It's Looking Like 2008, So Let's Watch True Blood
A recession may be looming, thin eyebrows are making a comeback and we're all fawning over Alexander Skarsgard again. Time to dig up an old slutty vampire named Eric.
Emanating out of every pore of Alexander Skarsgard’s 6-foot-4 chiseled frame in this season of Succession, like smoke signals, is I can fix him. His ribbed turtleneck eats at his neck and his stubble is patchy, and yet he’s charming Shiv Roy, who famously would think she had the upper hand with a gun in her mouth. He smiles that little chipmunk smile with the fjords in the background. All of a sudden he is not the billionaire tech mogul strong-arming the Roys into selling him their company for parts. He is the toddler at the party. He makes you nervous as he wobbles a little too close to the crystal glass set, but damn, if he isn’t cute.
And then he drops the bomb: He’s been sending a "half-a-liter frozen blood brick,” to his comms girl as a “nasty, uh, friendly joke.”
For some watchers, even for a show that brought us “boar-on-the-floor,” this is a tad over the top. But as Shiv, cosplaying as Olivia Pope, says “maybe stop doing that,” all I can think is, “show us the blood.”
Skarsgard’s whole deal in that scene is all too familiar. This is Eric Northman.
For those of you not in-the-know about HBO’s resident hottie (as Hunter Harris calls him), Skarsgard starred as a centuries-old vampire named Eric Northman in True Blood, HBO’s raunchy answer to Twilight. The show aired from 2008 to 2014. If you’re like me and were busy learning how to drive and cutting Goodwill jeans into shorts during those six years, you might have missed it. Being a child/teen when True Blood came out all but ensured I wouldn’t be watching, because something about that show — maybe the Rolling Stone cover where Skarsgard, Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer are naked and drizzled in blood — screamed This is for adults.
But it wasn’t just that True Blood appeared off-limits. The CW’s The Vampire Diaries, clearly a show aimed at teens, premiered a year after and featured strikingly similar promotional photos, with both shows spotlighting their central love triangle seductively splayed out on a patch of twee grass. It was more that the concept wasn’t all that interesting to our demographic. Shows like The Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl were about teenagers doing adult things. Exciting! True Blood was about adults doing adult things. None of my business! Plus, it required an HBO cable package. This was 2008, baby. Skip!
As I got older and pursued the prestige television I missed like The Sopranos and Mad Men, I still felt no desire to revisit True Blood. It wasn’t the supernatural element — despite having not the slightest hint of a goth aesthetic, I love vampire shit. I rewatched TVD in its entirety at least four times in college. I was a late-comer to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but I made up for my tardiness by forcing several other friends into the Scooby gang. These shows, although one being a legitimately high-brow piece of the tv zeitgeist and one being a well-paced guilty pleasure, had the perfect blend of humor and drama. The stakes (pun intended) were as high as death itself but they were also campy and you could think as hard, or as little, as you wanted about the insinuation that life could go on forever (I tend to fall on the Sally Draper side). But I was convinced a vampire show worked best in high school: the passionate love stories, the not-thinking-twice about dating a man older than Shakespeare, the parents plucked off one by one like debutants in a slasher film. Even nearing 30, I wasn’t sure if I had any interest in watching that all happen to adults.
Still, this year I decided to give True Blood a whirl. And, oh boy. It is indeed a show for adults. God bless it.
I will not detail the deranged haze of sexual deviance that exists within this show because this is a family newsletter. But I will say the promo photos don't do it justice. Alan Ball, True Blood’s creator, said to Sam Levinson, eat your heart out.
For the entirety of the first two seasons, almost every character, but especially the blonde, bubbly heroine Sookie Stackhouse (played spot-on by Australian-born Paquin), acts as if they are minutes from coitus. And oftentimes, they are. But the show also smartly mimics the political realities of a post-Bush, post-financial crisis world.
Viewers are launched into an alternate universe where humans know that vampires exist. Not only that — vampires are worming their way into becoming a protected class. A Vampire Rights Amendment has just passed. Convenience stores around the country are selling variety packs of “TruBlood,” offering whatever combination a vampire desires of O negative, AB positive, etc. On the surface, the fight for tolerance seems to be winning, but when you look deeper, societal issues are bursting at the seams. Vampire blood, which humans have discovered can offer an ecstasy-like high, is sold in troves on the black market as many in the under-funded town of Bon Temps, Louisiana are getting hooked. Hate groups against vampires boom — members stock up on wooden bullets with a silver core and dress up in rubber Obama masks as they murder anyone with a hint of the supernatural. Sex work thrives as vampires need to feed and “fangbangers” are ecstatic to be fed on.
If all of this sounds a bit heavy handed, it’s intended that way. The over-the-top metaphors are sometimes poignant but also frequently hilarious. True Blood doesn’t take itself too seriously, and yet it has a lot to say. A series this topical should feel out of date in 2023, but if anything, it’s prophetic in its occasional nihilism and critical eye towards institutions on either side of the culture wars. I can happily indulge in that nihilism when it’s packaged in Skarsgard’s Viking-puppy Northman (As queen Lucy Dacus said, Soloman had a point when he wrote Ecclesiastes!!). And in True Blood’s hard-line ability to evade delusion, it ironically offers a soft compassion for much of the evils of the world. The show presents a flawed but nuanced look at police brutality, substance abuse, poverty and class and the immorality of the Iraq War, all while showing the characters [redacted]-ing each other in every other scene. It’s really quite impressive.
On the surface, the excessive sex is a glossy HBO packaging — the strippers inside The Sopranos’ Bada Bing. But across seven seasons, True Blood took the thing that made it buzz-worthy and broke it apart to look at the insides.
