Way back in the far away year 2008 Alan Ball worked to adapt Charlene Harris’ Southern Vampire Mystery series of books into a TV show. That sort of thing happens all the time. What doesn’t happen all the time is the start of one of the most interesting (for certain special values) and best (for other certain special values) TV shows ever created. So let us discuss the magic that is True Blood.
The first season of True Blood floundered like many shows do. They had a premise, and some good ideas taken from the novels along with their own takes on character and plot and they charged fully ahead. But it didn’t gel yet. It was just sort of there. Blood, gore, boobs and vampires. That was what it had. But what it would have was much stranger indeed.
Once season two came along the show had a very subtle shift. Somewhere between seasons one and two they creators realized that they were making the Worst Show Ever. Now, you need to understand what I mean by that. There are so many shows that are worse. But in this case Worst Show Ever isn’t a testament to the quality but rather the special mix of cheese, goofiness and loose plot along with shifting characters that makes a show immensely watchable while also being something that you sort of don’t want to watch. It’s compelling, funny, TV that manages to be trashy TV as much as it is fantastic TV. That sort of strange brew doesn’t happen often.
In fact, over the years, many shows would try to duplicate the mix and none of them would get it right – ending only with shows that are unwatchable and often dull.
True Blood reigned for a few years. They were unafraid to go anywhere and, rather quickly as these things go, they did the impossible. They became The Shark. We accuse shows of “Jumping the shark” all the time, meaning the time a show uses a gimmick that backfires for them and the quality of the show drops as a result. It is, almost always, an unrecoverable problem.
See, if you remove the problem to course correct it is obvious and your show is tainted and judged harsher for it. If you hold steady the problem will continue to drag you down. There’s no solution, outside of a very few edge cases. Jumping the shark, truly jumping it, makes a sound you can hear deep in your bones. It is the sound of death.
True Blood, on the other hand, became The Shark. It couldn’t ever jump the shark because it was, in and of itself, the shark they would have to jump.
Let me try to explain how that’s even possible:
True Blood became all gimmick. The boobs, the blood, the ridiculous plots – they were all gimmicks to be deployed. The way Eric, Pam or Lafayette spoke, sounding almost as if they came from a different writer’s room was a gimmick. The show became a battling beast of full on absurdity without loosing its watchablility and in doing so became the very thing it would take to jump over.
There was, they realized, no way to fail. They couldn’t jump themselves, after all, so all roads were open. You can see this most clearly in its greatest form, season 4’s next to last episode in which (and please understand this is literally what happens) the vampires need to get into a store where their friends are being held hostage by a witch. Except there is magic around it to prevent them from going in.
This is what I mean by the show became The Shark. It was a force of nature. Unstoppable. So the question became where do we go from here? How could the show continue to top itself, and continue to do what nothing else was, or could, do?
Season five tried out a new approach – let’s slow way down and leave a lot of what made the show work behind. When all else fails, try to through the engines in reverse while moving at speed. It won’t be pretty but it sure will be different!
But it doesn’t make great TV. The show hadn’t jumped the shark but it worked to figure out what made its own body tick by breaking its own legs. Not quite happy with that the show went on to season six to try something else different.
And this is where everything gets interesting. Season six was about as much of a mess as season five but in yet a different way. And that’s fine and they were still exploring the mechanics of their body destructively. But then at the end of season six we learned season seven would be the last.
And it is in one scene in season six we find out that they are planning the most daring thing of all.
Thirty minutes into the final episode of the season two key events happen: Eric catches fire while nude, and we see his penis. Understand both parts of that are critically important. Since season one Eric had been the standard of the show. He was what every vampire wanted to be: In Eric Northman we had the culmination of the shows sex drive, its love of gore and vampires and its sense of humor. Eric was the key to the show while Bill was the Man Who Would Be King – something else seasons ix went out of its way to prove as Bill becomes the worst God you could imagine. He’s never going to be as great as Eric, and the show needs you to know this.
Thus we come to Eric’s Flaming Penis. As the show’s standard for sex and horror – seeing Eric’s penis on screen was a signal. It was the payoff to six years of showing us all the boobs and butts we could want but holding back this one specific thing. And in showing us, they also set it on fire. Literally.
