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Syndication may suck the life out of 'True Blood'

Oh, “True Blood,” it looks like syndication wants to do bad things to you. HBO hopes to sell the sexy, gore-filled series for $800,000 an episode, but it knows full well that the show, which centers on vampires, werewolves and other supernatural beings, requires considerable editing before it can go to basic cable. (Since non-premium channels rely on advertisers to make money, they need to con
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Oh, “True Blood,” it looks like syndication wants to do bad things to you.

HBO hopes to sell the sexy, gore-filled series for $800,000 an episode, but it knows full well that the show, which centers on vampires, werewolves and other supernatural beings, requires considerable editing before it can go to basic cable. (Since non-premium channels rely on advertisers to make money, they need to conform to more stringent guidelines when it comes to what can be shown.)

Both humans and supernatural beings engage in some pretty kinky sex on the show, but “True Blood” isn’t just soft porn. Each week, Oscar-winner Alan Ball's series strips away more than just clothing.

At its core, the Bon Temps, La.-based series takes on small-minded people mired in prejudice and examines what it means to be human. The complexity of relationships between humans and nonhumans opens up the possibilities of what it means to love someone.

Can a mind-reading waitress make a vampire feel human again? Is it possible for a gay drug dealer to find love with his estranged mom’s caregiver? And how does a shape-shifter abandoned by his adoptive family handle a reunion with his unsavory birth family?

Those story lines can easily transfer to a sanitized syndicated version, but trimming away the salacious scenes could result in a show as restrained as Sookie's BFF Tara under vampire Franklin’s obsessive control.

Sex and violence

Clothing has almost become optional on "True Blood": Shape-shifter Sam runs buck-naked through the woods, man-for-hire Lafayette shucks clothes as if they were corn husks, vampire Eric revels in his timeless body and good ol' boy Jason knows where his best assets are stored. The actors are certainly comfortable in their own skins and have the modesty of nudists.

But the necessary cleanup could be as extensive as a post-Katrina remodel. And it would certainly leave the show without the same impact as the original episodes. The wanton world of vampires, like the bondage scene with Eric and one of his human employees, would be difficult to cover up.

Sex scenes aren’t the only stumbling block when it comes to flipping this show into the mainstream.

Massive depictions of violence and gore permeate the series. Humans turn into meals for hungry vampires and werewolves, and there aren't a lot of ways to turn that into a palatable offering. Mutilated corpses practically get cast billing.

Last season’s finale turned into a rampage of lust and violence ending in maiming and killings. There’s simply no way to show the maenad Maryann’s orgies or her gory demise on anything other than a big screen or pay TV. Trying to clean things up for mainstream consumption would probably result in a 10-minute episode, down from nearly an hour.

Taming Samantha and Tony

Of course, this isn’t HBO’s first foray into cleaning up an original series to air on non-premium cable. The network sold “The Sopranos” to A&E for around $2 million per episode and prior to that, sold “Sex and the City” to TNT in 1999 for about $700,000 per episode.

In many ways, those shows were easier to work with. There was a lot of talk and very little actual sex, even in the uncut versions. So when it came to taming things down for basic cable, the removal of Samantha’s raunchy scenes in “Sex and the City” just made room for commercials.

Tony Soprano got whacked — or at least his Bada-Binging was sharply curtailed — when “The Sopranos” was sold to A&E and had to comply with the network’s stricter standards. “The Sopranos” producers, like the “Sex” crew before them, planned ahead. During the filming they cleaned up some scenes and recorded alternative dialogue tracks.

Topless dancers bounced freely in the HBO version. Those scenes went all Victoria’s Secret when the show aired on cable, with the dancers donning lingerie for the nude shots. As for Tony and the crew, “freakin’ ” subbed for the saltier phrase. Even the violence was mitigated, with the cameras cutting away at key moments.

Unlike the easy-to-cut scenes of Tony getting pleasured or Samantha’s smokin’ body doing that thing she does, “True Blood” weaves these types of scenes into major plot turning points.

Bill deciding he had to get out of Sookie’s life for her own good meant he needed to slam that door shut behind him. Nothing says “leave me alone” like a raging hate scene ending in twisted sex with his ex to drive home that point.

Try getting that one past the censor. HBO should just stick with the DVD sale profits and let the bon temps roll. Messing with the perfect combination of sex, violence and social awareness can only end badly.

Susan C. Young is a writer in Northern California.