Vampires were having quite the renaissance in 2008. In cinemas, director Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel Let The Right One In was proving an unexpected hit. In a similar vein – pun absolutely intended – enjoying an even richer level of success was another page-to-screen adaptation, this being the year in which the first Twilight movie debuted in cinemas. Twilight was a phenomenon. If the source material was popular, author Stephenie Meyers’ books selling well in excess of 100 million copies, the films were something else, pulling in over 3 billion dollars.
Within the world of TV, the CW’s adaptation of writer L.J Smith’s young adult series The Vampire Diaries was gearing up to be launched in the September of the following year. The BBC’s brilliant Being Human, a kitchen-sink drama about a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost taking part in a Bristol-based flat share, was already there. And then, in September, from HBO and the pen of Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball, tapping into the pre-existing audience of Charlaine Harris’s The Southern Vampire Mysteries novels, from which the show was adapted, there was True Blood. Vampires were everywhere.
In True Blood’s case, ‘everywhere’ mostly means ‘in bed’. From the opening credits onwards, country singer Jace Everett’s swampy 2005 single “Bad Things” purring the shows desire to do ‘bad things with you’, True Blood was absolutely filthy. There were threesomes. Foursomes. Fivesomes. In forests. In cemeteries. Glowing fairy orgasms! Werewolf-on-werewolf action! And there was an awful lot of industrial metal. It took just seven episodes of Season 1 for two characters, Jason and Amy, to have sex on V (that being vampire blood, a drug which appears to the precise meeting point between ecstasy and LSD), causing the two of them to have sex while flying.
“Vampires are total sexual metaphors,” said showrunner Alan Ball at the time, “there’s just no way around that”. It’s hard to argue otherwise. From the off, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a story about Victorian-era anxieties like syphilis and changing gender roles as much as it was about a dude who comes and bites you in the night. And with new eras come new concerns. Despite being pitched at a young audience, even Twilight’s success concerned sex, or rather the lack of it, Mormon Stephanie Meyer creating perhaps the first prudish vampire tale ever (of course, the more sinister reading, is that a woman’s lust (Bella being totally up for doing the thing) is to be regulated by a man (Edward blocking his own cock), but let’s save that one for another time).
True Blood, the story of what happens when vampires come out of the shadows, in the wake of the development and industrialisation of synthetic blood – the titular Tru Blood, note the lack of ‘e’ – was full of metaphor. The complexities of questions posed from the off was a huge reason why the show appealed. Some deduced this was all metaphor for people living with AIDS. Some thought it was about gay rights – the vampire-integration-protesting-Jesus-nut placards that roared ‘God Hates Fangs’ felt like it backed that theory up. Yet even away from sex, there was plenty of allegory. Maybe this was all about race. The fact the show was set in the deep south of America suggested it might be. Vampire Bill even fought for the confederates during the Civil War.
Where Did It All Go Wrong? Here…
In the end, True Blood wasn’t really about any of these things, or if it was, it approached such nuanced themes with the grace of a bulldozer. Scenes in which vampires were kidnapped and killed by humans opposed to their integration into society were obvious nods to the lynching of Jim Crow-era black people, a metaphor confused by the fact many of the vampires wanted a human holocaust, so who are we really rooting for here? Even when the show approached more personal issues it goofed up. It was hard to feel for anyone addicted to V when everyone on it was having such a bloody lovely time.
Ultimately, before the show could explore any of these themes further, it doomed itself by muddying the premise that had brought its audience in to begin with. We came for a show that had one central intriguing theme. We stuck it out through the introduction of werewolves, shapeshifters and witch doctors. We were really clinging on by the time Sookie realised she was a fairy (“I’m a fairy? How f—ing lame…” Yes Sookie, quite). But by the time the show decided to add werepanthers to the mix? Well, life’s too short, it really is…
Few TV shows’ descent into tedium have been as disappointing as True Blood’s was. In the beginning, there was much to love. Sookie was an extremely likable lead. Trying to work out what Bill’s accent would do on any given week was a lot of fun. Medium Lafayette (played with such charm by the late Nelsan Ellis) is one of the decades great small screen characters. The show gave the world Alexander Skarsgård. The character of a bequiffed 3,000-year-old ancient vampire king, Russell Edgington, was an absolute blast. But after three seasons, it was clear the show had absolutely no idea where it was going. After five — Alan Ball’s last season, incidentally — poor writing, reduced production values and key plot points that were picked up and discarded within an episode were becoming commonplace. Ultimately, True Blood lasted seven seasons, with former Friends writer Brian Buckner helming the last two.
Joss Whedon’s immortal Buffy The Vampire Slayer lasted one season more than True Blood. It was also a show that could be pretty sexy when it wanted to be, and yet rarely dragged, covered big themes well, and left a fandom aching when it ceased to be. Because here’s the thing with sex. It’s great and all, but after a while, it gets boring if you don’t have anything to talk about between the messy bits. Vampires should never be boring. By the end of True Blood, the only thing its fandom was aching for was to plunge a stake into its tired heart.