True Blood: The Complete First Season

(2008) *** 1/2 Unrated
720 min. HBO. Directors: Alan Ball, John Dahl, Michael Lehmann. Cast: Anna Paquin, Ryan Kwanten.

/content/films/3427/1.jpg"Twisted" is the word for HBO's new hit series True Blood, a soap operatic Southern Gothic mystery-thriller just in time to tap the zeitgeist (or the vein) of America's latest infatuation with vampires. Freely adapted by Alan Ball (Six Feet Under) from the Sookie Stackhouse series of Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris, True Blood is delightfully, deliriously sick and "wrong," but it's also a medium for Ball's patented brand of social satire.

The cable network's motto "It's not TV. It's HBO" applies particularly well to True Blood. The show has the polished production values, special effects and bloody gore we associate with genre features, thanks in part to veteran directors like Ball (Towelhead), Michael Lehmann (Heathers) and John Dahl (The Last Seduction). Plus, the show's season-long unfolding mystery has a novelistic pull. Over twelve episodes, Ball firmly establishes the series' parallel universe--in which we live alongside vampires who await equal civil rights--and builds to a resolution of a serial-killer plot (at HBO, Twin Peaks might have thrived for several seasons, instead of two). Even when that resolution turns out not to be very satisfying or sensible, it doesn't much matter, given how entertaining Ball has made the journey there.

In the world of True Blood, vampires "came out of the coffin" two years before, the innovation of a synthetic blood called Tru Blood allowing them to live among humans without going for their necks. Talk of a Vampire Rights Amendment legalizing human-vampire marriage (a cause touted by an American Vampire League representative on Real Time with Bill Maher) is but one of many parallels Ball courts between the marginalized supernatural social group and homosexuals. While cultivating this series hallmark, Ball also cannily hangs the series on a heterosexual love triangle: something for everyone. Everyone who doesn't mind plentiful nudity, graphic sex, and the violent splattering of sticky viscera.

Oscar winner Anna Paquin plays Sookie, a telepathic waitress at Merlotte's Bar and Grill in Bon Temps, Louisiana. An innocent driven to distraction by her ability, Sookie becomes instantly captivated by Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), the first vampire to walk into Merlotte's (as far as anyone knows). For Sookie cannot read Bill's thoughts; he is, after all, dead. He's also 173 years old and a veteran of the Civil War. This too gives Bill an otherworldly quality. He's a courtly vampire, asking Sookie, "May I call on you?" Old-school manners aside, he's also a bloodsucker by nature, which gives Sookie pause despite her fervent attraction. Ironically, the two bond when two lowlifes ("vampire drainers") are sucking the blood from Bill. Turns out vampire blood is a hot black-market commodity, a psychedelic drug that's like a cross between LSD and heroin.

The suggestion of hypocrisy is a rich theme, and, again, a parallel of homophobia. Those who hate vampires for their "perversion" are commonly "perverted" in equal measure. Marlotte's short-order cook Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis) is a drug dealer and prostitute on the side. Disgusted by vampires, he nevertheless trades sexual favors with one to get vampire blood, or "V," to sell for a tidy profit. Lafayette, who is gay, also sexually services a state senator who turns around to preach anti-gay policy, pissing off the prostitute to no end even as the irony of his own hatred of vampires is lost on him.

/content/films/3427/2.jpgThe amusing supporting characters gradually reveal deeper layers and greater potential. Lafayette's cousin Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley), also Sookie's lifelong best friend, has an endlessly entertaining mouth on her, but her sharp-tongued patter is a defense mechanism for a life of hurt defined by her mother's alcoholism and years of unrequited love for Sookie's brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten). For his part, Jason is a hilariously oversexed layabout who has yet to embrace any kind of responsibility beyond showing up (late) to his municipal construction job. His taste for kink ("I read in Hustler, 'Everybody should have sex with a vampire at least once before they die") translates into a talent for trouble, including suspicion of murder.

