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.