True Blood: What Makes HBO's Series So Addictive

By Jed Alexander

As I caught my fellow hetero roommate taking in the new HBO hit, True Blood, I thought, how quickly this show can create new converts–like the vampires themselves.  My roommate had never seen an episode, and was immediately drawn into the dark and sexy, Southern-Gothic world of vampires, bigotry, seduction, Dionysian imagery, Minotaurs, shape-shifters, serial killers, with just a dash of romance and homosexual overtones added for a little spice and heat to this already eclectic mix. 


The show can also be described like reading a good Tennessee Williams play sprinkled with a bit of the supernatural.  Imagine Stanley Kowalski as a vampire lusting after sexually repressed Blanche, dancing circles around her and his own sexuality, treading the ambiguity of who is actually attracted to whom, all the while he taunts Blanche and sucks the life out of her.   


The above mentioned “heterosexual” comment is in reference to the sexual edges this smartly written Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under,” “American Beauty”) creation has examined throughout the series, and the liberty he has taken to seamlessly weave in all kinds of social issues throughout, including his usual dry humor and sass.


Based on the novels by Charlaine Harris (“The Southern Vampire Mysteries”), the narrative follows a petite Southern belle and bar waitress Sookie Stackhouse (“Piano” Oscar winner Anna Paquin), who possesses telepathic powers of her own (she can instantaneously hear people’s thoughts).  Sookie attracts the attention of ex-Civil War soldier turned vampire, Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), who walks among the new breed of vampires now assimilated into modern day society. 


Sookie’s special powers and strong will turns out to be of importance to some of the rival bloodsuckers, and is the initial attraction for Bill in the early episodes. Their thirst is quenched, not through human blood, (though the thirst still remains with many of the vampires), but through ‘Tru Blood,’ a synthetic drink substituting the real thing.  Not as close to what maintains the vampire lifeline, but a generic-type “beer” that suffices for the time being.


Ball continues to explore his fascination with death, particularly the mythology behind it, and the internal struggle many closeted, sexually repressed individuals deal with, trying to find their identity and place in the world, which many see as black and white, gay and straight, with no “in-between” or “gray area” as depicted through the show’s sexually ambiguous character Eric Northman, played sleekly, coldly, and slightly effeminate by Alexander Skarsgard (HBO’s “Generation Kill”).  Ball, as is widely known, is an openly gay man and is a major voice for the LGBT community.


Even supposed masculine, Jason Stackhouse (Aussie Ryan Kwanten) questions his commitment to the right-wing, anti-vampire group, Church of the Fellowship of the Sun.  The images of deceased, homosexual vampire, Eddie, keep appearing in Jason’s dreams, haunting him due to his former short-term girlfriend, now deceased, who ended up killing Eddie after having kidnapped him for his “V” or vampire blood (a dead giveaway for the drug ecstasy); and Jason’s guilt, sympathy, and empathy towards Eddie, in turn, haunts him through homoerotic dreams. Or perhaps Jason is struggling with his own sexual identity, hence the guilt-ridden nightmares? 


“True Blood” is incredibly addictive TV series, where the tiniest symbolic detail will emerge after repeated viewing and repeated viewing.  Like The Sopranos, where the dialogue and imagery (Tony’s dreams) were as important as the violence, a show like “True Blood” comes around once in a great while, drawing the viewer into fantasy while strategically weaving the show’s timely themes into its plotlines. 


The mysterious underbelly of the “mob” was the key to draw the viewers into “The Sopranos,” with creator David Chase slapped the viewers with a different take on organized crime:  Family squabbles, dysfunctional relationships, marriages, and plain old daily life.  No different from the general population’s existence. 


“True Blood” uses the supernatural as the catalyst for these multi-layered issues like discrimination, for example, here the “anti-discrimination” laws against vampires.  The same could be said for the anti-vampire or “right-wing” group, Church of the Fellowship of the Sun, and what they believe, which may not necessarily align with the vampires’ way of life. 


In this season’s third episode, new character Sarah Newlin, a younger and attractive Tammy Faye Baker type, (Anna Camp) explains to Jason Stackhouse how she and her sister supported vampires, but lost her sister when she became hooked on vampire blood and mysteriously disappeared.


Who’s right and who’s wrong?  Whose side are we to support?  And how serious and to what point does the viewer or someone like myself take the series and over-analyze something, which in the end is a fun show, a guilty pleasure with a little debate thrown into the mix?


I think that is the point in embracing something like True Blood.  What specifically keeps me coming back is the fun in analyzing a complete fictional tale, breaking down every facet and minute detail of the characters, plotline, and mythology, and how Ball brings out the social issues in which he is interested.


It is very similar to a solid, old-fashioned, weekly soap opera ala “Dark Shadows” (aired on ABC from 1966-1971), where the hit Gothic tale featured a similar cast of characters:  vampires, werewolves, zombies, witches and melodramatic performances.  This cult classic extracted elements from every known horror tale, such as “Dracula,” “The Wolf Man,” and Gothic ones from the likes of Edgar Allen Poe.  The show was set at Collinwood Mansion, located near the town of Collinsport, Maine, where the seclusion and grandness created a spooky, haunted house-type atmosphere. 


Ball’s setting is Bon Temps, a fictional small northern Louisiana town.  With the opening credits setting the tone from country music artist, Jace Everett’s “Bad Things,” in essence, narrates the sex, violence, and steamy events to come–a foreboding of something “bad” is about to happen.  Intercut with images of preachers, clan members, backwoods locals, and of course, the sex,


I do have to mention Nelsan Ellis who plays openly gay chef, Lafayette.  I have not seen a more take-no-prisoners performance since Jeffrey Wright’s portrayal of Belize in “Angels In America,” where a strong stance on homosexuality and race also was  pronounced through character.


If there aare non-believers or those still on the fence about “True Blood,” I suggest that you suspend your disbelief for one hour Sunday night, where everyone is not anxiously waiting for their next work day, and follow the journey of these monsters, which we all grew up with.  Learn a little something about the world around us, even if it’s through complete fiction.