19 August 2009

True Blood, S1 E1 "Strange Love"

Spoilers Ahead

I'm embarrassed to admit I'm a latecomer to True Blood. I can't even say I've read the books. In my defence, we don't get HBO. And, well, whenever I heard about the story it just didn't seem that interesting to me. I'm kind of dumb that way. At least I don't need to be embarrassed anymore.

From the opening scene of the first episode ("Strange Love") I was hooked. Never underestimate a good opening scene. I only wish the shot of the dark, winding road could have lasted a little longer. But as soon as we switch to the frat kids inside the car, we know we're watching HBO (emphasized rather elegantly by the opening credits, which not only perfectly set the tone for the show, but give you a good glimpse of what HBO's all about as well. It's not often you see decomposing corpses and nudity--not simultaneously--in TV credits...)

So the basic premise of the show is that, thanks to Japanese innovation, a "nutritionally complete" blood substitute called Tru Blood has allowed the vampire community to, as our heroine puts it, come out of the coffin. Their sudden mingling with human society is met with reactions ranging from fear and suspicion to fascination to outright hostility. There are "fang bangers" who like to be bitten. Prostitutes who cater to the vamp market. And a certain reprobate element who are not above capturing vampires and draining their blood to sell to "V-juice" fans (and possibly addicts) who get a physical (and libidinal) boost from drinking vampire blood (as well as occasionally tearing off their own faces).

"Strange Love" introduces us to Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a Louisiana waitress with telepathic abilities; her boss, Sam, whose love for Sookie remains unrequited; short-tempered best friend Tara; man-whore brother, Jason; and, of course, Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), the new vamp in town.

Although my initial reaction was that I preferred Sam, it didn't take long for me to see Bill's attraction. Sookie, of course, notices him instantly--possibly because he's the one person whose thoughts she can't hear (or be overwhelmed by), never mind that he's not exactly a person. Bill also attracts the attention of the Rattrays, a revulsion-inducing pair who turn out to be interested in Bill for more than his pale good looks. When no one else apparently cares that the "Ratts" are going to kill Bill (ha ha), Sookie takes it upon herself to chase them off (impressively wielding a chain and then a knife) and save him. Forced to leave their precious V-juice behind, they go--but not before letting Sookie know it isn't over.

As Sookie's infatuation with Bill grows, so does the chagrin of Sam and Tara. Her brother, Jason, is also unconvinced that spending time with a vampire is a good idea. And it doesn't take long for Sookie to realize that pretty much the entire town thinks she's stupid or crazy, or both--not that she cares. The only one who seems accepting of Bill, and Sookie's relationship with him, is her grandma, who wants Bill to come speak to her Civil War "Descendants of the Glorious Dead" group (he was there, after all).

Jason, meanwhile, may have had something to do with the strangling death of Maudette Pickens. Maudette liked to videotape her "activities" and showed Jason a tape of herself and a truly freaky tattooed vampire who paid her $1000 for a bite, among other things. Jason's reaction to the tape may have been a little too rough, and the sherriff picks him up at work the next day.

The episode leaves a lot of loose ends (in a good way) and ends with the Ratts getting revenge on Sookie (it seems they're also not above ganging up on a lone defenceless girl, or kicking someone when they're down). Although why she couldn't hear them coming (via their thoughts) is one plot hole I couldn't help noticing. Hope it's explained.

There were so many things to love about "Strange Love." Charlaine Harris, the author of the Sookie Stackhouse books, and Alan Ball, creater/producer of the show (and writer/director of this episide), have clearly put a lot of thought into the world they've created. They've taken an innovatove concept (vampires living out in the open) and have worked it so it is completely believable and realistic. There's depth and layers--no one-dimensional characters or interactions here. Very good indeed.

The show is also nicely shot. It's well-lit and beautifully framed. I remember a photographer friend of mine saying that you know a movie has a skilled DP when most of the still shots look like a really good photograph. No worries in that department here.

