True Blood is damned entertaining—and isn’t that the main thing? Alan Ball’s vampire soap opera may be set in a particularly unclothed corner of Louisiana (steam practically pours out from the TiVo), but it’s really located at that dirty crossroads HBO discovered long ago, smart enough to be uninsulting, but obsessed enough (and graphic enough about) sex and wildness that it is addictively watchable, not so much a guilty pleasure as a binge food. Cable catnip, in other words.
Now, I was a doubter last season, an early opter-out: I loved the first two episodes, but by the fifth, I got bored with the greasy sex-drug montages, which felt too voyeuristic to be fun. But I gave up too soon, before I could be seduced by the show’s gleeful inconsistency, which is not its flaw but its charm. On True Blood, vampirism slips from one metaphorical mooring to another: It’s negritude, it’s heroin—it’s kink, evil, religion, and/or love! But most provocatively, vampirism is gayness: It’s both an appetite and an identity, an outsider status that transforms a mere human into a force for seduction. The show is riddled with political references, from a sexy fundamentalist wearing a NO SPECIAL RIGHTS FOR DEAD PEOPLE apron to a Time magazine cover reading VAMP MARRIAGE—a savvy satirical extension of the right-wing notion (indistinguishable from the right-wing fantasy) that same-sex desire is so appealing it might sway anyone with their defenses down. In less freewheeling hands, this idea might feel offensive, but here it’s stinging and bold, pouring ambiguity back into desire—and tweaking the goody-goods from every angle.
Show-runner Alan Ball has described the series as being about intimacy, and that’s here, too: Sad-angry makeup sex with teeth clamped into your neck is pretty much his vision of freedom, and while it might be possible to blather about what we think about this abstractly, the truth of the matter is that the show is also, quite simply, an incredible, multivalent turn-on. In part, this is due to the funny-serious performance of Stephen Moyer as Bill, the gentlemanly (yet forceful!) vampire who seduces the virgin Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), but the orgy that spins around them is just as compelling.
This season generally features one such wild party a week, mostly instigated by the marvelous Michelle Forbes, who plays a Dionysian hostess–social worker. The character has a supernatural secret, but really she’s just a catalyst, providing a visual excuse for Bada Bing! levels of breasts and booty. There’s also fantastic stuff involving Jessica, the sulky redhead sired by Bill, who glows as an adolescent vamp at once thrilled and ashamed every time her pretty fangs pop out. Meanwhile, Sam, the Xander to Bill’s Angel, skinny-dips with a mystery chick; Tara is seduced by a New Age faux family; and the queenly Lafayette escapes from vampires who chain his naked black body to a basement work wheel—slave imagery almost no other show could get away with.
And that’s not even mentioning some of the best parts of the season, which revolve around Jason Stackhouse, the dumb, horny golden boy the show’s cameras love to linger on. Jason’s joined something called the Fellowship of the Sun, whose fundamentalist anti-vampire camp features homoerotic capture the flag and chitchat about whether Jesus was the first vampire. (“Evil is making the premeditated choice to be a dick,” argues Jason in one such theological conversation.) During a dinner with the preacher and his purty wife, the air of seduction rivals that of any vampire dungeon. “My wife must see something special in you,” says the man of God over dessert. “Sarah doesn’t whip out her pudding for just anybody.” True Blood, you have no shame.
There are a few other theoretically shameless summer offerings out there, but most of them just feel shameful. On the depressing Entourage, the zip has drained from the show’s once-potent fantasy of getting famous and laid with your friends. Vince’s Scorsese film launches to acclaim; E flirts with the irritating Sloan; Drama and Turtle spout gross wisdom like “pussy can smell other pussy.” Ari bullies Lloyd. Nothing changes, nothing is at risk—the show’s Wheel of Fortune has revealed itself as nothing but a sordid roulette wheel, and watching the series feels like tolerating the anal-sex jokes of your charmless neighbors just so they’ll let you use their pool. The second episode is better, if only because Ari’s wife is around more, but she’s one of those characters I always wish I could rescue and put on a better show.
