Sunday, September 21, 2014

TRUEBLOOD: Vampire for Political Junkies -- Our Monthly Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman

Bloodlust is Howard Fineman's (HuffPost Editorial Director) word-picture for the Republican Party's ecstatic tirades against the Obama administration. The parody of political and social bloodlust makes HBO's TRUEBLOOD true fun for the politically inclined, particularly LGBT politically inclined. Too bad the 7-season series doesn't pull its weight entirely. I didn't throw in the towel because the political satire and main charac-ters earn their keep.

Turns out it was creator Alan Ball (shown below, of Six Feet Under and American Beauty) who attracted Academy Award winner Anna Paquin and her British co-star Stephen Moyer to vampire fare based on the Sookie Stackhouse vampire mystery novels by Charlaine Harris. Moyer and Paquin met and fell in love
while making the pilot in 2007 and now are married parents of twins. These confluences led me to follow Ball and his irresistible crazies and pretty people into the bloodlusty world of vampire and get as hooked on Trueblood as on the Colbert Report for outlandish social and political commentary (Congressional hearings are like Christmas morning!) Unfortunately Trueblood's serrated edge turns into a dulled knife in the last few seasons (while Colbert continues to deliver).

But at times the series provides a belly-laugh funny parallel universe to U.S. political and social goings-on as the characters hurtle through over-the-top politically and socially relevant situations flung at them in the fictional red-neck town of Bon Temps, Louisiana (and environs). Through its supernaturals ('supes'), the series takes on discrimination, civil rights and child abuse, evangelical extremism, tyranny, political corruption, big business, drug addiction, PTSD, AIDS, and family relations.

Tru Blood (as opposed to series title TrueBlood) is the so-called Japanese-made synthetic blood served on tap or in beer bottles (above) that enables vampires to avoid feeding on/draining humans. The beverage has launched a progressive vampire movement to 'come out of the closet' and mainstream in everyday America. TruBlood splits vampires into two camps --mainstreamers who campaign for citizenship and equal rights versus their opposition who slavishly follow an evangelical origins myth ( 'the true word and blood of God' -- here, Lilith) and harbor a virulent obsession to rule over human society. Throw in some KKK-like human racists and exploiters of the public, werewolves, shapeshifters, fairies, and nihilist vampires who thrive on anarchy and it's a heady mix -- confounding the hopes of liberal vampires who seek to live peacefully with humans ('can't we all just get along').

Stephen Moyer (above, right) plays courtly Bill Compton whose ancestors hailed from Bon Temps. Compton was on his way home to his young family after soldiering for the Civil War South when he was waylaid and made vampire by a predator beauty. He now hopes to put behind him years of his own pre-TruBlood savagery and re-claim some humanity in his ancestral home. There (briefly) he plays good citizen and we find him graciously lecturing to the local church ladies about their civil war ancestors with whom he soldiered in the 1860's. He is restoring the fallen-down Compton estate when he and Sookie Stackhouse (Paquin, above, left) lock eyes at local hangout Merlotte's and the action launches into full gear.

Sookie is a perky waitress and telepath, later to be revealed as half-fairie. Bill is thrilling to her because she can't read his (vampire dead) mind. ('It's exhausting having everyone's thoughts coming at you'.) Their love percolates with sadness and longing through the seasons as their relationship founders; she wearies of being a "danger whore" as Bill gets unwillingly drawn into Vampire Authority internal conflict. Will Bill and Sookie ever reunite? This is one case where the avidly-followed off-screen lives of the actors plus the screen chemistry between Paquin and Moyer gets mixed up in the viewer's mind, making one hope for love to conquer all by series end.

The Vampire Authority, muscularly led by 500-year-old Roman, Christopher Meloni (a much more charismatic role than Meloni's Law and Order character), represents the progressive vampire wing. These mainstreamers aim to co-exist with humans and contain the Sanguinistas, the charismatic evangelical wing. Horrifically, the Sanguinistas win control over the vampire hierarchy in season 5, launching a ruthless regime that puts one not a little in terror of supremacy by the demogogues in our own political/evangelical right wing. (Hey folks, do vote on November 4 to save the Democratic Senate majority.)

