. And I think we achieved that. And I like that – I’m not interested in seeing characters where that’s the only thing that defines them, because I think that’s kind of condescending."
At first blush (and from the first two episodes, which is all I’ve seen at this point), a sexually aggressive, cross-dressing gay character who drinks during the day and sass-talks might not seem a huge break from stereotype, but let’s not dismiss Lafayette out-of-hand. He’s also physically strong, and utterly unintimidated by anyone or anything.
Photo credit: HBO
I asked Ball if the character had evolved from the books, and he said that he had, enormously: "In the books, he is an African-American short-order cook who works in the bar and wears eye makeup. And at one point Sookie says in the book something like, ’I really felt for him, being black and gay in this stupid redneck town. And then that’s pretty much it. … I felt that there was more there."
A lot has also been said about True Blood’s use of vampires as a stand-in for subordinated groups, including gay people. Even the aggressive (and very innovative) marketing campaigns have used touchstones of gay experience ranging from civil rights struggles (the "Vampire Rights" ads) to discriminatory practices on Internet dating sites (The "Rejected by human dating sites" campaign at their fake vampire dating site hilariously mimics gay-friendly Chemistry.com’s "Rejected by eHarmony" ads).
True, the use of vampires and various other monsters as metaphor for "outsider" sexuality has been done (perhaps overdone) in horror fiction for ages. But in True Blood we’re at a new plateau, one where the monster isn’t needed as a stand-in. The world of True Blood is not a repressed heteronorm where the vampire or "other" metaphor is required to discuss gay sexuality, as it has been in the past: It is a world where gay sexuality is actually such a given that it is used to define the "other".
In fact, the newly-public vampires are referred to in terms of gay visibility numerous times (there are references to their "coming out of the coffin, and so forth), meaning that gay struggles aren’t just acknowledged in this universe, they’re a part of the vocabulary. It’s a far cry from other stories where the monster had to "stand in" for gays because the topic wasn’t dared spoken aloud.
Granted, as with most vampire lore, these vamps are apparently very sexual (and very good lovers) and many are pansexual, which Ball attributes to their unique relationship to living, breathing beings: "In the books, most of the vampires do seem to be pansexual. Their thirst for blood really sort of makes them willing partners for ay sort of sexual thing, and for them feeding and sexuality is combined. … However, there are heterosexual vampires, there are vampires that have a very keen same-sex preference. So in a way they’re the same as humans."
So while we can expect some of the bisexual vampire action that we’ve come to expect from other works like Interview With the Vampire, here it’s not as though "vampire" is meant to be synonymous with "queer", and there are human gay characters in the mix as well.
Ball notes that he thinks that in today’s world, the idea of gay sexuality and bisexuality just aren’t as big a deal (and hence not a taboo): "I think, in my limited awareness of teenagers and people in their twenties, I just don’t think it’s that big a deal, and I think that’s healthy. … Kids are less inclined to be judgmental, and there certainly seems to be less of a stigma attached to experimentation."
And while I imagine that homophobia may rear its ugly head at some point in the series (let’s face it, the rural South can be somewhat inhospitable to gay folks from time to time), right now it’s not a central issue. Really, at this point the straight folk (alive and undead alike) are too busy making trouble for each other and themselves to have time to worry to much about the gays.
One of the most troubled characters is Jason Stackhouse (Sookie’s brother), played by Aussie import Ryan Kwanten. And it would be remiss of me not to mention that Kwanten’s assets are prominently on display from the get-go, thanks to Jason’s sexual compulsions. The show overall is very sexual; in fact, the very first scene starts with a young woman driving a car while giving a handjob to her sleeping boyfriend. Talk about setting a mood of sexual danger.
It’s certainly rare for a male character to be the primary sex object, particularly in a genre piece (note that Anna Paquin doesn’t doff her killer bra at any point). Ball points to changes in societal mores as paving the way for a more open appreciation of male beauty, noting, "The way that marketing culture has seized upon beautiful men to market and sell stuff … it’s certainly way more than it used to be."
From the first two episodes, True Blood is great fun. The sense of anticipation and danger is wonderfully present, the characters are fresh and lively, and the various mysteries set into motion are solid (I already have a few ideas as to what might be going on with a few of the characters, but we’ll see…).
The show captures the Louisiana setting wonderfully (although some of the characters might be a little too perfectly-groomed to be working in a roadhouse) and despite being another vampire story set in the swamps, bears zero resemblance to the frou-frou world of Interview with the Vampire. Part of why the story works so well is that it’s so grounded in everyday reality.
As Ball notes, "I very quickly came up with a list of things I never wanted to do. I didn’t want to give people crazy contact lenses when their fangs came out … I didn’t want there to be any opera music, because that’s been done a lot. And I didn’t want to use that cold, icy-blue light, because it seems like pretty much every vampire movie made in the 90’s had that sort of techno/industrial black leather/blue light feel to it."
And of course, much like Six Feet Under, the heavy lifting will be done by the show’s cast, whom Ball entrusts with bringing the more fantastical elements to a very real life: "I really really really focus on what’s going on between the characters and try to make the plot integrated with that. … In a lot of ways it’s very different because we do have all the special effects people there and all the different kinds of blood and we have to stop shooting so people can put their fangs in. But at the same time it’s very much the same as anything else I’ve ever done."
Paquin, an actress who has the tendency to polarize audiences (remember the reaction to her as Rogue in the X-Men movies?), is a good fit as the spunky yet put-upon Sookie, and seriously, she’s crazy-hot. Ellis is fascinating to watch as Lafayette, and Wesley is fun as Sookie’s trash-talking best friend (the scene where she quits her job in the first episode is priceless). It’s hard to get a good read on Bill the vampire in the first two episodes, but I’m at least intrigued, which is a step up from, say, Moonlight.
And Kwanten, who actually caught my attention for doing a great job in the wretched killer puppet movie Dead Silence, is a breakout star just waiting to happen. And one who doesn’t mind getting naked!
But the real star here is the wonderfully wicked genre universe that Ball has brought to the screen. In recent years genre television has been making a gradual return to form, probably thanks mostly to the success of Lost (which, oddly, I can’t stand). With shows like Pushing Daisies and the Doctor Who franchise breaking new ground in fantasy and sci-fi, True Blood sidles up nicely next to Dexter in giving the horror genre a fresh coat of (red) paint.
If the rest of the season stays this strong, True Blood may be the show that Buffy and Angel fans have been begging for … albeit perhaps a much more grown-up version than they may have expected. Looks like vampire shows, much like the newly-out vamps of True Blood themselves, have finally come of age.
True Blood premieres on HBO this Sunday at 9 PM.