The symbolism is impossible to ignore – here is what you want, now watch it burn. It was a declaration of where the show would go and what it would try to do.
The show then jumps forward six months. Consider that in season four they jumped forward almost a full year and didn’t change even half as much as they did in this six month jump and you realize they key here.
The season itself is a mix of flashbacks to before the show started along with taking place six months after the events of season six. It is both backwards and forwards. The only way to jump yourself is to twist as hard as possible and loop around. The show tries this within its own structure but it doesn’t stop there.
Because they saw that the only way to jump the shark, for this show, was to ignore their own characters like never before. The use a gimmick. To make that gimmick itself ignoring the characters while dwelling on their pasts. It showed us that even while they would happily remember the smallest detail of plots past, they refused to pay attention to the characters they built. That’s not a mistake a show that has been this oddly careful makes. This was on purpose.
The number of character moments in season seven that flat out make no sense is staggering. It’s events for the sake of having events. Its plots that sound like maybe they might work on paper being brought to life as wobbly as possible. It is, in essence, the shitiest form of fanfic.
There’s your gimmick. There’s your jump.
They pulled off the one trick they hadn’t done yet on the show – they ruined their own show carefully and deliberately in ways you could watch it happen and understand they were having fun doing it. Their last magic trick was their greatest – setting fire to the stage they stood on, and laughing as they didn’t burn, only kept walking forward.
And the end of the show? After characters get married who showed good reason in the past why they shouldn’t, after rebirths and logic breaks and even Eric (who lives and they don’t care about how or why because that doesn’t matter when you’re pulling this trick) reduced to useless right up until the end – they pull one final trick.
The end of the show has four key events –
Bill dies – finally accepting that he needs to, because he is not Eric.
Eric and Pam sell out – they now have money and prestige but are still shown to be very much like they were in the flashbacks for the season, a place they hate deeply and feel trapped by.
Sookie is pregnant – we never see the guy. Because the show knows it doesn’t matter. It never mattered.
Everyone else has Thanksgiving together peacefully – and this is the point. Before Bill came to Bon Temps Sookie’s life was fine (she was unliked by lots and stressed but nothing even close to where it would go). After he shows up her life becomes one giant clusterfuck after another, the world almost ends several times and everything goes to shit for everyone. Inside four years after he dies everyone else is happy and living a full life and building family.
And that is, in the end, the message of True Blood: Bill was really the fucking problem all along. They spent years quietly telling us this and in the end felt the need to make their final, most audacious triumph of all – burning down their own house as messily as possible – just to show us that the guy who steps into the lives of our characters way back in episode one is the source of everything horrible, and thank god that’s over with.
And yet never forget, as the character who enters in episode one and has to meet these people Bill was our POV character all those years ago. Bill was us.
Bill. Was. Us. All. Along.
So yeah. True Blood was the Worst Show Ever in the best way possible. Even as it destroyed itself, it did so purposefully and wonderfully, that shit was textbook “What not to do” week after week as they came hurtling to a stop. And the in the end we’re left with a lingering sense that their message might really have been: We, the viewer, are why these poor guys can’t have nice things. While we watch their lives are shit. Now that we’re turning away for good, they can all be happy again.
So thanks, True Blood, for knowing when to hate, when to love, and most of all, when to be Kafka-esque in your absurdity so that we can spend two thousand words laughing about it.
I dunno. Maybe everyone does this. I honestly don’t know. But since I was a kid I dream in reoccurring places. Not real places, mind you. But buildings, homes, apartments, structures – that are the same as they were the night and week before.
I will then have dreams in that space generally until I move, or am about to move. When I am about to move I end up in a different space that lasts until I have moved. After that the space tends to stay the same.
Every now and then it will radically shift and for a few years I’ll be in a new space but they are pretty stable. Stable to the point I can map them out. Each space has an internal consistency that holds and dreams take place in them. Ordinary dreams – phone calls, neighbors, whatever it is. Just small, normal dreams where I am living a similar, but slightly different, live in a place that isn’t anywhere I’ve ever lived or seen.
When I was younger there was a small window where I became convinced that when I dreamed I switched and was able to see one of my parallel dimension lives. Which means sometimes when I’m awake they can see through my eyes.
Where I live is no more fantastic than the dream-buildings. Though they often have tunnels and wide spaces that I never get to enjoy.
