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Review: 'True Blood' Is Back, With Yet More Vampires, Witches and Melodrama

by Maureen Ryan, posted Jun 24th 2011 3:00PM
Oh, 'True Blood.' What am I going to do with you?

Just like one of the characters on the show, 'True Blood' (9PM ET Sunday, HBO) goes through a transformation in the first couple of episodes of its fourth season. Creator and head writer Alan Ball appears to have remembered that his characters -- humans, shapeshifters, vampires, faeries and the like -- are living beings with actual emotions and not just objects for him to Bedazzle with ever-thicker encrustations of incidents, events and OMG moments.

It's a refreshing and surprising change of pace. But then in the third episode, the show starts to show signs of falling into ruts it has frequently and heedlessly dived into before.

The good news is that the fourth season doesn't plunge headlong into overcaffeineated, laughable melodrama, which was the hallmark of season 3 (and parts of other seasons as well). Sure, 'True Blood' is as addicted to cliffhanger moments as a vampire is to blood, but the season premiere, which brings us back to Bon Temps, La., some time after Sookie's season 3 disappearance, shows unusual restraint and takes its time in filling us on in where all the characters are in their lives.

'True Blood' sometimes has real trouble balancing its various story threads; in season 3, good characters were shunted off the to the sidelines and the plots that did get prominence often didn't merit the screen time. The bigger issue was an overall sense that the show was simply messy and needlessly hyper and not all that interested in clarifying or emotionally deepening most individuals and relationships. We expect sexy insanity from 'True Blood,' but indifferent sloppiness is a different thing and quickly becomes tiresome.

So it's good to be able to say that the first couple of episodes of season 4 have a much cleaner trajectory and I am happy to report that (the next part of this sentence may be considered spoilery) Tara is not in any jeopardy in the episodes I saw. If Ball and Co. had gone to that particular well again, I just would have turned off the show for good, because watching a show waste good actors and turn characters into caricatures isn't my idea of fun.

It's not that the creator of a vampire melodrama shouldn't be able to put his characters in jeopardy, it's that the characters have to have some kind emotional resonance before viewers are going to care about what happens to them. And that's what concerned me about the third episode of the show: The show began to feel like it was repeating itself, with situations that recall things we've seen before and don't add much to the characters or the world depicted in the show.

Don't get me wrong, Fiona Shaw is terrific as a new witch on the scene, and I still have quite a bit of of fondness for characters such as Lafayette, Jesus, Eric, Sam and Terry. Bill is still his quietly charismatic, courtly self, and he's in an intriguing new situation this season, one that makes him more proactive and complex. Even Sookie has grown on me, and as someone who long thought she was the least interesting thing about the show, that's saying something.

But 'True Blood's' signature move has to do with power: One character will have power over another, and then kabam! That dynamic will be reversed, or it won't, or a new person will come on the scene and seize power. The show is often just a round-robin of those power exchanges, but Ball seems uninterested in saying anything about power, and that can be frustrating. Again and again, we see people holding each other emotionally or physically hostage, and sometimes even going to war, but then the dynamic shifts and the whole thing starts over again with slightly different combination of characters.

I'm not demanding that 'True Blood' go full-on 'Buffy' or 'Supernatural' and make every freaky situation into an emotional metaphor. But at a certain point, the kidnapping, hostage situation or rescue of the week becomes a little tiring, not to mention repetitive. When the show delves into the idea of characters accepting their powers and beginning to explore the uses and consequences of their capabilities, it becomes more than just a nutty romp in the woods around Bon Temps. That's the kind of thing I'd like to see more of. Then again, the show's been very successful by simply burning through a lot of story every week, and it'd be unrealistic for me to expect much more than that at this stage of the game.

Of the dozen plots that spin through the fourth season, the love triangle among Bill, Sookie and Eric has potential, given the skills of those actors, but a few threads seem downright dull, particularly the one focused on an addicted character. Hoyt and Jessica, appealing characters who were unjustly marginalized in season 3, are stuck in an uninspired domestic story line this year, while 'True Blood' appears to be misusing Jason yet again (remember when Jason used to be funny? I didn't hallucinate that, right?). As for Sam Merlotte, he's always deserved better story lines, but this season he's stuck in one with his troublesome brother, who's never added anything useful to this show.

The witches are an intriguing presence, but other parts of the show aren't casting the same spell as the magnificent Shaw. If you're addicted to 'True Blood's' brand of smoldering melodrama, well, there's a lot of it this season. And it looks as though about half of it might actually be worth watching.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Am I the only one who noticed that the initials of Erics company, the one that bought the house, is AIK ?

Pretty funny if you consider that AIK is the name of a major soccerclub in Sweden.
And that Alexander Skarsgård is a die-hard Hammarby-supporter.

Which is even more amusing since those soccerclubs are arch-nemesises.

