Back in 2000, a soccer mom with a no-nonsense haircut started imagining a world through the eyes of a bosomy blonde psychic. With a few deft references that drew parallels between her world’s vampires “coming out of the coffin” and the LGBT community demanding civil rights, she fueled the imagination of Alan Ball, TV auteur, who drew on a personal connection to the material in that context and ran with the premise to capture the drama, love, and adversity of a homosexual pairing in intolerant times, but within a heterosexual narrative. After all, Sookie and Bill's relationship could easily have been read as that of a gay couple, with Sookie choosing and having to defend her alternative lifestyle while learning its subculture and ultimately being targeted by a violent bigot.
In the beginning, Ball's creative departures from the books served the story well. The first season of the TV series, which debuted in 2008, showed Bill risking his life for Sookie
by coming out into the light of day, an ending that for sheer melodrama and
romance puts the first book’s ending (Sookie fighting off Rene on her own and Bill visiting her in the hospital afterwards all like, "Bummer, someone tried to kill you... P.S. I got promoted in Vampire Land") in the shade. Ball explicitly wove in
LGBT characters and romances, particularly by elevating Charlaine Harris’s peripheral Lafayette
(vampire chow, by the end of Book 1) to perhaps the show's most complex and endearing
character by the end of Season 4. Ball found a way to embed
meaningful empathy for the LGBT community in a mainstream romance, and offered sexiness
and danger to audiences that didn’t even know they needed it, ultimately paving the way
for another serious rendition of a novelized fantasy series, Game of Thrones.
But after a few seasons, perhaps Ball felt he’d gotten his point across, perhaps he felt the show had become too dependent on its central love triangle, but he seemed to have tired of True Blood. The humor that had always been present in the series started overshadowing the romance via campy interludes throughout Seasons 3 and 4, and then in Season 5, Ball moved the focus of his messaging from civil equality to government bureaucracy, the cost of war, torture, and terrorism. Making Bill take a turn toward worshipping a fundamentalist and, at last, transforming him into a weird-ass blood-god disconnected one of the main characters from any connection or relevance to our own times. Just as Harris seems to have gone from impressing her readers to placating her readers to openly thwarting and infuriating her readers with the last book of the series (the Amazon reviews left by fans simply DRIP with venom and read like eulogies for dreams forever lost—more on that in a minute), Ball sowed the fields with salt and burned down the barn at the end of Season 5, leaving HBO with a tangle of Sookie Stackhouse fan fiction that had gone way too far off the road map of the books to ever truly return.
And how, might you ask, did Charlaine Harris manage to turn a legion of fans into a mob howling for her blood? I'd like to go into detail below, so if you're mid-series, go ahead and skip to the second red line.
++++++++++++++++++++ Spoilers for the book series follow. ++++++++++++++++++++
The Southern Vampire Mysteries series of novels, much like True Blood, hooked audiences with a love triangle: Sookie would have to choose between Bill and Eric, with other supernatural beaux stirred in for good measure and variety. However, much like what happened with the TV show, Eric continued to dominate readers' and Sookie's attention, but apparently, in the final book, Sookie ultimately chooses Option D, Sam Merlotte. This in itself would be enough to make me tear any object in my hands to shreds, be it paperback or beloved pet, and throw it out the window. But even if you aren't invested in the romance, if you, like Ball, have been more interested in the meaningful parallel that Harris made between vampires and minorities of all kinds being integrated into society, Harris managed to cauterize that progressive story vein as well, with vampires and humans deciding they really shouldn't live together after all. Sure, this could just be the case of a weary author with no real idea of how to put the genie back in the bottle in her last 90,000 contractually obligated words sewing things up as fast as she can, but even then it'd still be a rather dour indictment of society's ability to evolve AT BEST. For Harris to abdicate the chance she had to be a meaningful voice in favor of progress is socially irresponsible to a baffling extreme. I quote the Amazon review from a customer named "Oh Yes," which perhaps puts it best:
For years CH [Charlaine Harris] has talked about the underlying message in the series being about marginalized people, gay rights, discrimination, blah, blah, blah. Well, in the end she turns that issue upside down and smacks us in the face with it. Sookie's desire for a simple normal life with humans is painfully clear. CH tries to reinforce her choice in the HEA [Happy Ever After] by driving the point home over and over that vampires are bad, and not to be trusted. That the only healthy, safe life is away from them. From Tara saying we should spit on the vampires to Sookie outing the Were at the clothing store, she turns Sookie into nothing more than a bigot. ...the message from DEA [Dead Ever After] is that people should stay with their own kind. And I find that message to be very sad and shocking.
++++++++++++++++++++ Okay the spoiler parade is over! ++++++++++++++++++++
Without its visionary auteur or cult source material, and
with HBO apparently firing showrunners left and right, True Blood’s sixth season promises to be the least cohesive yet. Will the show continue on with the dreary
Vampire Authority in their cheerless basement? Will it fight its way back
to the books, as the casting of Rutger Hauer as Niall suggests? Or will some
showrunner stay employed long enough to drum up brand-new content?
It's my own personal hope that the story will get smaller. Season 5 took on a James Bond/worldwide conspiracy/high levels of government tone that felt very "Dynamic Screenwriting 101," and it wasn't at all specific, which I believe all great writing—onscreen or off—must be.
So what I think the show needs now is the level of Give-a-F*ckness that Ball and Harris had coming in. True Blood will only succeed if HBO gives the show to a truly great writer and allows that writer to play with Ball's world the way Ball played with Harris's; that way, a personal connection—and a more authentic story—can blossom. What True Blood did best in its early seasons was not just the over-the-top humor, the almost-avant-garde violence, or the steamy romance, it was that the show captured a huge, unfathomable, multifaceted issue and crystallized it into one conflict we cared about with all our hearts. If it can care like that—with the simultaneous sense of escape into fantasy and personal revelation that Ball first created, we could see a resurrection of the series. But if everyone on the staff is going to be chained to the expectations of a lucrative franchise that must go forward and make money by being more of the same (as Harris, and perhaps ultimately Ball did) it won't survive.
... Are you managing your expectations for a Ball-less season?
... Do you think the series can take anything from the books?
... Where do you want this season to go?
... What do you watch an episode of True Blood hoping to see?
... Do you think this will be True Blood’s last season? Should it be?