True Blood misses on the southern thing, but gets the music right
The new HBO series True Blood imagines an America where vampires not only walk among us but are fighting for their civil rights. Though still hated and feared by humans, the undead have at last been able to come out of the casket all thanks to the development of a synthetic elixir that relieves them of the need, though hardly the desire, to feed upon us.
Now, for anyone who appreciates a good vampire story, that’s a pretty irresistible premise. What’s more, the series unfolds in the American south, a setting rife with issues of race and class, and with built-in undertones of both the gothic and the tragic. Ramping up my expectations even further, True Blood was shepherded to television by none other than Alan Ball. (The series is based upon a series of novels by Charlaine Harris, which I’ve not read.) Ball’s previous HBO series was Six Feet Under, which at least in my estimation joins the likes of The Sopranos, I’ll Fly Away, Freaks And Geeks, The X-Files, and the first season of Twin Peaks as one of TV’s best-ever dramas.
Indeed, True Blood is, in some senses, a sort of Twin Peaks in reverse. Twin Peaks slowly uncovered the evil that lurked beneath the smiling, placid surfaces of small-town America. True Blood, by contrast, seems determined to reveal the unexpected reservoirs of goodness in a community where the most private matters are often considered to be everyone’s business. For example, Sookie Stackhouse, the show’s main character (played by Anna Paquin), is for some unknown reason possessed with the ability to read minds. But her friends all know her “secret,” just as the whole town is aware that her new boyfriend, Bill, is a vampire.
This is all entertaining enough. Still, eight episodes in, the show hasn’t sunk its fangs into me as deeply as I’d hoped. I’m not giving up on the show just yet, but it does seem determined to squander its potential. The show has sex on the brain, but is neither titillating or especially steamy. As vampire tales go, True Blood is oddly lacking in suspense, and far too studiously campy to be scary. Then again, as camp goes, the show is frustratingly unfunny, give or take the occasional full (of blood)-to-bursting boner. (It’s possible, of course, for vampire stories be funny and scary and sexy. See: Fright Night. Or, for that matter, Dracula.)
And as for the dramatic promise of its southern locale…well, True Blood takes place in the south (Louisiana, to be exact), but only superficially. There’s rarely anything distinctively southern in the story lines, and the characters (particularly Paquin’s preposterously rendered Sookie) speak in southern accents so cartoonish you’d swear you were listening to a Minnesota high school production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, or, perhaps, to a contemporary country radio station. Finally, though several of the show’s key characters are African-American, the south in True Blood is entirely absent of racial tension, or of any acknowledgment of race at all. And you thought vampires were unbelievable!
Thankfully, the program capitalizes upon its southern roots on one front that will be of particular interest to readers here: True Blood is the twangiest TV show since Hee Haw. So far this season, episodes have included work by Robbie Fulks, Lucinda Williams (“St. Charles”), the Dixie Chicks, Southern Culture On The Skids (twice), Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, Wilco, Alan Touissant, the Knitters (“Burning House Of Love”), C.C. Adcock, Wayne Hancock, Cowboy Junkies (“Sweet Jane”), Paul Burch, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and a couple dozen more. (Find a complete listing here.) Remember those No Depression: What It Sounds Like CDs? Well, what it sounds like is the soundtrack to True Blood.
The show’s theme song is Jace Everett’s “Bad Things”. The track was a single for Everett in 2005, the follow-up to his only charting single “That’s The Kind Of Love I’m In” (#51 country), and that same year he was one of three co-writers for the chart-topping “Your Man” by Josh Turner. “Bad Things” is Everett at his best. It skitters along to spidery electric guitar and gloomy organ, and it opens with the appropriately creepy and cryptic lyric, “When you came in, the air went out.”
“Bad Things” works better as a theme song than a single. In part that’s because Ball and company have dropped the clumsy spoken-third verse of Everett’s original. Mostly, though, it’s because “Bad Things” (as in, “I want to do bad things with you”) accompanies images that are as creepy as that first line is cryptic: crocodile skulls, swamps, a late-night riverside baptism, a striking rattler and a road-kill possum, a little kid with a Klan hood pushed back on his head. This is all, of course, pretty standard-issue southern gothic, but Everett’s song revivifies these cliches to create a sense of real menace, even danger. Every week, it’s the show’s only chilling moment.