Maybe Ari’s wife could join Jane Adams, who shines as a sad-sack poetess on the otherwise disappointing Hung. With its HBO imprimatur and naughty premise (large-cocked loser finds his smile by marketing what’s in his pants!), the series promised something very True Blood–ian, like Boogie Nights without the porn, plus the sitcom satisfactions of Sex and the City: sharp talk, funny-dark graphic sex scenes, and the excuse to say “large-cocked loser” while discussing the series with friends.
But sadly, there’s no motion to this ocean. For one thing, it’s hard to avoid the fact that Boogie Nights makes no sense if it’s not set in the actual porn industry, since a man with a monstrous endowment is not really all that marketable to your average straight woman, especially in recession-era Detroit, and particularly when he’s a charmless, bitter, middle-aged gym coach—and one not notably skilled in bed, judging from the show’s funny-dark, graphic sex scenes. (Also, there’s no mention here that sex with decently endowed bitter middle-aged men is available for free, any time of day, on Craigslist.)
Part of the problem is that Thomas Jane, appealing in other roles and theoretically a physically attractive man, is peculiarly off-putting as Ray Drecker. The character stinks of defeat: He’s an ex-jock, not too smart, and he sulks around his grim suburb brooding over everything from his ex-wife’s rich husband to the burned-out house he can’t rebuild because he was too flaky to send in the insurance payment. (We learn all this in voice-over, a lazy device used better on Showtime’s Secret Diary of a Call Girl.) To Ray, everyone is a “fucker,” which might work if the show didn’t validate this lazy contempt: Like About Schmidt (also directed by Alexander Payne), it’s stuffed with easy satires of self-help seminars and yuppie dermatologists. Basically, Ray is Rabbit Angstrom, except he’s not all that observant.
Adams nearly saves the show as Tanya, an unhappy temp who suffers from what Ray describes irascibly as “veganism and the yakking and the coming that had no beginning and no end.” At once acerbic and pathetic, Tanya has real comic chemistry with her fellow sad sack, and she’s the one who designs the marketing scheme, branding Ray as a “happiness consultant.” Anne Heche plays Ray’s ex-wife, a shallow nitwit the show struggles to make layered and succeeds only in making incoherent. Ray’s twin teenagers are more interesting, puffy weirdos with reason to loathe their parents, but it’s not enough—the emotional engine never kicks in; the comedy stalls.
Now, this is HBO: There’s some smart dialogue and pleasantly goofy riffs on Tanya’s own idea for a business (pastry stuffed with poetry, like “a croissant folded around Maya Angelou’s ‘Phenomenal Woman’ ”). It’s not impossible that the show might become, as it seems intended to be, a sitcom take on Susan Faludi’s Stiffed, a perverse fable about the way a man emasculated by the economy learns to strut. But to do that, it would have to have a grander, more empathic vision of the world around Ray. Right now, it just doesn’t go deep enough.
Meanwhile, on the USA Network, Royal Pains is a crappy but watchable series about a “concierge doctor” in the Hamptons, radically unambitious but better at balancing the guilt with the pleasure. The strangely adorable Mark Feuerstein stars, surrounded by cooing heiresses in bikinis and Campbell Scott with a German accent. It’s Gossip Girl as a medical procedural, which may not be a recipe for quality, but I’m a weak woman, and it works for me on a hot day.
For some decent pulp sci-fi, try Torchwood: Children of Earth, a five-night mini-series on BBC America involving possessed blond moppets and a lush-lipped crew of Scully-Mulders. “Children, sir!” intones a suit in the first episode. “It’s the children!”—and I was in for the duration and did not regret it. No spoilers, but the whole thing is very V, with a side order of Communion and Children of the Corn. With British accents and a refreshing dash of homoeroticism, it works nicely for a midsummer binge.
HBO. Sundays at 9 p.m.
HBO. Returns July 12 at 10:30 p.m.
HBO. Sundays at 10 p.m.
USA. Thursdays at 10 p.m.
Torchwood: Children of Earth
BBC America. July 20 at 9 p.m.