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What Went Wrong With True Blood?

True Blood finally lurched to an end after seven seasons on 24 August, but how many readers actually cared? Enough, apparently, for Twitter to momentarily flare with irritation and distaste over the ending, which left many loyal viewers who had managed to stick it out feeling bitter and angry. The series had long ago diverged from the books — which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing — but the decision to randomly kill off characters and pair Sookie (Anna Paquin) with someone viewers didn’t connect to at all left many viewers cold.

However, most viewers had long ago snapped off the television dial when it came to True Blood, bored with where the series had gone and moving on to other programmes. It wasn’t just a disappointment for viewers who wanted a fun, interesting, dynamic adaptation of the bestselling Southern Vampire Series, nor for those who just enjoyed vampires presented through the lens of HBO’s classic hypersexualised and violent style. It was also a bitter disappointment for loyal Alan Ball fans who had come to expect much more from the series producer after his work on Six Feet Under, quite possibly one of the most important television series of all time.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment where True Blood went off the rails, and many viewers have their own opinions. Seasons three and four were probably the turning point, as the show finally gained enough momentum in the wrong direction. The stories grew more and more ridiculous, the overt use of vampirism as a metaphor for homosexuality became painful, the racism became too evident to ignore, and the fundamental disconnect from the characters was simply too intense.

With nothing to grab on to, viewers started to turn on True Blood, and the show was surrounded by increasing criticism and frustration. Even those who had previously loved the series were dismayed by where it was going, and not afraid to speak up about it. Consequently, Ball and the production team found themselves facing an increasingly hostile audience, and evidently not caring.

By the end of the fifth season, Ball had been replaced by Brian Buckner, and it showed. Ball’s trademark sharp, insightful, elegant style had already been heavily diluted in prior seasons, and it disappeared entirely in a new manifestation of the show. It might have retained the same leads and the same fundamental look, but the storylining verged on the ridiculous, the proliferation of supernatural creatures became intolerable, and the constant fluttering from plot to plot made each season a frustrating snarl of dead ends.

As the writing and producing teams veered wildly, characters were yanked around within the context of the show, making it hard to follow them, or to connect with them. Within the context of the larger True Blood universe, which was slowly falling apart under the supervision of the show’s creative talent, the show as a whole became less and less interesting, shifting from something terribly beautiful into yet another iteration of the boring supernatural TV that’s trending at the moment — and unfortunately for True Blood, the series stayed around after that crest had peaked and viewers were moving on to something else.

One benefit of being on cable isn’t simply that you can include more explicit sexuality and reach for a more artistic vision. Cable also allows for substantially fewer viewers, and is far more tolerant of drops in viewer numbers. For HBO, True Blood was still a winner long after a network might have dropped it, after looking at the numbers and considering the declining interest in the series. The cable provider stuck it out through the end of the series arc almost as though it was determined to prove something to viewers, and the decision was a bad move.

Using Google Trends, it’s possible to take a look at True Blood-related search results, to see what people were searching for and when. While this isn’t the same as looking at actual ratings, it does provide an interesting insight into viewer engagement. When lots of people are searching for the series, it suggests that they are viewing it, wanting to know more about it, and actively seeking commentary, recaps, and fan sites.

Season two marked the peak of interest from fans, and it declined steadily thereafter. While brief peaks occurred at the start of each season, reflecting the usual season premiere buzz, viewer engagement dropped shortly after that. At the time of the finale, viewer interest was suspiciously and disappointingly low — while Neilson ratings for the finale were higher than the series premiere, they were much, much lower than prior seasons. Viewers had already lost interest, and weren’t drawn in enough to know how the series turned out. Perhaps many thought they could read the recap in the morning, if they really needed to know.

By the numbers, True Blood had the highest number of fans for any HBO show other than The Sopranos. It should be considered a victory for the cable provider, and a masterpiece of modern television. But it wasn’t, and it shouldn’t be looked at that way. While The Sopranos has been cited as a critical and formative influence on television, True Blood is likely to sink to the bottom of the well. Six Feet Under, Ball’s earlier creation, was far superior, and had much more of a cultural, social, and artistic influence.

Was Ball a one-trick pony? Did he spend it all on Six Feet Under and run out of whatever magic made the show such a success by the time he brought out True Blood? Was the production landscape simply so different by the second series that he was unable to succeed from the start? Whatever the reason for True Blood’s massive failure, most viewers are glad the series is finally over, so that they can move on to other, more compelling things.

Photo by Andrés Nieto Porras, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license

One thought on “What Went Wrong With True Blood?

  1. It really did go downhill – especially the last few seasons. I think at least part of it was due to having too many characters. At least Game Of Thrones has an expansive world so the cast it fitting. But True Blood should have been more focused on core characters like Sam, Tara and Lafayette. And have the guts to kill some major characters before the last season…

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