A True Blood Review, by Someone Who Watched the Show for All the Wrong Reasons and Probably Wasn't the Target Audience Anyway
Jessica Jones S2 reviews soon, but first, I've gotta talk about True Blood, because I marathoned the entire show in two weeks last month. Did I do this because it was consistently awesome and I couldn't get enough? No. No I did not. This was more of a "get it over with quickly" marathon, spurred on by effective use of suspense. Suspense that ultimately did not pay off. More on that later.
This was my second attempt at watching the show. I got two or three episodes in way back when S1 was airing, and then I stopped because all the explicit sex and over-the-top violence grossed me out. Well, it still grosses me out, but since I was mainly in it for Deborah Ann Woll, I just skipped those scenes. (Which means I ended up skipping a LOT of scenes.) However, I still went in with a set of expectations that was almost guaranteed to leave me with a negative view of the show. And they did.
What I hoped for:
What I got:
Now I'm gonna break this stuff down and dissect it in three main categories: lore, storytelling, and characters.
I can't really say yea or nay on the whole, so I'm breaking this up into chunks.
There's just...so much misery porn in this show. It’s worse than love triangle drama, and I hate it. I suppose some explanation of the term “misery porn” might be in order, though. Stories can be bad for a variety of reasons, but right now I’m specifically looking at structure. Some stories are bad because there is too little conflict. Twilight falls into this category. The characters don't have to struggle particularly hard to get what they want, and the happy ending ultimately doesn't mean very much because it's not much of a change in status quo. Because there wasn't much conflict, the characters don't have to confront their weaknesses, learn, or grow. It's pure, escapist fluff. I do not like pure, escapist fluff, but plenty of people obviously do. Hence the franchise’s success. Fine. That's by no means the only thing wrong with Twilight. (I am literally writing an entire book series to address all the things wrong with Twilight, but I'm getting off topic.)
Now, it is equally possible for a story to be bad because there is too much conflict. A story where things go steadily downhill for the characters and they end up increasingly broken with no payoff *cough*Neon Genesis Evangelion*cough* is just as bad as a story where things are too easy all the time and everything is lovely at the end. One extreme is escapist fluff, the other extreme is misery porn, and they are both bad stories.
Whether the ending is tragic or happy, a good story is one that successfully balances failure and triumph, suffering and joy. Game of Thrones teeters on the brink of misery porn and dips its toes in occasionally, but we won’t know until the series ends if all that suffering was worth it. The Buffyverse has great balance. It puts the characters through hell, but they come out stronger for it, or it proves to have been worth it in some way, even if there isn’t really a happy ending. Buffy S6 is the notable exception, which is why it's the most painful to watch. Harry Potter gets the balance pretty perfect. The happy ending is bittersweet and very hard earned, which makes it very satisfying.
True Blood is incredibly strange, because it is by and large a misery porn show...with an escapist fluff ending thrown on top like confetti. Which somehow makes it worse than either straight up misery porn or straight up escapist fluff.
In True Blood, from start to end (partly because of the condensed timeline but mostly because of the story) the characters barely have a moment to relax. It's just one threat after another, and it never stops. Until it very abruptly does stop in the series finale, and the surviving characters are all happily paired off in ways we didn’t want, many with kids or kids on the way, as if the madness of the previous year and a half or so was just a bad dream. Even after all that suffering, the happy ending manages to be jarring and perfunctory. A better way to recover from this amount of suffering would have been a bittersweet yet optimistic ending, like in the Buffyverse. Things are looking up for the characters who survived, but it will be a long road yet before they reach anything that could be described as “happily ever after.” Going from some of the worst misery porn in the series to happily ever after in the space of a single episode is ridiculous. It makes the suffering and the reward both feel cheap. Perhaps I made this worse for myself than it was for most viewers by binge-watching, but because the events of the series take place in the space of, at most, a single year of Sookie’s life (two years for everyone who didn’t blow a year in faerie land), the show doesn’t get a pass for it.
One of the most notable examples of misery porn is the arc about Sam's family. He travels elsewhere to find them, they come back with him and freeload off him for a while and turn out to be the absolute worst, and then all of them end up dead, but nothing else changes. So what was the point of that? Same deal with the werepanther arc. Misery porn/filler.
