With Halloween just around the corner, the time is ripe to honour ghouls, goblins, and especially vampires. The Scream Awards, held on October 17th and broadcast on the 27th on Spike TV, celebrate the best in horror, sci fi, and fantasy. This year, I’m sure to no one’s surprise, vampire blockbuster franchise Twilight took home four of the fan-based awards. Perhaps a little more surprisingly, HBO’s vampire series True Blood tied Twilight for the number of awards, taking home Best Horror Show, Best Horror Actress (Anna Paquin), Best Horror Actor (Stephen Moyer), and Best Villain (Alexander Skarsgård).
Then again, maybe it’s not so surprising: Anna Paquin won a Golden Globe this year for best actress in a television series, making True Blood one of the few series toasted by both fans and critics. Initially a little skeptical of the vampire premise, show-runner Alan Ball’s reputation made me give it a try—and I now count myself among the many fans that made the show the biggest hit this year for HBO since The Sopranos. With lots of time to kill until True Blood’s third season airs in June 2010, I decided to ponder the reasons this show has grabbed my imagination.
To start with, vampires are all the rage right now, with Twilight a huge hit at both the book store and the cinema, so True Blood is trendy. But the undead have long been a part of popular culture and trendiness alone doesn’t a hit series make. Just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer used vampire mythology to explore the travails of growing up, True Blood also draws upon the vampire’s rich history as a cultural touchstone. The undead have been used to explore many different societal anxieties, most of which at heart are about transgression of boundaries and fear of the “other.” And no entry into vampire lore has been more influential than Bram Stoker’s Dracula. True Blood explores similar questions about sexuality and oppression as the iconic novel and these embedded themes help give the series the kind of dramatic weight Buffy had during its successful run.
Dracula was not the first novel to transform the vampire from a decidedly unsexy bloodsucking monster into an attractive if dangerous foreigner. The same ghost story competition that produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein also generated a story called Vampyre by Byron’s physician, John Polidori. Polidori’s vampire was a bloodthirsty monster, but his exterior was that of a suave sexy aristocrat. The connection to Byron is a pleasing one, as this vampire could also be described as mad, bad, and dangerous to know—but attractive nonetheless. Stoker’s Dracula followed in this vein, as he used the vampire to explore anxieties about Britain’s crumbling empire and suppressed sexuality.
Dracula can be read as part of the late nineteenth century invasion literature, a very popular genre that featured foreign monsters attacking the British Empire, drawing on the fear of formerly oppressed colonial populations coming for bloodthirsty payback. True Blood picks up the same fear of the formerly oppressed demanding rights, as the vampires fluidly shift between resonating with gay issues and racial struggles. Stoker’s novel has even more frequently been read as about suppressed sexuality, especially female sexuality, though suppressed homosexual longings are also present in the story. The Transylvanian count is seen as a danger to the fabric of society as he arouses women’s sexual desire and leads to their open expression of sexuality. A woman transformed by vampirism is a fierce sexual woman, the basis of the femme fatale. Or, in True Blood’s world, she’s Pam.
She’s also Jessica, the young vampire trying to define herself, and, in a way, she’s also Sookie. Sookie is a virgin until she meets vampire Bill, with whom she is finally able to let herself go and enjoy her own sensuality. But Bill is himself a conflicted vampire, and he so desires to be human, he doesn’t fully represent the sexual redefinition a vampire offers. "Dracula Symbolism, Imagery and Allegory" argues that Dracula "suggests that almost everyone (even Mina and Van Helsing) have some kind of secret, deep-rooted desire to be bitten—they just keep it repressed most of the time. But when they are half asleep or sleepwalking, the desire bubbles to the surface. When asleep, their conscious minds aren’t able to keep that naughty desire under wraps." Any viewer of True Blood knows exactly how this applies to the show: Eric.
Alan Ball has said he doesn’t quite understand the lure of the bad boy, but Eric is the break-out character in True Blood. And given the literary history of what vampirism means for women, why not? Eric is the epitome of the subversive stranger who redefines what sexuality means. He’s the temptation to admit to and own sexual power. And on True Blood, taking Eric up on his offer doesn’t necessarily lead to being staked in the heart by one’s husband (or Rene for that matter). It may lead to troubles with one’s current vampire lover, as Sookie struggles with what she feels for Bill and for Eric, but in the end, she will define for herself how she acts as a woman. Eric’s wild fluid sexuality will clearly form part of her journey—and today’s mores are different enough from 1890s England that many viewers are ready to embrace Eric figuratively and literally if they can only get their hands on him.
A large part of the success of the character lies with the actor, Alexander Skarsgård. Alan Ball is known for his excellent casting instincts and he struck gold with his True Blood cast, and in particular, Skarsgård. The Swedish actor’s American breakthrough role was in HBO’s Generation Kill in the key role of Brad Colbert. The miniseries needed someone to ground the story, to give the audience an emotional journey to follow, and according to producer and writer David Simon, director Susanna White "saw something in Skarsgård that was essential to the piece working." The actor has a combination of star presence and subtle acting that makes his characters memorable and real. His Eric is both lethal and vulnerable, subtle and fierce— Skarsgård finds the ambiguities of the character and plays them all, creating a fascinating character equally comfortable in legend, the mall, and his office in Fangtasia.
Skarsgård may be the breakout actor, but True Blood is spoiled for choice in that regard. The cast is excellent, and much of the pleasure of watching the show lies in how grounded in reality the characters are. That reality reflects Alan Ball’s vision of the show. Describing in an interview what makes the show special for him, he said, "It has all the trappings of an amusement park…rides, fun, thrill rides, but at the same time characters are behaving the way they are behaving from an organic emotional place . . . I think it’s really important to get rooted in the characters desires, wants, needs, struggles and disappointments and not just in “BANG” special effects." He also has a light touch with the embedded themes, as much as they add to the fabric of the show. At its heart, the show is character-driven and the characters are a joy to watch.
Two of the supporting characters that stand out for me are Lafayette and Jessica. Both characters only currently exist in the narrative due to changes Ball made to his source material, Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries. Lafayette was supposed to die at the end of season one and Jessica doesn’t exist at all in Harris’ stories, but Ball’s choice to make them series regulars was inspired. However, choosing only two is painful. The show abounds in excellent supporting characters, each bringing the South to eccentric life, from series regular Sam Trammell as Sam Merlotte to a guest star like the fantastic Allan Hyde (Godric) to the two gossipy ladies at Merlotte’s who bless Sam’s jeans.
Allan Hyde made a huge impact as Eric’s maker, Godric, and the entire Dallas storyline illustrated what makes True Blood work. The audience got romance between Bill and Sookie, sex and lies between Sookie and Eric, pathos between Eric and Godric, humour, violence, betrayal—unlike the maenad story going on back in Bon Temps, there was never a dull moment. Thematically, the narrative played with the idea of faith and belief, as well as what happens when one evolves past any of the allowable definitions of self. Godric’s failure to ground himself had repercussions for everyone in Dallas, not least of whom was Eric. The audience—and Sookie—got to see that Eric cannot be simply summed up. No one on True Blood falls simply into any category.
Neither does the show. Charlaine Harris said that when she conceived the stories, she wanted to combine romance, horror, comedy, and mystery, and Ball’s vision continues the pattern of bringing together very disparate elements in a way that makes each piece work. True Blood is funny and scary and thought provoking, and I for one am glad I’m along for the ride.
All photos courtesy of HBO.