I've been watching True Blood basically since the beginning; I've never missed an episode of the HBO supernatural soap. Despite that, there've only been a few choice stretches where I'd actually call the show "good" (end of Season 1, the Godric-centric stuff in Season 2). But here's the truth, guys: True Blood was flat-out awful in Seasons 4 and 5. Like fully unbearable, raising-questions-about-my-sanity-for-spending-time-with-the-show's-158-characters-every-week awful. Things got so bad that I considered not even watching the currently airing Season 6. But now that we're more than halfway through, I'm so happy I stuck it out, because True Blood is humming along better right now than it has in at least four years (I'd throw out a "best string of episodes ever" claim, but that's still faint praise, anyway). Lily's done a great job of detailing how fun and entertaining the show has been as of late, but to really hit that point home, here are five reasons why this is a comeback year for a series that in 2011 and 2012 was one of the worst shows on TV.
1. A (relatively) streamlined story
During True Blood's Comic-Con panel a few weeks ago, new showrunner Brian Buckner talked about wanting to bring the show back to its roots with an eye on cutting down the number of characters and stories packed within a given episode. Buckner was speaking about his plans for Season 7, which will air in 2014, but it's clear to me that that directive and overall influence are all over this season, and that's been particularly true in the last few episodes. While there are still too many characters on True Blood (more on that in a bit), Season 6 has thrived because the majority of those characters are involved in a few large stories instead of 44 individual, mostly lame arcs.
And you can say what you will about the show's attempts at social commentary with the war on vampires and the Vamp Camp, but that plot A.) refocuses on the show's strongest elements (uh... vampires), B.) involves the majority of the characters, and C.) in recent weeks has even corralled most of them in the same space. Meanwhile, the stuff that's happening outside the Vamp Camp thread has coalesced in useful (if not always fully entertaining) ways. Both Alcide and Sam are stuck in their typical flat, repetitive stories (seriously, how many times is Alcide going to fight with his pack?), but at least the two keep bumping together to create an additional level of tension. And although Arlene and the Bellefleur boys have been off on their own for most of the season, True Blood has rediscovered moderation with them. Andy's challenges with his daughters and Terry's untimely death were both given just the right amount of screen time, resulting in a high emotional impact.
2. A focus on compelling characters
Parsing down the sheer number of stories has also positively influenced which characters are enjoying regular turns in the spotlight. While Bill, Eric, Pam, Jason, Sarah, Tara, and Jessica are all somehow involved with the big Vamp Camp story, the show has smartly strayed from trying to give them equal time. True Blood works best when Eric's at the center, scheming and plotting his way through one seemingly impossible situation after another, and his maneuvering this season has been better than ever. I know that many people have mixed feelings about Bill's story, and at times it seems like the writers aren't exactly sure what it is from episode to episode, but I'd much rather see Bill like this if the alternative is leaving him stuck in the middle of his nineteenth soap opera with Sookie.
Meanwhile, bringing back Sarah Newlin gave the show a familiar villain and helped revitalize Jason, who's also been trapped in melodramatic nonsense for a few years. Anna Camp's over-the-top but earnest energy is exactly what True Blood needed in a villain. Meanwhile, Pam and Tara have shown up only occasionally, and that's just fine. We don't need to see them all the time.
And perhaps best of all, Sookie is currently in the middle of story that's both surprisingly interesting and that has kept her isolated from the main narrative. It's only a matter of time before something terrible happens to her and she makes a speech about not wanting to deal with supernaturals again, but I appreciate that her current attitude is basically, "Meh, screw it. This is what I do." Anna Paquin is really good when Sookie isn't weighed down by DRAMA, and she's proven that again in Season 6.
3. The return of real danger
One of the things that drove me nuts about True Blood's last few seasons was that the stakes felt so small. Once Russell Edgington was initially dispatched at the end of Season 3, the show lost its sense of urgency for too long. Marnie and the witches raised some hell in Season 4, but there weren't many relevant casualties, and in Season 5, Lilith and the true believers mostly sat around in a high-tech bunker/place of worship and yelled at one another. Pointless characters like Tara were killed, only to be resurrected almost immediately (though I'll admit I've enjoyed hanging out with baby vamp Tara). Along the way, the show's already-bloated cast just kept ballooning, picking up as many series regulars and recurring players as it could. Perusing the cast list on Wikipedia or IMDb is an intimidating, dizzying experience.
Season 6 is in the process of solving those issues. Fewer new characters have been introduced, and the most important one of them all (Truman Burrell; sorry Warlow) has already been gruesomely disposed of. Even better, characters are actually dying—and with emotionally resonant departures, to boot. Terry's suicide was one of the most gut-wrenching moves in the series' history. He's a character who probably overstayed his welcome, but one I think most everyone cared about, making him a perfect candidate for a somewhat surprising death. Nora's demise last week wasn't as powerful, but the episode did a fine job of installing a sense of dread, building up to that final moment. And it was an important scene for Eric, the show's best character, which made it even better. It just feels like anything could happen on True Blood again, which isn't something I would have said during the past two or three seasons. Characters are dying and the cliffhangers aren't immediately washed away come the 18-minute mark of the following episode.
4. There's less melodramatic nonsense
One of the reasons the stakes feel higher and more real is that these dangerous events and emotional moments actually seem to matter to the characters. I know that a lot of people watch True Blood for the romances and the love triangles, and I respect that. But for my money, they bring down the show, turning it into a D-level soap that keeps recycling the same story beats and overwrought conversations. If I have to hear Sookie say "Bill, if you ever loved me..." again, I might ask to be locked in the Vamp Camp forever. Do you guys think she pulls that for even the mundane stuff? "Bill, if you ever loved me, you'll pay for this Stuffed Crust pie from Pizza Hut because I missed 71 straight shifts at Merlotte's." ANYWAY, that's not the True Blood I enjoy, and in recent years, it started to impact other characters outside the primary quadrangle of Sookie-Bill-Eric-Alcide—folks like Jason, Jessica, and Hoyt, or Sam and Tara. It was as if, somewhere along the way, Alan Ball decided that repetitive romantic ANGST was what made True Blood good. Let's just say I'm happy he's gone.
This season, characters are not only in danger, but their various problems and tensions feel fresh, or at least better-written. The crusade against the vampires has forced characters like Pam and Jessica to consider who they are, and how their actions impact others; Eric's countermeasures serve a larger purpose other than "getting Bill back"; Bill's hero complex has been ramped up to an otherworldly degree; Sarah's plan has been years in the making; Sookie's annual love story has important familial and historical consequences. In general, there's a purpose and consistent tone with everything that's happening, and the show isn't jerking stories and characters from one position to another within a given episode.
5. Fewer episodes
Although the decrease from 12 episodes to 10 doesn't seem like a lot, this one can't be underestimated. I've always felt like True Blood's seasons peaked in the middle stretch, usually leading to a few lame installments toward the end. But with only 10 hours to work with this year, the writers have spent very little time screwing around with frivolous side-plots and dead-end characters, and jumped right into the important stories from the premiere episode onward. Basically, the Season 6 creative team wanted to move on from the last few years of the Alan Ball era and do the kinds of things I've just finished praising them for, but the lower episode count forced them to follow through. They didn't have much choice, and the show's much better because of it.
Of course, it's not like any of these changes are sweeping or wholesale; they're small shifts that make True Blood much more enjoyable to watch. But after the last couple years, I wasn't sure even that was possible, so I'm happy to have this version of True Blood back.
Do you agree that the show has been better in Season 6? And if so, why?
AIRED ON 8/24/2014
Season 7 : Episode 10