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True Blood: witches, werepanthers, and wicked sex

HBO’s True Blood, a vampire and lust-filled adaptation of the Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris, has been captivating summer audiences for three seasons now with Alan Ball at the helm. With Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) as a petite blonde love interest followed by a swarm of swains, each season roughly follows the storyline of one of the books and you never know which supernatural creature is going to pop up next, or who’s going to be doing it with whom. The show’s a big enough hit to merit tie-in covers in the mass paperback racks, but does it have staying power?

True Blood’s lacklustre season four premiere opened on Sunday night on what appeared to be a cheesy porno set (sorry, ‘Fairyland’), then switched to a low-budget fantasy (or perhaps just the Los Angeles desert), and dropped us back in Bon Temps one year and a number of faded storylines later. Alan Ball’s hit HBO series is back for another season, and this viewer was left unimpressed; my views were perhaps best encapsulated in the episode’s Dead Parrot Scene (yes, it had a Dead Parrot Scene) where one of the witches, upon discovering that she’s been dragged into necromancy, says ‘…uh.’

The episode opens with Sookie in fairyland, realising that she’s been trapped by none other than Queen Mab, who turns into a shrieking harridan upon Sookie’s discovery. Fortunately gramps is trapped too and he helps Sookie get to safety before passing on his pocketwatch and then croaking in the Bon Temps graveyard, freeing Sookie up for a trot across the lawn to her house, helpfully sold during her mysterious year-long absence by her brother.

In a series of shots we learn that the sheriff is addicted to V, Arlene is convinced that her baby is evil, Sam still has himself a bit of a stray problem, Jason is about to land in hot water, Jessica and Hoyt are having domestic squabbles over who’s on KP, and the American Vampire League is trying to resuscitate the image of the vampire community in a post Russell Edgington world. Oh, and Tara’s a lesbian cagefighter. Sookie’s got a bit of culture shock as she tries to adapt to what’s happened in the last year, which seems to necessitate a lot of heaving, sobbing, and doe-eyed looks.

The much-vaunted skip forwards for the fourth season didn’t really add much to the story, other than creating an opportunity for Eric to buy Sookie’s house out from under her, a rather unsuspenseful and surprising turn of events that allowed the episode to wrap back on a cheesy porno set, complete with Sookie holding up a scrap of a pink peignoir to cover her fairyland spray tan. (Eric: ‘You’re mine, Sookie.’ Fangs out. Fade to black.) This scene really encapsulated much of the episode and my nightmares for the rest of the season; fake tan, fading fripperies, and painfully predictable dialogue and plotlines.

Ball claims to have been so captivated by Dead Until Dark that he simply had to turn Charlaine Harris’ novels into a television series, but True Blood has strayed further and further from the books with each season, and not always with good results. This is not surprising or new for television adaptations; the question isn’t whether he’s going to shift the narrative of the novels, but how, and whether it will be effective. Thus far Ball has introduced some luscious lesbian sex and a few pieces of set dressing to flesh out the supporting cast, but the series is ultimately dragged down by Anna Paquin’s emoting. For that matter, there are only so many times I can hear Stephen Moyer hiss ‘Sook-eh’ before my finger starts to itch on the remote.

For those who have read the books, we know what to expect, roughly, from this season, if it follows Dead to the World at least vaguely; Wicca, werepanthers, and wicked sex, oh my! All three appear to be on tap for this season if the premiere is anything to go by, but apparently we’re going to be forced to wade through acres of cheese to get to them. The scenes with the coven are eyerolling, the community of Hotshot reminds me of a poverty porn set in Appalachia, and, well, ok, Tara as a cage fighter is pretty hot. I’d take that as a spinoff series and I have to confess that it’s nice to see the True Blood team actually do something with an otherwise tragically wasted character.

The show lost its way over the course of the last season and some viewers were certainly hoping that Ball would manage to get it on track again; surely, the man behind Six Feet Under could clean up this mess and remind us why we love him. If the season premiere was any indicator, though, the bloom is off the rose. Either that or HBO saved the actual budget for the rest of the season, which we can only hope, because otherwise fatalities from sheer laughter at the ridiculousness on Sunday nights this summer are going to go into the triple digits.

Depictions of fantasy on television inevitably run into the problem of looking schmaltzy, low budget, and ridiculous unless they’re handled with craft. The fairyland scenes in the last season weren’t quite as cringe-inducing as this one, which gave me hope that the series would be able to handle this with grace and class (who else remembers the Ruth-on-ecstasy-scene from Six Feet Under, featuring fantastic hallucinations galore?). Meanwhile, the ‘shocking reveal’ that Bill is the new vampire king of Louisiana ended up being a yawner. If you can’t show me pretties, at least give me a plot with a chewy centre.

Political machinations may be afoot this season, and I think that’s the only way that Ball will manage to salvage this. True Blood has tried and flailed at not-so-subtle political commentary on queer identities and gayness, but if it could stick to politics, especially with what looks to be a bloodbath of a 2012 election ramping up, it just might get along all right. That’s assuming viewers manage to remember to tune in after this week’s cliche-laden opener, which is very much up for debate.

Mr. Ball, to borrow from Lafayette (speaking of tragically wasted characters), I’m sorry after all that trouble, your bird’s still dead.