You say you don’t understand the current resurgence of interest in vampires? Don’t worry—most of the characters (the mortal ones, anyway) on Alan Ball’s HBO hit series “True Blood” would probably sympathize. Ever since “mainstreaming” vampires came out of the coffin and took up residence in the tiny fictional town of Bon Temps, La., the locals there have been struggling to figure out the fascination with vampires, too, and, like you, they kind of resent the disruption. Moreover, they don’t know what it means now that this influx of newcomers has upset the status quo seemingly overnight, and now threatens to make them a minority in their own hometown.
But it's that plausible reaction to the show’s impossible premise that’s behind “True Blood’s” surprising appeal, even among viewers who aren’t naturally inclined toward tales of the supernatural. If you’ve been resisting it, here are five reasons to give in before Sunday’s night’s season finale — or at least before the new season starts next summer.
1. Dialogue is realistic, even if circumstances aren’t
Equal parts soap opera, murder mystery, genre fiction and Harlequin romance, “True Blood” is centered on the steamy love affair between the wise-but-innocent Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and the dashing vampire Bill Compton, (Stephen Moyer) who's been technically dead since the Civil War. Despite the fact he’s no longer human, Bill is committed to maintaining his humanity and subscribes to a strict moral code of his own making — one better suited to the 19th century, presumably — and his earnestness in modern contexts is as embarrassing as it is charming. In these days of instant-but-still-distant communication, it's a kick to watch Sookie and Bill's face-to-face rapport evolve and realize that it's really the age difference, not the trifling details about who's "dead" and who's "alive," that causes some of their most awkward conflicts.
When Bill is forced to atone for having slayed one of his own kind to protect Sookie, he kills an innocent human, and in so doing sacrifices his own honor. But Sookie, furious that he left her alone for several days without letting her know when he was coming back, still doubts his true intentions. “If vampire politics are more important than me, well…”
“Sookie, you have no idea what I’ve given up for you!” Bill says with the typical sternness of centuries-old men. But being only human, Sookie responds with a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately pout, and promptly kicks him out. (Mortals can be so petty sometimes.)
2. Some Southern stereotypes are true
Critics have given Ball a lot of grief for not straying very far from stereotypes with “True Blood,” and certainly he hasn’t shied away from exploiting some of the best Southern clichés. But he adheres to them knowingly, using them to poke fun at every brand of identity politics, which are exposed for their hypocrisy every time they come into play. Even honorable Bill is not immune from mockery; when he tries to force a new vampire to adopt his chosen lifestyle (eternity-style?), he suffers for having been so arrogant.
Even if the characters on “True Blood” do fit certain stereotypes, they also stretch beyond them. Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) may be a hustler, but he has only the highest standards when it comes to his friends and his food.
“What the [heck] is it with white people and Jell-O?” Lafayette asks Tara while surveying food brought over by nosy neighbors to Sookie’s house following the funeral of her grandmother. “You can smell the fear and nastiness coming off that.” His acerbic asides provide more than just comic relief; that scene sets up what might stand as the series’ single most touching moment as Sookie, finally alone in her kitchen after her beloved grandmother’s funeral, sobs silently as she eats an entire pie, the last Gran would ever bake for her.
Lafayette’s cousin Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley) is a saucy, uneducated girl who back-talks her boss, but she also reads Naomi Klein, and once you get past her affliction of an accent (which is really more Beale St. than Bayou country) you start to fully appreciate the depth of her wounds. (Incidentally, the horrendous accent of Rene Lenier, played by Michael Raymond James, is forgivable only because bona fide Cajun accents are hard to come by. “True Blood’s” producers would do well to check out WWOZ’s Sunday morning Cajun and Zydeco program at to hear an example of the real thing.)
3. Some of the best music you’ve already heard
Unlike on HBO’s uber-hip “Entourage,” where the music leaves you feeling simultaneously energized and out-of-touch, “True Blood’s” music is barely audible, but never subtle. (Former KCRW host Gary Calamar serves as music supervisor for both.) There are no brilliant “Sopranos”-style juxtapositions here, just utterly believable background music, like when Sookie first encounters Bill and Lucinda Williams’ “Lake Charles” can be heard coming from inside the bar: “Did an angel whisper in your ear … and hold you close and take away your fear…”
Many of the best American roots artists are represented here (Wilco, Ryan Adams, Gillian Welch), and lesser known but equally great artists (CC Adcock, The Knitters, Eleni Mandell and Country Fried, just to name a few) fit in just as seamlessly. Most of them can be found on “True Blood’s” nifty music wiki.
4. HBO’s deep bench
Director Alan Ball ("Six Feet Under") is not the only HBO veteran on the "True Blood" set. Chris Bauer, who played Frank Sobotka on "The Wire,” plays the incompetent Bon Temps police detective Andy Bellefleur with perfectly timed comic effect to Sheriff Bud Dearborn's straightman (played by William Sanderson from "Deadwood"). And Alexander Skarsgård as the Viking-turned-vampire Eric is burdened once again with the oversight of ungrateful rookies as when he played Sgt. Brad 'Iceman' Colbert on “Generation Kill.”
5. There are no bluebloods in ‘True Blood’
The (living) folks living in Bon Temps aren’t always honest — like the vampires, they’re not necessarily who they say they are — but they are hard-working and of humble means, and pretty much everyone here does what they have to do just to get by. There’s the drug store clerk who, as a part-time voodoo priestess, charges $800 a pop for exorcisms in order to pay for her diabetic son’s medications; the short order cook who dabbles in Web cam porn and deals V (vampire blood, which has an Ecstasy-like effect on humans); and even Sookie refuses to miss a shift at the restaurant, even if there is a murderer hunting her down.
Of course, “True Blood" would be remiss not to indulge in occasional displays of decadence, and, shot amid the decaying remains of colonial grandeur, the setting is a tragic character all its own. But generally speaking, there’s no ogling of ruling class excess — no Daddy’s Little Girl (in another nod to real-life, there are notably few daddy’s around, period), no fighting over family fortunes, and aside from the leather-wearing, vampire-clubbing Shreveport-set, no fashionistas. There is a civil rights struggle going on in Bon Temps, what with the passage of the VRA (Vampire Rights Act) still pending, but it isn’t about class warfare. And in these times of so much financial regret and resentment, such realism — even if it does come from a show about vampires — comes as a strangely welcome relief.