06.08.12

‘True Blood’ Season 5: Has HBO’s Vampire Drama Lost Its Bite?

HBO’s True Blood returns on Sunday. Jace Lacob reviews the first four episodes of the fifth season and asks: what happened to the vampire drama?

HBO’s popular True Blood has never been known as a slow-burn drama. Instead of advancing the plot minutely from episode to episode, the Southern Gothic vampire drama has, during its four seasons to date, zoomed at a breakneck speed, hurtling toward its cliffhanger ending each year at a maximum velocity.

While that can rev up viewers’ adrenaline levels, it can also lead to severe narrative whiplash, which is exactly what has happened to the show, which begins its fifth season on Sunday evening. (It is also the final season under the eye of showrunner Alan Ball, who will depart at the end of the season to focus on his new Cinemax show, Banshee, launching in 2013.)

The first four episodes of Season 5 recently sent out to critics reflect what’s wrong with the most recent seasons of the HBO drama: they lack focus. The plot, which is based in part on Charlaine Harris’s novels, zigzags in so many different directions that it often seems as though there are no less than 10 separate television shows existing side by side within True Blood. While the early seasons of the show wisely focused on a few main characters—such as Anna Paquin’s telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse; brooding vampires Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) and Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgård); Sookie’s hotheaded best friend Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley); her secretive boss Sam (Sam Trammell); and her horndog brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten), along with a few other central players—the show’s success at creating vivid and engaging supporting characters has also been its downfall.

Rather than allow these characters to exist on the periphery where they might thrive, Alan Ball and his writing staff have forced them front and center, which means that each season now needs to incorporate storylines for the entire cast, which now numbers in the several dozen. The result is a jumble of unrelated storylines that lack cohesion and a strong throughline. (Last season gave us witches, disembodied spirits, shifters, shamans, and faeries, all vying for control of the story.) With almost every character off doing his or her own thing, there’s a distinct lack of unity in the narrative, something keenly felt in the haphazard and unsatisfying fourth season, and that feeling continues into Season 5.

Here, the subplots are so plentiful that it’s often difficult to know where to focus. Is it the bromance between Eric and Bill as they search for the risen Russell Edgington (Denis O’Hare)? The predatory return of evangelist-turned-vampire Reverend Steve Newlin (Michael McMillian)? The goings-on of the Shreveport werewolf pack and Alcide (Joe Manganiello)? The dark magic of Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis)? The in-fighting among the Vampire Authority council, lead by Roman (Law & Order: SVU’s Christopher Meloni)? The relationship between Jason Stackhouse and baby vamp Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll)? Or whatever is going on with fry cook Terry Bellefleur (Todd Lowe) and Patrick (Scott Foley)? And that’s just to name a few story strands among a surplus, in addition to the still-buzzing-around plots from last season like the faeries, the murder of Debbie Pelt (Brit Morgan), and the fate of Tara Thornton, clinging to life after taking a shotgun blast meant for Sookie.

(I’m forbidden to reveal just what happens to Tara, a storyline which offers a glimmer of possibility by the time the fourth episode rolls around. But it’s a long road getting there.)

Video screenshot

Watch a preview for Season 5 of “True Blood”

Part of the problem is that with so much going on with the rest of the cast, Paquin’s Sookie—ideally the series’ lead—seems boring by comparison. In previous years, she was a major connector between the various storylines and characters, but here she seems to be isolated from everyone and everything, a vacuum in the center of the show whose biggest moment comes in the fourth episode when she drains nearly every bottle of alcohol in her house and gets goofy to Jimmy Buffett, before—surprise!—one of the men in her life turns up. I’ve stopped caring who Sookie chooses to be with romantically, whether it’s Eric, Bill, or Alcide, and that’s a problem when the character is your nominal lead. That’s keenly felt in Season 5, where Sookie’s storyline so far—comprised mostly of her whining about “doing the right thing” or everyone “hating” her—lacks a real spark.

Everyone else, it seems, is suddenly much more interesting, particularly because everyone in the sleepy town of Bon Temps, Louisiana seems to have developed supernatural abilities of some kind or has found themselves enmeshed in some sort of horror-tinged scenario. With everyone becoming “special,” no one quite feels genuinely special anymore. There is no baseline for “normalcy” within the show, as even the supporting cast members have been touched by the supernatural. When even Terry and Arlene (Carrie Preston) are caught up in spooky hauntings and inexplicable fires, you have to question just why anyone stays in Bon Temps. The lack of normalcy—or even a few minutes of breathing room—create an almost frenetic atmosphere around True Blood that rivals Maryann’s craziest orgy and leaves the audience looking for the exits.

Additionally, the characters seem entirely disconnected, as though they had no history or emotional attachment. I can’t help but remember when the scenes between Sookie and Sam used to crackle with chemistry, or when Sookie and Tara used to actually talk about what was going on in their lives. But with so much plot to get through, and so many characters to service, it all feels as muddled as this season’s Vampire Authority plot, which presents a confusing theological debate about Lilith, the “Vampire Bible,” and a “sanguinistas”-versus-mainstreamers conflict within the vampire community.

The first four episodes of Season 5 … reflect what’s wrong with the most recent seasons of the HBO drama: they lack focus.

It’s the latter that’s the most puzzling. Meloni’s Roman and his ilk—which includes the actual Biblical temptress Salome (Valentina Cervi) herself—speak in riddles and double-talk, alternately claiming to abhor the “Vampire Bible” and anyone who takes a literal interpretation of the book, but then also engaging in elaborate rituals worshipping Lilith, whose own followers are said to be dangerous radical fundamentalists looking to overthrow the mainstreaming movement. Huh?

Meloni, meanwhile, seems to relish the opportunity to get back to his freaky roots after playing Detective Elliot Stabler for so long on NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, but here he seems to have two modes: yelling and louder yelling. For so long, the Vampire Authority has presented such an enigmatic and dangerously unknowable presence within True Blood that meeting Roman seems like a bit of a letdown.

What follows is an odd blend of technology, paranoia, theology, and political machinery (along with a heady dose of murder, sex, and Iraq War flashbacks), but it never intrigues in the way that Ball and his writing staff intend. While this may not be an issue for the most diehard of True Blood fans, some may feel as though the magic has gone out of this once-addictive show. Even with all the glittering chaos and faerie dust swirling around this season, it’s hard not to feel that we’ve seen these tricks before.