Much of the television of the 90s and early 2000’s displayed sex in two ways: the “good” kind, between two people who love each other, sometimes within the confines of a marriage or long-term relationship. And the “bad” kind: between two people who don’t love each other, or do, but they’re cheating, or they’re too young, or one of them is inherently immoral in some way (think the dumpster sex Buffy and Spike have in the most cursed episode, “Doublemeat Palace”). This kind of sex usually comes with punishment, mostly for the women. They get raped, pregnant, or ostracized. They don’t get accepted into Harvard or their fathers die in plane crashes the next day.
True Blood didn’t do away with this dichotomy. Instead, the show toyed with it. Threaded through season one is a string of murders committed not by a vampire, but a human who hates “fangbangers,” or people who sleep with vampires. Bad sex = punishment. The murderer is revealed to be a man within the main characters’ inner circle, and he meets a bloody end. But his crusade to stop women from enjoying boinking vampires doesn’t work, particularly for Sookie, who, with an almost prideful defiance, continues her love affair with definitely-not-the-hottest-vampire-in-town Bill Compton (no offense, Stephen Moyer). She’s not going into it blindly, either. Sookie has a supernatural ability to read minds and thus can hear all the disgusting things men, including ones she’s related to, have ever thought about her. So she knows the truth, as she says in exasperation to her fellow waitresses at the local dive: “Men are dogs.” There's always a danger in sexuality, and just like its heroine, True Blood doesn’t ignore that danger. It dances with it.
When it comes to the consequences of sex, the show doesn’t let men off the hook either. Sookie’s perpetually-horny brother Jason (played by another Aussie Ryan Kwanten, who was robbed of an Emmy for this show) is characterized by his dalliances with every woman in a 20-mile radius. Sometimes it’s played for laughs, sometimes to drive the plot forward. But there’s an undercurrent to Jason’s relationship to sexuality that by season five comes to a head: sex at a young age was used to fill a gaping hole in his heart, and then he couldn’t stop. (In a future issue, I might dive into why Jason Stackhouse was “babygirl” before Kendall Roy ever screamed into a suit jacket.)
Now that I’ve expanded my vampirology studies with True Blood, I can’t help but think we aren’t talking about it enough. TVD is everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure. Buffy is chronicled and studied as the high art that it is. Maybe True Blood doesn’t fall precisely into either of these two buckets, but it’s not just that one show where the glove-girl from X-men has a Southern accent.
I might be giving the show a little too much credit. A huge caveat to this article is that I have not made it yet to the cursed seventh season. Another caveat is that I know there are tropes True Blood doesn’t escape despite it achieving a tone I find immaculate. It’s a bury-your-gays offender. And like every other vampire show, True Blood puts its central Black characters through the wringer. Compared to poor Bonnie on TVD, Tara maybe fared a little better, but that’s an extremely low bar to clear. Maybe one day we’ll get a vampire show that doesn’t brutalize its characters of color.
I can’t say with authority whether True Blood’s demons outnumber its angels. I’m definitely taking a swing debuting this newsletter with an essay about a show I’m watching for the first time and not one I’ve had years to sit with and process (you will not catch me with an incorrect take on Gilmore Girls, I’ll tell you that). But there’s something joyous about the transition from discounting a show to becoming enveloped in it. It’s like making a friend and laughing as you think back to your first impression of them. They were too cool for you, or too mature, you thought something about the two of you wouldn’t fit. And look at you now! How could you ever have been strangers?
History might show that the only thing to come out of my new favorite comfort watch is HBO resident-hottie Alexander Skarsgard. And don’t get me wrong, I’ll take it. But if y’all are going to make thin eyebrows, denim skirts and the market crash a thing again, I recommend drudging up another dead body from 2008 and watching True Blood, you dirty fangbangers.
On a side note, I fully blacked out Alexander Skarsgard starring in Lady Gaga’s Paparazzi music video. Her vision! Enjoy.
Every week, we’ll answer one hard-hitting question because as Mulder would say, “the truth is out there.” Yes, this is the best TV reference we could come up with.
What’s your favorite guest star/cameo on a TV Show?
Mallika’s answer: Ok I am leaving out all of Law and Order: SVU because if I include that I will get too overwhelmed (Robin Williams! Whoopi Goldberg! Martin Short! Literally everyone with an IMDB page!) It feels like a cop out because every guest star on this show was so good, but I think I’m gonna go with Stephen Colbert playing Father Michael O'Donnell on The Mindy Project.
Rachel’s answer: I’m trying to think of an on-screen cameo that made me actually gasp, like they got the best person possible to play that role. Maybe when Susan Sarandon pops into Search Party as Chip’s aunt Lyla. The show, which I think is one of the best ever made, had already taken a turn for the surreal and who better to insert than Ms. Janet Weiss herself. The fact that you see Cole Escola impersonating her before you know it’s Susan, and then of COURSE it is. Her bitchy fur coat, immaculate!
In Succession news this week: Kieran Culkin has been moved to the Lead Actor category for Emmy’s consideration (hopefully this means his seemingly-tortured turn as Roman Roy will pay off. The BTS content for this season has us worried for his health!). And is Brian Cox a directioner or just ultra retired? His voice appeared at the start of Harry Styles's new music video/Roomba ad for ‘Satellite.’
There’s so much to be said about the WGA strike, but top of the list is Rob Lowe needs a haircut.
On a more serious note, stories like this one that highlight what’s getting axed as a result of this strike, without adding context to why writers are striking, suck! Sorry Dave Grohl can’t play SNL for the 10th time, but the writers who bring us the TV we love are taking second jobs to make a living wage. Heroes fans know the cost of these strikes. Jesse Plemmons murdered a guy for Christ’s Sake.
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