The music used was fantastic! I love the main title theme ("I Wanna Do Bad Things with You" by Jace Everett) and of course "Strange Love," although too bad they didn't go with The Cramps' version (they used Slim Harpo's instead). I loved the music so much I couldn't help but buy the album (damn you, itunes--you just make it too easy).

I also have to give bonus points to the writers for going with some gender role reversal. It's always nice to see the girl save the guy (or the guy on his knees). That's probably part of why Buffy is so appealing too. I actually noticed a lot of similarities between Buffy and True Blood. There's only so much you can do with a certain type of story and certain types of characters, though, so I'll skip the criticism. In any case, the similarities seem to be a good thing overall, and there's definitely enough differences to make these two completely different shows. Although what is with vampires named William (Bill Compton, Spike/William the Bloody, Angel/Liam)? It's a fine name but maybe we should start branching out a little.

I'm also thrilled there isn't one character or performance I found annoying or unbelievable, and the chemistry between Sookie and Bill is just right. I did find Sookie to be a little too "sunshine and light" for my taste--recurring lines like "bless your heart" and "my stars" are a little grating, and her insistence on not listening to "nasty talk" and on being treated like the lady that she is got to me at first, but bothered me less and less as the episode progressed. I'm just chalking it up to Southern "charm" (or possibly something else--as Bill points out Sookie might herself be a little more than human. Theories abound at the moment). Besides, characters like Tara and Lafayette more than make up for any PG-rated tendencies. The scene between Tara, Lafayette, and the good old boy bar patron (where Tara calls out his inherent racism and then Lafayette comes on to him) is just about perfect.

The vampires are great as well. They're varied, for one thing--just like people are in reality. Different looks, different talents, different personalities. From the ultra-smooth American Vampire League spokeswoman Nan Flanagan, to the creepy and frightening nameless vamp on the sex tape, to reserved and gentle Bill--we get a good overview in this episode of what vampires are--or can be--like. My one problem, and it is kind of a big one, is the fangs. A vamp's look can be made--or ruined--by their fangs and, unfortunately, these ones look fake. They're too perfect, too white, too much like snake fangs (made for delivering venom rather than feeding). The way they fold out is a little odd, as well. I don't know--maybe the show will work on them as it progresses (the way the dustings got better over time on Buffy), or maybe they just won't bother me as much. But for now they are a disappointment. Still, that's the only real flaw in an otherwise brilliant show.

Can't wait to watch the rest of the episodes. Here's hoping True Blood stays this good...

Fang Files

Appearance/Physical Characteristics: Human appearance, although the anonymous vamp can apparently make his eyes go completely red and looks at once point as though he's physically transforming in some way. Fangs fold out and resemble snake fangs. Vamps hiss and make animalistic noises. Body temperature is cooler than humans. Don't/can't eat anything other than blood and Tru Blood.

Powers: Super speed, fast healing, hypnotism. Maybe shapeshifting. Their blood ("V-juice") can provide a physical boost to humans.

Weaknesses: Silver, sunlight, can die from losing too much blood. People crave V-juice and are willing to pay vast sums (and kill vamps) to get it.

Mythology: Not much yet on the vamp mythology. Apparently drinking their blood does not turn a human into a vampire. They try to keep their abilities secret. Also, Sookie can't hear their thoughts.

Sound Bites

Vampire (to store clerk): You ever pretend to be one of us again, and I'll kill ya. Got it?
Clerk: Yeah.
Vampire (with a big smile): Have a nice day now!

Bill: Aren't you afraid to be out here alone with a hungry vampire?
Sookie: No.
Bill: Vampires often turn on those who trust them, you know. We don't have human values like you.
Sookie: A lot of humans turns on those who trust them, too.

Sam: It would only be a matter of time 'fore you went off on somebody. I don't want to drive my customers away.
Tara: I only go off on stupid people.
Sam: Most of my customers are stupid people.
Tara: Yeah, but...I could help you keep an eye on Sookie. You see the way she was looking at that vampire? That is just trouble looking for a place to happen.

True Blood, Season 1, Episode 1 "Strange Love." From HBO.

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