Tara's entire story is misery porn. It’s is one bad thing happening to her after the next, all the way to taking a headshot for her friend, becoming a vampire, and getting bloodsploded protecting her mother even after a lifetime of abuse at her hands. She starts out such an angry, belligerent character. She should’ve had an arc that taught her how to overcome those qualities and better connect to people, but instead she was beaten down until she was destroyed. She didn’t bring it on herself and she couldn’t have stopped it, as hard as she tried. It’s ridiculous.
Misery porn can be easy to watch for quite a long time, because up until the final credits roll, you still think that maybe it'll have all been worth it. Until it suddenly wasn't. (On that note, I think I would describe any long-form storytelling by Stephen Moffat, but particularly Sherlock, as "Cleverness Porn.") Sure, Bill contracted Hep-V from Sookie's blood when she fed him to heal him, and it advanced ridiculously fast because Hand Wave-y Faerie Princess Don't Think About It, and he refused to take the cure, and he asked Sookie to finish him off so she could go have a normal life, and she hated it but eventually agreed, and they were in his coffin in his grave, and she was holding the stake... And yet I still didn't believe he was actually going to die until she was slipping around in his blood-filled coffin, even though some kind of 11th hour rescue would likely have been dumb. I didn't expect Bill to actually die like that because it's not effective tragedy. It's just misery porn. And what's most frustrating about it is that it didn't have to be. These are interesting characters, and plenty of the plotlines have interesting premises, but then they just devolve into absurdity.
Perhaps the most infuriating instance of easily avoidable misery porn nonsense in the series is the fate of Terry Bellefleur, the ex-Marine fry cook with PTSD. Terry is easily one of the most endearing characters on the show, and his relationship with Arlene has one of the best ratios of ship-worthy to NOTP content. I love him. In S5, we discover the source of his PTSD. On the orders of his sergeant, he committed a war crime and aggroed a Balrog (I can't remember what it's actually called, and I'm not gonna look it up because this arc doesn't deserve correct terminology). What follows is quite a good arc where Terry thinks he must sacrifice himself to protect Arlene and the kids, but Arlene isn't cool with that, so when it comes down to him or the sergeant (whose fault this all is), Arlene chooses Terry, and they get out of it alive and together.
...Until the next season, when suddenly Terry isn't okay with what they did after all, so he hires a war buddy to surprise snipe him at some point in the next couple of days. This gives the unwitting Arlene time to bring a vampire over to magically cure his PTSD and enjoy a perfect day with emotionally healthy Terry, until the sniper kills him because nobody else knew he was out there and now neither does Terry so he wasn’t able to call him off. WHAT.
I've read cast and writer interviews about the decision to kill Terry off. There was a lot of talk about how they wanted to raise the stakes of the show and more talk about it being a beautiful sendoff for the character. WELL IT FREAKING DIDN'T AND IT FREAKING WASN'T. If they wanted to kill Terry off to increase the "nobody is safe" vibe of the show, they should've had him actually die protecting Arlene and the kids from the Balrog, not by sniper-assisted-suicide/life insurance scam. And the beauty of emotionally healthy Terry is completely undercut by how ridiculous it is that they only thought of vampire glamoring as a PTSD cure six seasons in. Doing it at all should have massive implications for the field of psychology in the True Blood universe, but it's only used for a cheap emotional moment to juxtapose against a cheap character death.
And then there's Alcide. Alcide might've spent the bulk of his screentime running around in a werewolf filler arc that had nothing to do with anything, but that enormous, growly hunk of a werewolf is easily my favorite of Sookie's love interests, and S7 begins with them in a remarkably healthy relationship. Until he is unceremoniously shot in the head by some idiot redneck. While still naked after transforming back into a human from wolf form. Right in front of Sookie. WHY?! What does this show have against letting its characters go out in a blaze of glory if it's going to insist on killing them anyway? And all Alcide's death did was pave the way for Bill's death arc, and I have already explained why that arc fails! Uggggggggh. If memory serves, the only character who *does* go out heroically is Tara. Twice. But all heroic death points are lost because she bloodsploded offscreen, protecting one of the least likeable characters in the show. Oh, wait, I guess Luna kinda died heroically? She successfully rescued her daughter and outed the evil vampire regime, so that's something.