One season is devoted to local evangelical church, 'Soldiers of God', led by Steve Newlin, a baby-faced Ralph Reed type (Michael MacMillan) and his flirty, narcissistic blond wife Sarah (Anna Camp, above). The church marquee, 'God Hates Fangs' reprises the real Westboro Baptist church -- 'God hates fags'. The Newlins take their playbook from our abortion-and gay-hating racist and militaristic gun cults; they protest vampires in public and train in secret to murder them. Unfortunately the vamps on parade around town are flagrant taunts -- picture the flamboyant gay/transvestite culture of the AIDS era and the gay-bashing and murders that still occur. Soldiers of God seeks to kill decent vampires like Bill and others like Sookie who consort with vampires. Sarah seduces Sookie's brother Jason Stackhouse murmuring: 'God tells her to', as she tears his clothes off. Her preacher husband Steve turns up later as a proud gay vampire who is also hot for Jason, and well-suited to his new job as the public relations face of the new Sanguinista regime.

Hot-body charming Australian, Ryan Kwanten (above, left), plays Jason Stackhouse, a dumb jock and perpetual naif who has had sex with every girl in Bon Temps and comes to find himself in a soul-less muddle. Kwanten inhabits the none-too-bright Jason with such sweet humility, it's no wonder the girls fall all over him. In one memorable sexcapade, Jason hooks up with Amy, a V (vampire-blood)--addicted girl played by the wonderfully talented, pretty, and charismatic Lizzy Caplan (current Showtime Masters of Sex lead). In another of many hapless efforts to find himself, Jason is drawn to the military wing of the Soldiers of God where he excels at training, is irresistible with his shirt off, and takes much too long to figure out he's on the wrong side of peace and justice.The Soldiers of God have plenty of vamp-hating company. Led by Bon Temps retired police chief now 'grand dragon', a group of thugs ride out at night wearing rubber Obama masks in search of vamps and shifters to murder.

Daily life in Bon Temps focuses on two establishments -- Merlotte's, run by main character, Sam Merlotte, everywoman's ideal, compassionate boyfriend and boss and shape shifter (usually to a dog but not only -- a rat or a bug if needed for a tight spot) played by NY stage actor Sam Trammell (above).  FANGTASIA is the local vampire hangout. (Vampire motto: "We suck like everybody else".) The club is owned by handsome main character Eric Northman, a Norseman turned vampire 1000 years ago to save his life following mortal wounding on a battlefield in Britannia, played with ruthless calculation and seductive insoucience by Alexander Skarsgard (below).

The backstory of Eric's 'maker', Godric, (young Danish actor/singer Allan Hyde) is too fascinating to be relegated to on line background material. Godric, born First Century, BC in Gaul and tortured by Roman soldiers, deserved more screen time to flesh out his evolution from violence to peace maker/savior. Meanwhile he's taught Eric to be ruthless, and now Eric could care less about appearances. Hence Fangtasia is a hopping joint with a dungeon managed by Pam, Eric's vampire offspring who was his former lover (an elegant prostitute/madam, she convinced Eric in 1902 San Francisco to turn her, thus halting her aging out of her profession). Eric persistently and deviously inserts himself between Sookie and Bill and eventually wins over Sookie for a time.

Two brilliant black Juilliard graduates are series regulars -- Rutina Wesley is Tara, (above, left) whose comic talent rivals comedian Wanda Sykes, and Nelsan Ellis (above, right) is Lafayette, a vampy queer played with such nuance and charisma that actor Ellis must be gay -- but isn't. Ball errs in gradually easing Tara and her gifted wit out of later seasons leaving a hole as big as that left by Joan Rivers -- gone too soon. (Both Wesley and Ellis deserve brilliant acting careers.) Lafayette is a busy entrepreneur -- his job as Merlotte's short-order cook leaves him time to run a gay porn site, service the sexual needs of the gay mucky-mucks in Louisiana-politics, and deal black-market drugs featuring V -- vampire blood -- the highly addictive, illegal drug of choice on which the Bon Temps police chief, among others, is hooked.