These spaces are in places without name. Like I said there are neighbors – I get to know them over the course of years of dreams with them, but they are never people I have met or see outside of the dreams and they don’t shift location.
The dreams all have continuity, too, besides just spatially. If in one dream, well like last night – one of my neighbors and I talked as he walked his bike through the underground tunnel that connected the neighborhood through our basements. And he and I discussed bolting down a nick bike rack in an off-shoot hallway of the tunnel.
Sometime this month I am sure we will do that, or will have done it. It’ll be there, or there will be a reason for it not to be there.
I like to think everyone has this. I dunno.
A pitch for something that will never happen but I want to share it anyway. I mean if someone wants to pay me to write this for Marvel, I 100% will…
Beatrice Albinson saw something she shouldn’t have. The robots came for her, at night. They didn’t want her to tell anyone. No one could know about The Plan. So Beatrice ran. She hid. She ran some more. Beatrice hid in the dark spaces. She ran and hid and hid and ran until there was no where else she could think of. The robots were tireless, but Beatrice was only human.
And then she came across the stable. There shouldn’t have been a stable near the West Side Highway. Beatrice had always thought it was a bagel shop, truth be told. But no, a stable for sure. Big door, smelled of animal, bits of hay strewn about outside. Big old A logo on the door. A didn’t stand for stable, Beatrice was mighty sure about that.
Inside the stable (hey it seemed a good dark place to hide and horses didn’t bother Beatrice), she found a chariot. Big thing: old wood, carvings covering it all around, gold inlay and silver runs filling in the spaces. Nearby the chariot she spotted the horses. Wait. No. Those were horse-sized but they were giant goats. Goats with glowing red eyes and flaming lashes. Goats who didn’t want to be disturbed.
The robots found her, of course. They’re robots, they have an app for that. They came in shooting. Robots and horses (they assumed the goats were horses as well, because come on, who wouldn’t?) never did get along.
Turns out robots and giant goats get along rather less well. The goats shrugged off the lasers and small arms fire, breathing fire that melted the robots into slag. Beatrice wasn’t as lucky. She lay on the floor, hay soaking up her blood, as the fire raged around her. It covered her, danced over her body, but did not consume her form.
Instead she found herself feeling better. She sat up, ran a hand through her hair and noticed that her hand came back covered in fire. That, she told herself, was new. Abnormally calm or in the full flush of shock, either way, Beatrice stood and looked around.
She knew, as she walked, that the chariot was hers. For a time, at least. As her feet touched it, the wheels burst into flame. A flame that didn’t harm the ancient wood. The goats willing walked over and, in a process Beatrice couldn’t quite figure out, harnessed themselves. As they did their beards and tails burst into raging fire as well, Flames licked up from their hooves. And then they turned, dragging the chariot, and took to the sky leaving fire in their wake.
The Goat Rider was born. The spirit of Vengeance merged with… well, let’s just say that Thor was mighty pissed someone stole his goats. But that’s another tale for another time…
Ever stopped and thought “Lazy journalists!” and muttered about how they just produce fluff and don’t do the work and don’t cover important things? Yeah. We all have. But the problem is by doing that we are ignoring what is actually going on and blaming the wrong people (most of the time).
I know a bunch of journalists. A large bunch. I’ve worked with many of them, and have for about 20 years now. So I’ve seen this far too up-close. The root of the problem is two-fold:
1) The people in charge of sites/magazines/etc need money. So they push for quick fluffier bits that gets hits and eyeballs. They have a much higher return on investment when looked at across what they pay for them versus what they bring in in ad revenue. That’s simple truth. Journalism should be above such things! I can hear you think it. And I agree! But they aren’t above paying rent, print costs or server costs and staff. Journalists don’t work for free (well some do and they shouldn’t and the ones that don’t should be paid more really but this is not my topic) either.
So if journalism should be above such problems, but Stuff Costs Money how do you fix it? Gov subsidized journalism? That’s a slippery slope of panic and woe. You fix it by reading the second problem!
2) We are the other half of the problem. I’m sorry guys. We are. We click the shitty top 5 lists over the long in depth articles more and more. Now, yes, you’ll rise up and tell me “I do the opposite!” and that’s great. But numbers-wise you don’t, we all don’t. I like to think I do, too. And I try to. But those tiny quick hits, man, they get you. They are designed to get you. And the more we fall for it the more of them they do. The more of them they do the less they will do anything else. We create the problem we lament. We need to recognize that.
