‘True Blood’ Premiere: Is Sex the Only Reason We’re Still Watching?

The show is crazier than ever and sexier than ever. That may be all that matters, says Kevin Fallon.

Spoiler alert: just 59 seconds into Sunday’s sixth-season premiere of True Blood, you’ll see the first flash of ass. (It’s Bill’s, it’s brief, and it’s covered in gory plasma.) Wait 19 minutes and there’s a handful of female werewolves standing full-frontal naked after turning back into humans. If you endure 36 minutes of the season opener, you’ll be rewarded with a threesome between a very naked Alcide (Joe Manganiello), his equally exposed girlfriend Rikki (Kelly Overton), and an unidentified third (also nude) werewolf.

This serves not to ruin the episode’s, er, big reveals, but is a public-service announcement to fans still tuning in to the show. Because, let’s face it: after five seasons, the introductions and deaths of too many characters to remember, and the now necessity of having a flowchart handy to keep track of the various plot points, the main reason any of us are still watching True Blood may be the sex and nudity.

It’s actually a bit of naughty phenomenon. In terms of ratings, True Blood is as popular as ever—6.3 million viewers tuned into the Season 5 finale of the show (compare that with 3.4 million who tuned into this season’s Mad Men premiere). This is even as critics roll their eyes at the “overcrowded, emotionally empty, frustrating, convoluted, nonsensical mess” the show has become, while even fans gripe about the growing implausibility of the series once considered so creatively strong that it garnered Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for best drama. Given those complaints, there has to be something keeping audiences coming back season after season, week after week. And that something, it’s time for us all to admit, is sex.

From the beginning, True Blood was as inextricably tied to sex and nudity as it was to the soap-opera love triangle between Anna Paquin’s naive psychic waitress Sookie Stackhouse and the two vampires, Bill (Stephen Moyer) and Eric (Alexander Skarsgaard), who loved her. The show’s pilot featured—in addition to some gruesome vamp attacks—four scenes that featured nudity, sex, or both. Ottimo Massimo, associate editor for Fleshbot.com (a NSFW website owned by Gawker Media), provided just about the best description of True Blood while writing about the final few sex scenes from the last season, calling the show “a symphony of breasts and blood.”

“A lot of premium cable channels like HBO treat nudity as added incentive for viewers to pay the extra money to subscribe,” Lux Alptraum, CEO and publisher of Fleshbot, told The Daily Beast. “There is probably even pressure on the True Blood showrunners to amp up the nudity.”

With a show like True Blood, “which is sometimes a little bit ridiculous,” nudity may not be the only reason to watch, said Alptraum (“there are plenty of ways to access sex clips only online”), but it certainly is a big reason to tune in. “The ridiculousness is balanced out by the T&A factor,” she said. “It’s pretty high on the list of why people watch. It’s part of what the show is.”

While sex on TV are certainly nothing novel, True Blood has earned a reputation for showing off the wildest, kinkiest, and sometimes even most disturbing sex the boob tube (heh) has to offer. To begin with, most of the sex scenes climax with one party literally biting the other person in the neck, drawing blood. But that’s just the tip. Its raciness goes much deeper.

There was the time Bill emerged from the ground in a cemetery and Sookie was so relieved to see him that they did it right there in the dirt. There was the time maenad Maryann hypnotized dozens of cult followers into having an eyes-glazed-over orgy. Or how about when Eric seduced Talbot into having gay sex with him, only to stake him in the middle of it. Or when in the midst of an uncomfortably aggressive tryst, Franklin forced Tara to take a bite out of his jugular. And lest we forget the time that Bill ended a round of angry sex with his hateful wife, Lorena, by spinning her head a full 180 degrees away from him. Quite literally, it was the most twisted TV sex scene of all time.

After being conditioned to expect raunch like that, Alptraum said, “there are certain expectations.” In other words, for many fans, it’s no boobs, no butts, big bummer.

That’s not the case for everybody, however. “In my real life, when people find out that I co-run the largest True Blood fan site on the internet, they’re pretty surprised, because it’s definitely racier and gorier than what they expect me to approve,” said Melissa Lowery, who co-owns True-Blood.net with her best friend Liz Henderson. “I know for a lot of people it’s quite a draw, but I’m like, eh, whatever. I don’t need to see it to get the idea.”

Having completed scores of interviews with the show’s actors, Lowery and Henderson know very well that the stars rarely make it down a single red carpet or through a talk-show interview without being asked what it’s like to bare it all so often or how comfortable they are fake humping their colleagues. “This is a really attractive cast,” Lowery said. “HBO is saying, let’s focus on our strengths.”

But there are plenty of other, more interesting strengths, they argue, ones that won the show its army of passionate followers. “Grittiness is what differentiated it in from the beginning,” Henderson said. “People watched and realized it wasn’t a sweet, cute romance with sparkling vampires.” Six seasons in, Lowery says, people wouldn’t be obsessively watching if they weren’t invested in the characters above all else, or hooked by the notoriously wild, whiplash-inducing twists.

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To that regard, the show’s fans should brace their necks. The premiere picks up after last season’s explosive finale in which Bill became possessed by the spirit of ancient vampire goddess Lilith; Sookie and Tara rescued Pam and Jessica from vampire jail and attempted their own escape; and Jason embarked on a crusade to track down Warlow, the vampire who murdered his and Sookie’s parents. The werewolves are there doing something, too.

This is to say there certainly is more than just sex and nudity for viewers to see when the show returns. Each one of those plot twists continues to contort in crazy directions as Sookie and the others grapple with the aftermath of Bill’s transformation and the mounting tension between vampires and humans. In fact, there are so many storylines to complement the show’s famous sex scenes—or interrupt them, depending on your point of view—that in its review of the premiere, The Salt Lake Tribune warned, “If you aren’t already a fan, you’ll totally be lost.”

In other words, True Blood is the quintessential soap opera, a tangled skein comprised of so many plot threads that only the most devoted fans can keep up and enjoy. The added fun, and perhaps what has kept it so popular, Alptraum said, is that the show “has that soap-opera plot, but you get to see the nudity in all of those sex scenes instead of it being implied.”

But just in case you’re one of those viewers who are made dizzy by trying to follow the mechanics of True Blood’s oddball, freaky plots, here’s something to settle you: there is still lots of sex, too.