A number of terrific star-turns appear throughout, headlined by Denis O'Hare (above) as Russell Edgington, a 3000-year-old vampire said to be the most powerful and craziest in existence, a chancellor of the Authority and master of chaos. Russell's thinking goes: "Why would we seek equal rights? You humans are not our equals." (During WWII, he helped Hitler put a dent in the human population.) His singular and fateful weakness is that he killed Eric Northman's family in 900 AD and now has an extremely dangerous enemy in Eric.

Alfre Woodard plays Lafayette's schizohrenic mother, Evan Rachel Wood is a Vampire Queen, Lucy Griffiths (Maid Marion in BBC's 2006 Robin Hood series) plays Nora, who become's Eric's vampire sister when Godric turns her to stave off death. (Nora got infected by the plague while caring for victims in the 1600's.) Rutger Hauer appears too briefly as Sookie and Jason's Fairie grandpa. Currently enhancing his ripped-ness for upcoming 'Magic Mike 2', hunk Joe Manganiello (above, right) plays werewolf Alcide and brief love interest for Sookie with little charisma, although his build (and rumored affair with Sofia Vergara) speaks for itself. Renowned stage actress Fiona Shaw commands season 4 as a Wiccan possessed by a healer burned at the stake in the 1400's. No wonder her name appears almost nowhere in the credits, as a story line that could have sizzled with the politics of witch burning and woman shaming, or more currently, big pharma vs natural healing, fizzled into nonsense.

A lively digression offers up British actor James Frain as a manic, psychopathic vampire who kidnaps, chains, and obsesses hysterically over Tara, desperate to turn her so they can live in perpetuity. (I'd only seen Frain in sober British fare such as the 'Tudors' and 'The White Queen' -- he is wildly exciting with so much craziness to chew on.) Arliss Howard plays Louisiana Governor, Truman Burrell, whose vampire-obsessed regime is Nazi-esque, including 'vamp camps' where vampires are studied, psychoanalyzed, experimented on and eventually poisoned by the contrived adulteration of Tru Blood with Hep V, (evoking the AIDS epidemic).

TrueBlood's winning formula suffers from too many forgettable sideshows that weaken the whole, and a failure to leverage the talents of some of the best actors. (Lizzy Caplan's Amy should have resurfaced as Jason's eventual love.) Edited down, TrueBlood could have left a legacy as brilliant and durabled as the original Star Trek. Instead, the political and moral impact got sabotaged. But once the decision was made to conclude with Season 7, the writers did a fair job of bringing together disparate story lines in which at least some humans and non-humans have evolved normal family relationships together.

This pleasantness does not include Eric and Pam, who go out with a bang of the opening bell on Wall Street. They have now become corporate masters of giant company, Nu Blood, which sells a canned beverage that staves off death for Hep-V sufferers -- if, for financial gain, it does not cure them entirely. A poignant denouement for Sookie and Bill evokes tears but was only a half-way acceptable outcome of all that had gone before, given the devotion of viewers who plodded through 7 seasons needing them blissed out together at the end. For all its disappointments, though, the viewer develops real attachments to characters, making TrueBlood worth a go for them, its rich Southern redneck texture, and the tornado of ribald satire of politics in present-day USA.

If Alan Ball's eyes or others on his team should fall on this review, they should consider that the TrueBlood series could be redeemed entirely with a big screen production. It would require choosing a moment in time that can involve its best characters, more juicy politics, and Sookie and Bill having some romance their fans crave. Meanwhile, the complete TrueBlood is available on HBO and in several forms at Amazon.

The above post is written by our regular 
guest reviewer, Lee Liberman

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