I know very few career journalists who are dumb or lazy. Every one I know, in fact, wants to do longer in-depth coverage of events, books, culture and so on. It tears them up to have to gloss over the world. But many of them do it so that they can then have a short at doing a deeper job once in a while. If your site needs 15 posts a day and you do 14 of them in quick hits you can get away with one longer bit that won’t get the big hits. So they sell slices of their soul in hopes of making it back, while knowing it doesn’t work that way. And they KEEP TRYING. Remember that. This isn’t the world they signed up for, either. They didn’t bust ass so they could write top ten lists that pay shit. They wanted to explore and report on the world.
And they stay in it for that rare chance to do so.
The only way to ever change this is to not read the quick hits and drive up hits wildly on the big things. I don’t know how to organize such a thing, or if it is possible. But it is the only way to stop this landslide. I don’t know how to hold back the cliff forever.
But I do know that blaming the people in the trenches, still trying to be Journalists-with-a-capital-J, just causes the landslide to come down faster. Because when you smack the people trying to find a way to sneak you the real goods they start to be even more disheartened. I mean first they get beat up for trying by their bosses, then they get beat up for not magically being able to change the universe by the people they are taking the hits for in the first place. You’d want to give up, too. And when, and as, they do give up – the landslide gets faster.
So please. Stop blaming them off-hand. Yeah there are bad apples. Blame them by name, don’t fire hose and destroy the people trying to fight it.
A while back I got asked to contribute to an article full of people with ideas of how to do a Wonder Woman movie. The article didn’t happen though so I thought “Well why not just post it here?” so I am. Here’s the Wonder Woman movie I would write:
A Wonder Woman movie should be the simplest thing around. She’s a character who strives for peace, and is also the greatest warrior the world has ever known. Her own internal struggle to reconcile that, and to help all of humanity toward peace, through strength and compassion, is a huge host of interesting information just waiting to be explored. Then you add in Greek mythology, a mythology that not only a number of recent blockbusters have found themselves digging into again, but a mythology that has survived and thrived in the consciousness of the world for thousands of years.
How can this suck, if done with attention and love? It can’t.
How would I do it? Well I’d start by casting Claudia Black, and then add Brad Bird directing. But that’s me. I’d want to open with an older Diana. Not a young woman, but a seasoned warrior. Leaving a U.N. meeting, put some info dump there – Themyscira, Amazons, her job as Ambassador. Then break it up with an attack. A race of aliens, claiming to be the inspiration for the Greek Gods. Here to destroy us all.
Diana must fight back, but also learn the truth. Remember that – Diana searching for truth is a key element. As is her attempt to resolve the conflict peacefully, if at all possible. When it isn’t, then she will strike as hard and fast as needed, but she will give them a chance.
Anyway, she has to go back to Themyscira, touch base with Olympus, all of that, to find out the Aliens are fakers (of course they are) and now Diana must lead the charge of Amazons and Gods and the World Army to save the Earth. This will also solve the crisis from the start of the U.N. and her place in it and so on. It brings the Earth into deeper understanding from a place of mistrust. She has to be crucial to each army, and lead all as much as possible. She is the Over Commander. And while Zeus doesn’t like it, she has the backing of other Gods, the skills and the spine to shut him down and make him fall in line. Same with the Amazons. Her mother is deeply proud, but still chafes under taking orders from her daughter. The World Army leader, Steve Trevor, has his own command and doesn’t want to be seen as weak, but Diana helps show him that it isn’t weak to follow a commander when it is the right choice.
In the end the Aliens are defeated. The Gods and the Amazons have started to reconcile (Though the Amazons worship the Gods they didn’t exactly LIKE them, ya know?) and the World Army accepts Diana, and her people.
You get to show Diana, why she herself is important, what her culture is and how she strives for peace and is also willing to go to war. You can show her stretched too thin and set up sequels where the threat doesn’t have to be bigger – it can now be far more personal (Gods vs. World Army / talks breaking down / Amazon rebellion / Bring in Atlantis! / whatever) and make the world expand, instead of simply raise.