I could do a rant about the deaths of 3/4 of the Bellefleur faerie quadruplets, but they fall in the "Bad" category of faerie lore and were very annoying, so I don't care. The survivor did end up being a sweetheart, and I suppose the deadbeat faerie mom only expected at most half of them to make it to adulthood anyway. Meh. I think I've made my point. Which is that gratuitous misery does not a good story make. It's empty and ultimately unsatisfying, which is why "misery porn" is a good name for it, and slapping a happy ending on at the end actually makes it worse.
The few arcs that weren't misery porn, I generally liked. The serial killer plot in S1 was pretty good and I was genuinely surprised when the killer's identity was revealed. I liked pretty much all of S2 (mainly because I skipped the crazy Maenad orgy scenes), and I liked the way the different storylines collided with each other. I liked the creepy vampire concentration camp arc in S6, and I liked the Hep-V arc in S7...right up until Bill refused to take the cure. If there were any other arcs I liked, I already can’t remember them, so I guess they’re not worth mentioning. I was impressed with the writers’ willingness to abandon the status quo for society at large and take risks, such as Edgerton’s actions throwing public opinion into an anti-vampire frenzy, which didn’t magically go back to normal as soon as it became inconvenient. I like stuff like that. It’s a great way to avoid stagnation.
But back to negative stuff, I have never before watched a show so good at turning compelling relationships extremely sour. At first, I thought Jessica/Hoyt was adorable. I loved Terry/Arlene. I didn’t exactly ship Sookie/Bill (SOOKIE/ALCIDE FOREVER), but I was very charmed by what a great, domestic team they were in S2. I thought Sookie/Dopey Amnesia Eric was even more adorable than Jessica/Hoyt. Well, Jessica/Hoyt turned into a nasty mess where big sweetheart Hoyt turned into an angry, selfish manchild. Sookie/Bill turned out to have been a super dicey case of Bill targeting her and deliberately making her horny for him by waiting to rescue her until she was so injured she’d need his blood. Terry/Arlene got really unpleasant while she was pregnant, but fortunately that was temporary and then it was sweet again. Until his death arc. And obviously dopey amnesia Eric eventually got his memories back, and then it kinda just seemed like they were over it. He, at least, wasn’t trying to claim her anymore, but it was a bit lame.
And so many other relationships didn’t even need to go sour because they were awful from the start. Most of them were Jason’s, but Tara’s vampire rapist was probably the worst. (That I have to qualify that statement with a “probably” is not an accident.) Sookie/Warlow was allllmost a “surprisingly compatible arranged marriage” type relationship I could get behind, until he let his mask drop and revealed himself to be a rapey douche.
The Characters [I Haven’t Already Ranted About When Discussing Misery Porn]
I found Sookie a pretty likeable protagonist most of the time. She’s kind, remarkably loving considering that she is privy to the most bigoted and hateful thoughts of the people around her, and won’t go down without a fight. I did not enjoy how much of her story was her sex life, and holy crap did that girl have to bury a lot of people, but I was really impressed when, upon being put in the position of having to choose Bill or Eric, she recognized that the best option in the long run, even though it hurt her the most in the moment, was neither. I think the best thing about her is that she is not a passive protagonist. She’s not just a series of things that happen to her. (Pointed glare at the writing staff of The Vampire Diaries.) She goes out and gets stuff done, and she doesn’t take crap from anyone. S6 is rough because it’s the one season where all the bad stuff that has happened to her and the people she cares about catches up to her and she gives up for a while (which was why I couldn’t quite root for Sookie/Warlow even before he started being horrible). What’s with sixth seasons and being hella depressing, anyway? (Pointed glare at the writing staff of BtVS.) And I do like that she came to terms with her own supernatural nature and accepted it by the end. So...good luck to her, I guess, with the faceless hubby she had at the end. For the baby’s sake, I hope she doesn’t pass on her fae genes.
I don't know if it's the writing, the acting, or both, but Bill is often a plank of wood. It's amazing how flat his romantic scenes with Sookie are, considering that the actor and actress got married early in the show's run and had twins between S5 and S6. Maybe you expected me to say I liked him because ranted about his death up there. No. I hated his death on sheer narrative principle. And because Jessica deserved better. I like him best when he's being Jessica's vamp dad and when he's forced into awkward situations, because Vamp Dad Bill and Awkward Polite Bill are the best Bills.
