Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Sookie Goes to Dallas and Everything Back Home Goes to Hell: A True Blood Season 2 Retrospective

I got into Season 1 of True Blood a bit late, but I was hooked by the end of the season due to the constant cliffhanger endings. In the interim between Season 1 and Season 2, which just ended this past Sunday, I became quite a fan of the Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris upon which the show is based. Sookie and her world became my escape when interning for a state legislator, law school classwork, and unsuccessful job searching all became a bit too much. Needless to say, True Blood Season 2 was the summer TV I was anticipating the most. The world of Bon Temps, a small town in Northern Louisiana, is exotic to those of us born and bred in your typical Mid-Atlantic suburbs, and the characters are full of small-town quirk. Most of that charm is translated fairly well to the television. The production design for True Blood is gorgeous, and the characters are memorable. In fact, True Blood surpasses the novels in the sense that secondary characters are much more developed.

True Blood deviates from the Southern Vampire Mysteries in some significant ways, and some of those deviations are more successful than others. By far the most successful deviation has been the addition of the character of Jessica, a new vampire Bill (Sookie’s vampire boyfriend) was forced to “make” at the end of Season 1 as punishment for killing another vampire to save Sookie’s life. Jessica really came into her own in Season 2. Her romance with parish road-crew member Hoyt Fortenberry is easily the most poignant relationship of the season. Both characters are outsiders. Jessica is the newly made vampire who used to be a reasonably obedient Christian girl. Hoyt is the quintessential Mama’s Boy. The fact that they find each other is kind of beautiful. Of course, since this is television, their happiness can’t last. Jessica makes the mistake of trying to feed on Hoyt’s Mama, who is leaving no opportunity untaken to berate Hoyt and Jessica while under the influence of Maryann the Maenad (more on that later). Hoyt at first is completely horrified and wants nothing more to do with Jessica. He does, eventually, realize how monstrous his mother is, however, and is ready to forgive Jessica. Jessica, though, has other plans. She now has a taste for human blood that can’t be sated, and she was last seen feeding on random guys at a truck stop. They’re star-crossed lovers, and that’s great TV.

Another good change was raising the stakes (pun not…really…intended) for Sookie’s trip to Dallas. In Living Dead in Dallas, the missing vampire (Godfrey) is indeed very old, like Godric was on True Blood. That’s really where the similarities end. Godfrey wants to meet the sun because he had a habit of liking to feed on children and had done such horrible, unspeakable things in his time as a vampire that he couldn’t live with it anymore. That’s compelling, but there was no direct emotional connection between Godfrey and characters we already knew. On True Blood, Godric was Eric’s maker. Eric’s determination to find and save Godric showed us a different side of this character. Contrary to what Alan Ball may have said, we saw that Eric does indeed care about others. He was fiercely loyal to Godric and loved him dearly.

My least favorite deviation from the series is what has been done to the character of Eric, a favorite of a significant number of book fans. Eric is played by the talented (and not too bad to look at!) Alexander Skarsgard, also of HBO’s “Generation Kill” mini-series. It seems like at every turn, Eric has been made a villain in True Blood. Sure, in the books, Eric isn’t exactly a cuddly, harmless Teddy Bear, but he isn’t as outright evil as he’s made out to be in the show. Book Eric has never done anything as heinous as holding people, including Lafayette, prisoner in the basement of his bar, Fangtasia. The fact that Eric may be dangerous is implied in the earlier books, but we never see him do something like that. Not only does showrunner Alan Ball make Eric more evil than his book counterpart, he also denies Eric many heroic that he had in the books. For instance, in Living Dead in Dallas, the book upon which Season 2 is loosely based, Eric has a part to play in the final showdown between Sookie and the people who killed Lafayette (who isn’t dead in the show, by the way). Make that Eric has a part to play while dressed in neon pink Lycra. I don’t think I saw an interview or panel discussion with Alan Ball in between seasons 1 and 2 where some fan didn’t ask if we’d see Eric in the pink Lycra! In the True Blood Season 2 finale, Eric was only seen at Queen Sophie-Ann’s palace. He really had no part to play in the final showdown with Maryann at all, even though it seemed like he might, since Sam went to him for help in an earlier episode. To add insult to injury, it is somewhat implied (and if Season 3 follows the books, it won’t be true), that Eric was behind Bill’s disappearance that served as the season finale’s cliffhanger. If the story of Club Dead has been twisted to make Eric the villain yet again, you may just be seeing a “Dear John” letter to True Blood much like the letter I posted to Grey’s Anatomy a few weeks back.

The other change that didn’t really work for me was increasing the role of the Maenad, called Maryann on the show. In the book, Maryann did have somewhat of a part to play in the end, but the “evil” going on in the town of Bon Temps was all of its human residents’ making. On the show, Maryann is responsible for everyone in the town going crazy and losing all inhibitions. In some sense, the overall failure of the Maryann plotline is partially due to a weakness in the source material. I consider Living Dead in Dallas to be one of the weakest entries in the series because it tells two very separate stories. There’s the story of who killed Lafayette and the story of Sookie having to go to Dallas to find a missing vampire. There’s no real connection between the two mysteries. I thought this might translate better to television, because that flexibility could work well to fill out an entire season of television, but it didn’t. The problem on True Blood was that the Dallas story was so compelling that I almost didn’t really care about Maryann and her craziness back in Bon Temps.

Overall, True Blood was a fun way to spend the summer, but I honestly preferred Season 1 to Season 2. I’m not really sure why, although some of the critiques I’ve mentioned above certainly play a part in it. It could be the same reason why I didn’t absolutely love Living Dead in Dallas. Club Dead and Dead to the World are my two favorite Southern Vampire Mysteries, however, so I’m hoping I’ll greatly enjoy Season 3 and (hopefully) Season 4!

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