Friday, 11 December 2009

Celluloid Vampires and Then Some - Part 2

Ah... It HAS been a while, has it not? The first part of this post was waaaaay back here and even now I am skipping much-needed work hours to complete this but it was about bleedin' time!

Last time, we had left off with an introduction - well, rather a simple mention - to the TV series, "True Blood". In the interim, I have learned a few interesting things about the source material and have had time to digest my initial thoughts. But I digress...

"True Blood"'s first season premiered on September 7th, 2008 in the U.S. and the second on June 14th, 2009 . A third season has been scheduled and shooting is due to begin in early December 2009. The series kicks off by canceling a basic premise of most, if not all Vampire fiction: the element of secrecy. Our story takes place in a world where Vampires have made their presence officially known to humanity, on which they no longer need feed thanks to an artificial blood product created by Japanese scientists. Expectedly, some Vampires have embraced this change, others not, the textbook Catholic Right-Wingers have created the Church of Light in order to oppose acceptance of the Vampire existence, while the Vampires have created their own political party. Meanwhile, the first mixed marriages take place and homosexual weddings rapidly seem so "yesterday".

Interestingly enough, the series obviously takes place some time AFTER the initial global shock, so Vampires are semi-integrated into society, no more outcasts than other fringe minorities (are they one?) were in the 90s or still are today. Ergo, useless drama avoided. However, all that is just background.

Our story actually begins in Bon Temps ("Good Weather" or "Good Times" depending on how you translate), a small fictional Louisiana town, bearing all the distinctive marks of the "beautiful South" of novels of yore: those who stand for segregation, those who are well past concepts of the Civil War, Cajun, creole language, humidity, the bayous, time passing by in slow motion and drawn-out vowels. Incidentally, this most telling linguistic characteristic is one of the cultural strengths and marketing flaws (well, outside the U.S. as far as I know, but still) of the series. Many people have told me how much they hate the Southern American pronunciation and accent, as well as that, English not being their native language, they have to make use of subtitles to understand the characters at all, at times.

Truth be told, it's not really that bad, although even I had to go a bit back at times and replay a dialog scene. However, it doesn't annoy me: although both inside and outside the U.S. it's habitually called "the hillbilly accent", I believe it adds excellent color to the feel of the setting. Of course, that opinion may be biased, seeing as Poppy Z. Brite's "Lost Souls" is one of my favorite Vampire books and the American South one of my favorite settings for horror and/or detective stories ("Call of Cthulhu: Guide to New Orleans" is one of my priceless books).

At any rate, at the beginning and for most of the first season the story revolves around Sookie Stackhouse, played by Anna Paquin (who also portrayed southern belle Rogue, of the X-Men), who is a waitress at Sam Merlotte's (pronounced "mur-low" and played by Sam Trammel) diner and is different from everyone else in only one significant way : she is telepathic and can hear everyone's thoughts in the vicinity, unless she closes her mind with great effort. Things are about to get a lot weirder for her when she falls for Vampire newcomer William Compton (played by Stephen Moyer), whose family had roots in Bon Temps since before the Civil War. As soon as Sookie decides that Bill is the one for her (firstly, because she cannot hear his thoughts, since he has no biological brain activity), she is dragged in a world of supernatural horror, intrigue, romance and lots and lots of sex.

Tara, both naive...

...and sexy!

I do not want to dwell on the story that much, since it is very well plotted and it would be a shame to spoil it, even by accident: season one is centered around a series of murders in and around Bon Temps, as well as Sookie's and the town's relationship with Bill Compton, while the second focuses much more on Tara, Sookie's best friend and one of the most gorgeous black women I have ever seen (portrayed excellently by Rutina Weasley), as well as the intrigues and politics between Vampires themselves and between them and the Church of Light. However, the people who steal the show in the second season are the mysterious Mary-Ann, Godrick who is a Vampire from before the time of Christ, as well as a the whole of Bon Temps having gone a bit wild.

Vampire Sherriff Eric Northman.


Now, there are a number of things that place this series very near the top of my list of Vampire interpretations ever: first off, the Vampire mythos is preserved - silver harms a Vampire and may immobilize them, a stake through the heart and sunlight can kill them, although what exactly happens to their bodies depends on age. Interestingly enough and to my delight, they have also kept the restriction whereby a Vampire has to be welcomed into a domicile before entering, something almost always forgotten in modern portrayals. Many other Vampire legends are shown as being misdirection for the humans.

An element often mentioned in discussions about "True Blood", is the sex: make no mistake, anyone who has seen even 2-3 episodes of the series can testify that there is a lot of sex in it. Not particularly explicit, mind you but still, quite a bit of it, especially for an American series. However, the thing considered peculiarly prevalent only goes to show how audiences have come to perceive the "reality" of series they watch: people have sex. Lovers, even more so. Lovers famished for sexual activity, well, you can guess. The series is being realistic about that, contrary to stupid bubblegum sitcoms that only hint at it, or present it under a comedic light.

Furthermore, it has been a staple of Vampire legendry that the Children of the Night are more animalistic than humans, in every aspect, hence blurring the line between blood prey and sexual prey, as well as that a mortal tasting of the Vampire's blood develops a strong attraction and eventual sexual desire for the "donor". All that, coupled with the fact that sexual activity is - well, duh! - something natural, accounts for the multiple such portrayals in the series.

One other thing very carefully planned and played in "True Blood" is not just the portrayal, but the reference to and existence of the supernatural in general. Vampires aren't the only ones around: there' s also Shifters (people able to assume any form they can study thoroughly), frequent mention (although not appearance, as of yet) of Werewolves, Spirits, Voodoon and of course, the small matter of what exactly makes Sookie telepathic. However, all that is not just shoved into the viewer's face, like some bad RPG crossover: instead there' s hints and nuances and things you can second-guess, until appropriate build-up leads to the climax and revelation. Things DO go bump in the night but that does not mean they are too keen to enter the spotlight: they are mysterious and scary and love their privacy... mostly. Coupled with the whole southern atmosphere, that makes for an enticing, shadowy and extremely interesting setting.


Finally, there's the matter of the source material, "The Southern Vampire Mysteries" by Charlaine Harris. I am sorry to say, those are actually pretty bad: apart form the cast of characters (which has also been tinkered as to some characteristics and back-story), it's safe to say that if Alan Ball (of "American Beauty" and "Six Feet Under" fame) had not helmed the production, this series would have sunk like so much junk. Although Charlaine Harris is at the origin of an interesting take on the interaction between Vampires and mortal society, her original character and story development are rather shallow and her writing not up to the ambitious task of all I have described in the previous paragraphs. I do not want to get into detail, because it may have an adverse effect on your watching the series, but if you are indeed that curious, you can always pick the first two novels (on which the last two seasons were based) and make the comparison. I believe you will find the novels lacking appalingly.

Godrick's First Appearance.

That said, "True Blood" as a TV series is the most refreshing experience of the Vampire legend in a loooong time and I believe that there is not much (if anything) that can hold a candle to it in the past 10 years. Possible exceptions include "Let the Right One In" and I am holding my breath for "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant".

Enjoy the bayous,



Ayami said...

Thanks for giving godric the attention he deserves! I think that there are many differences between the book and the series, right?

Speedgrapher said...

Terribly so... You really don't want to know.