June 28 2011 at 4:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm sure this has been mentioned before, but I do find it a tad bit funny that Fiona Shaw is playing a witch in this show. I wonder if her character's back story includes a hateful aunt?

But as for the show, I watch it with my brain disconnected. It's gone so off the rail I just don't care about any of the characters anymore. I don't even mind if I miss an episode, as I did several times last year. Too bad. It started out so well.

June 27 2011 at 10:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I quit this show during season 3 and have no interest in season 3. I've learned my lesson now with Alan Ball (as he did with Six Feet Under), who also insists on his world/political views being shoved down our collective throats at every turn. True Blood is NO Buffy and it couldn't even shine its shoes. Ball doesn't have a smidge of the writing abilities of Joss Whedon. He's the over-hyped David E. Kelley (another talent-less hack) of Cable.

June 27 2011 at 10:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thought first episode was terrible. Season 1 was "real life" with a vampires in the back ground, now every character is a witch, fairy, shape shifter, vampire, werewolf, whatever Jason's girlfriend is and it goes on. I am sure Tara and Jason will have powers before the end of the season. Agrred ruined Jason the best character and at this point the Bill Sookie Eric story line is tired. How many times are they going to break up and the Bill Save Sookie and almost die and get back together. I am sure this year Bill gives up being King to get back with Sookie somehow. BORING

June 27 2011 at 10:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Mo - You always get to the heart of the matter in your review and you are right. As Buffy would say, "It is about power." I have to say i watched the first two season four episodes on HBO to GO and appreciated the unanswered threads from season 3 being answered in the second episode. I appreciate Bill's new position of power and the dynamics set up between Bill, Sookie and Eric now that Eric has been touched by a witch. I just feel that a lot of other characters/great actors are being wasted with no clear development for their characters. I hope things get better as the season wears on.

June 27 2011 at 1:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to TVDIVA's comment

Agree with you. I just wonder, will the good things about the season and the interesting developments for certain characters get lost in the shuffle as the season progresses? That's my fear, that lots of random nonsense will begin to overwhelm the good stuff, as has happened in the past.

June 27 2011 at 9:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Unadulterated crap, and way stupid to boot. Extremely poor acting.

June 26 2011 at 9:26 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I watch just to see Jessica, I don't really care about the rest.

June 25 2011 at 3:10 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

Meh... I'm afraid my parter will be watching 'True Blood' alone this season. Sorry, but I'm not inclined to forgive or forget Tara's two seasons of (basically) being raped, beaten up and monologuing about how she really, really deserved everything she got.

June 24 2011 at 5:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Craig Ranapia's comment

I completely get that. I felt the same way 10 months ago. Unfortunately, my will power isn't that strong and I've been craving the crazy over-the-top drama that is True Blood. I so sincerely hope that Tara gets a better storyline this season.

June 25 2011 at 1:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to katie71483's comment
Craig Ranapia

Oh, I don't mind crazy and OTT. In the first season, I could even give a pass to Ball's ADHD-like approach to storytelling and characterisation because I was glamoured by Ryan Kwanten's ass getting enough screen time to earn its own SAG card. :) But I think there are some places you just don't go and come back from on TV, and that was my bad place.

June 25 2011 at 6:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

Anyone else get the feeling that Ryan hasn't read any of the Stackhouse books? Granted HBO has decided to deviate from much of the chronology & story line, but, if you're reviewing something, shouldn't you be familiar with the content & history?????

June 24 2011 at 5:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to akmeerkat7's comment
Craig Ranapia

Short answer: No.

Slightly longer answer: Ms. Ryan isn't reviewing a series of books, but a (rather loose) television adaptation that should be able to stand on its own two feet.

Snarky answer: Mo just can't win, can she - and, yes, I'm talking about the complaints that her reviews of 'Game of Thornes' kept banging on about the book...

June 24 2011 at 5:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It would be better if they would ignore the books entirely, as they did with Dexter after the first season. Then the new characters like Lafayette or Sam's brother could actually have an impact. When something happens to Tara now, we know that it's gratuitous because in the books she's not a significant character, so she can only have a permanent effect on another secondary character.

June 26 2011 at 2:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I know this isn't a 100% glowing review, but it sure makes me feel better about being excited for season four. At the end of season three's original airing, I was ready to give it up because of all the (essentially) torture porn. Then as time went on, I found myself getting excited about TB's return.

What I'd really like, though, is if it was The Eric & Pam Show featuring Baby Jessica and Alcide.

June 24 2011 at 3:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to katie71483's comment
Mo Ryan

I could get behind your version of the show, as long as there was a lot of Lafayette in there!

June 25 2011 at 12:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Mo Ryan's comment

Absolutely room for Lafayette! He's fabulous! BTW, I find it amusing that he is such a favorite character for so many people when he was killed off sooo early in the books.

June 25 2011 at 1:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

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