Jason Stackhouse: Too Dumb to Be Traumatized, Unluckily Lucky. He attracts insane situations (and a staggeringly varied portfolio of bad news girlfriends), things get ridiculously bad and he's about to lose it, and then he somehow gets out of it and immediately walks it off. It's as bewildering as it is endearing, and he slowly becomes a more mature, competent guy by the end.
Lafayette is one of the stronger characters of the show, because while he suffers through more than his share of the misery porn nonsense, he actually manages to become a stronger person for it. He comes into his abilities as a medium, he gets his life together, and he ends the series with a successful relationship...even if that came about through infidelity. His happy ending also wasn't like a smiley face bandaid stuck on a car crash victim as if that makes it all better, which is how it felt for Sookie. Maybe because he wasn’t in the series finale at all.
Jessica is adorable and awesome and has one of the most compelling arcs on the show, just with her everyday baby vamp struggles and self-discovery. And then they went and had to marry her off to Hoyt in the finale. Why? They already ran that ship into the ground! It’s not remotely appealing anymore! The chances of them making it work seem pretty slim, considering that he doesn’t remember what went wrong the last time, which means he can’t possibly have addressed the character flaws that helped it go wrong. Is she sure she can handle long-term monogamy with a human now? Because she’s only tried it with Hoyt so far, and that ended horribly! Ugggggh what a weird way to end the show. A bit of closure was all we needed from Hoyt, and I thought Jessica and Jason, now more mature, would have ended up together after that.
Eric, Pam, and Ginger. I love them. Mostly when they’re in scenes with each other (Ginger optional, but always hilarious). Eric and Pam have the best relationship in the series, second only to Bill and Jessica, with Sookie and Jason bringing up a distant third. The best ones are always familial. I imagine the lack of gratuitous sex scenes makes that easier, because they’re automatically less trashy. (Not that the show lacks for terrible, trashy familial relationships.) Anyway, Eric is an absurdly tall, lurpy weirdo with a perpetually bored/sardonic stare, and it’s great. Pam is hilarious and continually surprised me with her outfits. And no character who mostly just screams the whole time has ever been more fun than Ginger. I’m so glad Eric and Pam finished the show filthy rich from their Hep-V temporary cure infomercials. That was the one happy ending that felt earned and fitting, because it was just as weird as they are. You know. Except for what they were doing to Sarah Newlin. :/
Okay, it's starting to sink in that a franchise having vampires in it doesn't automatically mean I'm going to like it. Having vampires is a good start, but out of the four vampire franchises I've consumed (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, the Twilight books, The Vampire Diaries and The Originals, and now True Blood), so far I only actually like two (BtVS/Angel and TVD/Originals), and I freely admit that of those two, one is borderline guilty pleasure because of how flawed and irresponsible it is (TVD/Originals).
I guess that means I'm just going to have to write the vampire fiction I want to see.
Bonus: I just really want to score all four of them against each other now, so I’m adding another section.
Lore: 8 (demerits for shaky internal consistency and the stupid werewolf design)
Storytelling: 9 (demerit for plot holes and bad science research)
Characters: 9 (demerit for Dork Angel and too much Spike)
Lore: 2 (points for good werewolf design)
Storytelling: 4 (points for successful suspense and being very easy to binge-read the first time)
Characters: 3 (one each for Charlie, Alice, and Jasper)
Lore: 7 (demerits for vampires being OP, werewolves getting an absurdly raw deal, and pretty much every new lore idea beyond S4)
Storytelling: 6 (demerits for love triangle drama, passive protagonist, and gratuitous character death)
Characters: 7 (demerits for the repeated backsliding of genuinely complex and compelling characters because that’s easier than having them actually grow and change)
Lore: 5 (points for consistency, werewolves turning into actual wolves, and vampire sunlight vision)
Storytelling: 2 (too many filler arcs and/or misery porn arcs, gratuitous character death, and sour relationships)
Characters: 7 (demerits for pointless arcs and arcs that ruin previously likable characters)
The Watcher's Diary
In this blog, I'll be reviewing, analyzing, and generally fangirling over excellent television. Exhibit A: the Whedonverse.