So what is True Blood actually about? Sex, sex and more sex is the obvious answer… but only if you don’t look closely enough. To minimise the power of The Skars and copious amount of vamp porn that incriminates Alan Ball’s masterful television adaptation would be a mistake. That said; sex is only part of the show. Charlaine Harris’ southern vampire mystery series is an orgy of metaphoric language and Ball’s interpretation elicits and embellishes the satirical tone of Harris’ novels. The supernatural world of Bon Temps, Louisiana is a microcosmic representation of the world at large. True Blood is social commentary at its most scathing and unrelenting.
The most obvious subtext in the show is that of sexual taboo, a theme evoked by the mere presence of the vampire. Symbolic of a carnal desire entrenched in essence, the vampire expresses the part of the human psyche that is repressed and denied by the necessary boundaries prescribed by social mores and values. In True Blood, the vampire has ‘come out’ but even so, is not free to express its nature, which is to lust, hunt, feed and fuck. Tru Blood, synthetic vampire blood, is an attempt at helping the vampire to curb its nature; it is the remedy for the creature’s instinctual behaviour but, of course, is never as good at the real thing. Tru Blood to a vampire is like prison to a human being – a way to correct incorrect behaviour, to rehabilitate offenders. The nature of such incorrect behaviour is irrelevant to its correctors. The vampire must deny its nature in order to assimilate successfully into the human world. Just as humans must follow a prescribed code of conduct, so too must vamps. It’s not easy for either species.
The vampire’s struggle to fit in invokes ‘the plight of the minority’; minority denoting any smaller group struggling to fit in to what society deems normal. The vampire represents any racial minority and ‘sexual deviant’ (homosexuals in particular) as well as the dorks at high school, the loner who listens to metal, the kid in the chess club – pretty much anyone who battles to belong (subjectively or objectively). The vampire struggle is symbolic of the age old struggle of humanity to conform to morals of society. And so the scourge of the vampire (were and shifter) becomes universally understood.
The vampire also exposes attitudes; the racist and the bigot especially. But, of course, it’s not all that simple. Vampires are hard-wired killers and thus have a right to be treated as outcasts. They are feared and therefore loathed. And it isn’t a fear based merely on misunderstanding, it is a fear premised in the perception of an undeniable sense of danger that a vampire oozes from every dead pore of its being. Vampires are inescapable lethal; do the world’s citizens then have a right to mistrust and mistreat vamps? It is an act of self-preservation after all. Does society welcome child molesters and serial killers into its community? Certainly not. Are such criminals excused because it’s in their nature to molest and kill? No way. So how is a vampire different? And do people deserve a second chance; the benefit of the doubt? True Blood forces such ideological issues to the surface of consciousness.
Just as the human word has a prescribed mode of conduct so too does the vampire world. Lust, hunt, feed and fuck are acceptable to vampires but there are hierarchically written rules to which they must submit; vampires bow to an authority, a king, a sheriff. Sookie, drawn into the vampire world by her love for Bill and then Eric, is a human (albeit one with supernatural ability) who is forced to comply with and understand vampire rules and authority. But not only is Sookie an outsider trying to fit into and understand the world of the vampire, she is also an outsider in her own world – her telepathic ability makes it difficult for her to ingratiate herself with her peers. Sookie is an outcast on all counts. She doesn’t even fit into the world of faedom as her human sensibilities prevent her from succumbing to faery authority. The larger observation seems to be that members of different, sects, groups, sub-cultures, ethnicities etc. are not always comfortable existing within the framework that has forged their identity. The show thus implies that identity needs to be created in spite of labels rather than because of them. It’s idealistic and far-fetched but strangely hopeful.
True Blood exposes many of human kind’s less favourable attributes; our propensity for addiction being the most poignant. Vampire blood (aka ‘V’) is intoxicating and the strength, power and euphoria invoked by the red drug are ultimately soul-destroying. Jason and his season 1 girlfriend mess with V, Lafayette sells and uses (but is well versed in the dangers of the drug and is thus not entirely enslaved to its properties) and in season 4 poor Andy Bellefleur is horribly addicted to V. But addiction need not be so literal; sex, power and greed are all addictive – Eric Northman is hooked on all three. Pam says to Eric: “…you are a Viking vampire and a god and you bow to no one. If someone crosses you, you rip out their liver with one fang.” Eric’s ego is what makes him desperately attractive to lovers of both the book and the show; he exercises his will without shame or excuse – an attitude that is not permitted in the human world. It makes Eric HOT but pecs and penis aside, loving him is hard work. After all, Sookie only falls for the Viking vampire when he is stripped of his ego. Relationships in True Blood are perceived as complex. Love is a primary theme in Ball’s show and the creator explores the mess of emotion that complicates the bond between friends, families and lovers. The show’s glam sex often masks epic ideas including betrayal, forgiveness and martyrdom – just dig a little deeper to see what’s beneath the surface.
The writers of True Blood are expertly versed in the art of audience manipulation. Bill betrayed Sookie, they broke up but their feelings aren’t resolved and they are unquestionably in love even though they have abandoned their relationship. But True Blood season 4 is all about Eric and Sookie; so how do the writers cajole the ‘team Bill’ stragglers to cheering for ‘team Eric’? They turn Bill into a politician; an ass-kissing, smooth-talking, bullshitting puppet of a politician. Other than turning the audience into Bill haters, the ‘politics’ story-line adds an even greater sense of depth to the show. It adds a new dimension to True Blood by exposing the great masquerade of man. Politicians are renowned for masking truth – there is a public and a private persona; it comes with the job. But, in all honesty, this is not characteristic unique to politics. People, in general, are all bullshitters. There is a vast difference between what is lived in public and what is revealed in private, and plenty of skeletons hidden in that proverbial closet. Hypocrisy is entrenched in the condition of being human. It is inescapable and there is no point denying it, which leaves us with the responsibility to change. Change our very nature? Or embrace it as the vampires embrace their own immoral essence? It’s a conundrum.
Religious hypocrisy is the most annoying. The show makes definite and very unsubtle comments about religion. Set in America’s great Bible belt, True Blood draws on the Voodoo culture of the south and the fanaticism surrounding extreme, evangelical Christianity to suppose that religion is merely a mask that hides a multitude of sins. Hypocrisy unveiled.
Alan Ball’s series affords viewers the essential opportunity to relate to its characters, to its themes and to the raw emotion that is the heart of the series.
There is an interesting ‘book versus show’ argument developing on the blogosphere and fans who have both read and watched the life of Sookie Stackhouse unfold are polarised in opinion. Many are contemptuous of Alan Ball’s interpretation of Charlain Harris’ novels, construing True Blood a shallow rendition punctuated with shock value and cheap laughs. The argument stands: ‘the shock value and cheap laughs’ are exactly what gives the show its depth. It is with a great sense of humour and sharp wit that Alan Ball has used True Blood to make some very astute observations. And he has done so without sacrificing the elements crucial to entertainment; suspense, drama and human complexity. The beauty of the True Blood series is inherent in the fact that it is not a carbon copy of the book. Ball has exaggerated the elements of the book that work well visually, and, with great writers on board, has managed to artistically render into being his reaction to Harris’ funny, sexy story. Artistic license is essential to the integrity of social commentary and an artist’s right to satirical interpretation. To ignore True Blood’s mastery is to miss the point of the show’s vast metaphoric language.