There's Jason's on-again, off-again girlfriend Dawn Green (Lynn Collins), who turns out to have been a "fang-banger" (a human who wants to experiment sexually with vampires) in her recent past. There's Sookie and Jason's grandmother Adele (the ever-brilliant Lois Smith), who enthusiastically invites Bill to come to her "Descendants of the Glorious Dead" meeting and speak about his Civil War experiences. And there's Sam Merlotte, owner of Merlotte's, whose shiftiness partly owes to his unspoken love for Sookie and partly to a big secret he's hiding from the whole town. It's Sam who forms the third side in the love triangle with Sookie and Bill.

Over the course of the season, plenty more characters come, and plenty go, bloodily, to the grave as the serial killer works his way through the ever smaller small town. Some terrific supporting actors take part: recent Emmy winner Ċ½eljko Ivanek (Damages) as the vampire Magister, William Sanderson (Deadwood) and Chris Bauer (The Wire) as the town's poorly equipped lawmen Sheriff Dearborne and Detective Bellefleur, John Billingsley (Star Trek: Enterprise) as the parish coroner, William Schallert (Get Smart's Admiral Hargrade) as Mayor Norris, Stephen Root (NewsRadio) as a mild-mannered vampire, Lizzy Caplan (Cloverfield) as local headturner Amy, and Michelle Forbes (Homicide) as Maryann Forrester, a character set up late in the season as a troublemaker for Season Two.

As if all this weren't enough to power twelve episodes, Ball throws one more ingredient into the mix: religious overtones. Of course, evangelicals are up in arms against vampires ("God hates fangs"), which adds to the town's tension. Bill is a self-described "mainstreamer," but a larger contingent of vamps takes its cues from vampire Sheriff Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgård of Generation Kill), who considers himself to be in a cold war (getting hotter) with humankind. Another provocative storyline tests our boundaries of supernatural belief by suggesting Tara's mother (Adina Porter)--and perhaps Tara herself--are possessed by demons in need of exorcism. Are they literal demons or figurative ones? In a town like Bon Temps, it's anyone's guess.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 5

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 5/19/2009

Distributor: HBO Home Entertainment

On Blu-ray, True Blood gets a deluxe treatment from HBO. The five disc set includes all twelve episodes of the first season in glorious HD. In resolution even higher than that of its HD broadcast, True Blood looks terrific on Blu-ray: rich colors, deep blacks, and sharp detail characterize these transfers, and the DTS-HD Master Audio tracks are unusually potent for a TV series. The full-bodied mixes wow, from the down-and-dirty theme tune "Bad Things" by Jace Everett to the wraparound sound of the supernatural action.

Both the Blu-ray and DVD editions include audio commentaries, and fans of Ball's Six Feet Under (on DVD) won't be surprised by the intriguing insights provided here. We get audio commentaries on Episode 1 “Strange Love” by executive producer/series creator Alan Ball, Episode 2 “The First Taste” by Anna Paquin and director Scott Winant, Episode 4 “Escape from Dragon House” by writer Brian Buckner and director Michael Lehmann, Episode 5 “Sparks Fly Out” by Stephen Moyer and director Dan Minahan, Episode 7 “Burning House of Love” by director Marcos Siega and Episode 11 “To Love is to Bury” by writer/director Nancy Oliver.

The rest of the bonus features are advertised as Blu-ray exclusives, though some of the material pops up in a different context on the DVD set. On Blu, the star bonus is Enhanced Viewing on all twelve episodes. A Picture-in-Picture track pops up with short videos offering social context, in-character video commentary by Lafayette, mapping of Bon Temps locations, and text-based character bios and mystery plot "hints." It's all pretty nifty, though the gaps between material can be a bit frustrating, as the set's extras are, taken in their entirety, very time-consuming. To fully absorb the show and the extras, one must watch the season's twelve hours three times over... For fans, that'll be a pleasure, and the show will gain plenty of new ones with this nicely produced Blu-ray set.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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