Sunday, September 07, 2008

True Blood: "Strange Love" (1x01)

The last ten minutes of Alan Ball television were quite possibly the single greatest ten minutes of any TV show ever. Hyperbole you say? Perhaps, but this is the last episode of Six Feet Under we’re talking about, a show that went out on the absolute top of its game. Sure, I love the ambiguity of The Sopranos or Evangelion endings, but there’s also something very satisfying about the ultimate definitive series ending.

Anyway, it’s probably good that buzz has been mixed on True Blood. I went into the pilot with lower expectations than I have for something like Dollhouse, just wanting to be entertained, and in that respect, the pilot did a great job. There’s parts of the show that don’t really click, namely a lot of the supporting cast, but Anna Paquin is great, and her energy should be enough to carry the show until the rest of the cast gets a bit more interesting.

Paquin’s Sookie seems like a variation on her Rogue from the X-Men movies. In both cases, we’ve got a young woman with some kind of weird power that prevents her from connecting with other people. It’s not made explicit, but presumably the reason she has “no sex life to speak of” is her psychic abilities, which combined with a delicate sensibility means she’s probably put off by the raw lust of someone like Sam. Seeing inside peoples’ minds means she’s distinctly aware of the difference between true love and animal lust.

Mind reading has myriad narrative possibilities. The dichotomy between peoples’ serene surfaces and their churning inner selves is always interesting, and can be emotionally devastating, as in Buffy’s brilliant “Earshot.” But, this episode doesn’t go too far with the psychic stuff. The most striking use of her powers is the brilliant moment where she walks over to Bill in the middle of a crowded bar, everyone thinking at her until he grabs her hand and everything but him disappears from her mind.

The psychic powers seem kind of randomly placed. Typically, genre shows like this have one conceit that we accept, in this case the presence of vampires. No one is going to call the producers on the presence of Bill, but if a mummy were suddenly to walk along, it would seem weird. The psychic powers are on the borderline of being that mummy, no one else seems to have special powers in the world, and there’s no real explanation for their presence.

I’ve been watching Fassbinder’s TV epic Berlin Alexanderplatz, a work that’s deliberately stylized and removed from the norms of human behavior. If you look at the narrative on a literal level, it’s rather nonsensical, so I’ve taken to looking at it on a more metaphorical level. The narrative incongruities are justified if you view them as metaphor, as a means to tell a better story.

The psychic stuff here could be read in a similar way. Maybe she has psychic powers, or maybe she’s just imagining what these people are saying, the thoughts that are supposedly theirs in actuality a reflection of what she sees in them. She could be creating a mythology out of her everyday life, applying grand stories to the little everyday occurrences in the bar as a way of getting through the day. Surely, an alcoholic hoping to have just one drink is more interesting than a random guy just having an uneventful beer.

Is there narrative support for this theory? Not necessarily, I’m assuming we’ll see that her psychic talents are real in an upcoming episode, and they’ll play an important role in the narrative. But, in this episode, they function as a kind of Greek chorus, a subtle thematic background element that makes the everyday scenes in the diner more interesting, and serves as a metaphoric reinforcement of the society that will try to keep her and Bill apart. The voices in her head could actually be other people, or they could be the societally ingrained values that would keep her from getting together with someone like Bill.

As I said before, their meeting in the bar was the undeniable high point of the episode, a moment where all the disparate elements of the show worked together to create something uniquely powerful. Bill isn’t as compelling as Spike or Angel yet, but I’m assuming we’ll see more of his history as the show goes on. Here, he functions as the forbidden darkness that Sookie is drawn to. This is made literal in the dream sequence, where she goes out and gets bitten. The darkness attracts her, but it’s also dangerous, as we see in the final moments of the show when she gets brutally assaulted.

The weakness of the pilot is the stuff that doesn’t involve Paquin. Six Feet Under had one of the best casts on television, but the major supporting players here feel decidedly generic. Other than Sookie’s grandmother, nobody really jumps out. Tara and Lafayette are played way over the top, while Sam and Jason feel like refugees from a CW series. It was good to see Frank Sobotka back on TV, but his Southern accent didn’t really do it for me. And, William Sanderson is always a welcome presence, but didn’t really jump out here.

The core of the series is the Sookie/Bill relationship, but to make it really work, they’ll need to do a better job of fleshing out the supporting cast, making them emotionally relatable and engaging on their own terms. Will that happen? Hopefully, but I definitely liked the episode, and will be back for more.

And, let me just add that the opening credits sequence was absolutely phenomenal. HBO shows never disappoint when it comes to the main titles, and this is one of the best, a delirious flurry of the sacred and profane. From a purely aesthetic point of view, it was easily the highlight of the hour.


Patrick C said...

I agree, the opening theme was awesome and the high point for me as well. It had a real B-movie grindhouse aesthetic, but more modern. I'm undecided on the show itself, but it left me interested enough to come back to it and see where it goes.

Patrick said...

If Ball wasn't involved, I would probably be a bit shakier on it, but I'm pretty sure he'll be able to make it into something good. Six Feet Under had such a deep bench of well developed characters, I doubt he'd leave people as apparently one note as they are here in the pilot.