True Blood, Season 2
Author’s note: I always try to avoid spoiling important plot points but because True Blood is a serialized drama, it will be difficult to talk about it without at least minor spoilers and impossible to talk about it without spoiling the first season. If you have not watched one or both seasons of True Blood and wish to watch it “clean”(which is really the only way to do it) then skip over the story section. You have been warned.
HBO has long delivered great horror series. From The Hitchhiker to Tales from the Crypt to the wonderful Carnivale, HBO has always taken advantage of the freedom that cable TV allows and led the way in adult oriented, episodic television. Unfortunately, while HBO has a great track record with their original dramas, they also have a not so great track record of their original dramas dying in the vine. Too often great HBO shows fizzle out far before they’ve creatively run their course. By preying on a public thirst for stories about vampires, the creative team behind True Blood looks to avoid that fate. Will the second season of True Blood leave you thirsty for more, or will it leave you just feeling drained? Let’s crack this baby open sink our teeth into it.
It’s roughly two years since vampires have “come out of the crypt” and revealed their existence to humans and there’s been an uneasy coexistence ever since. A synthetic blood substitute developed by the Japanese, “Tru Blood,” is the drink of choice for “mainstreamers” – vampires that try to integrate as much as possible into human society. The small Louisiana town of Bon Temps (“Good Times”) is, for some reason, an epicenter for the supernatural with telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) at the center of it all.
This season, Sookie finds herself trying to reconcile her love for Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) and his vampiric nature, while also fending off the advances of Erik Northman (Alexander Saarsgard). Sookie and Bill’s relationship becomes strained when Sookie discovers the existence of Jessica (Debra Ann Wohl), the teenage vampire Bill was forced to make as punishment for killing Longshadow (Raoul Trujillo) in season one. She discovers hitherto untapped power, as well as meeting for the first time a fellow telepath. Meanwhile, Bill must contend with Sheriff Erik’s increasing interest in Sookie and also feels the pressure of surrogate fatherhood to Jessica.
Maryann Forrester (Michelle Forbes), the enigmatic “social worker” who rescued Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley) from jail at the end of season one continues to seduce Tara with the prospect of a blissful life, including a romance with the handsome Eggs (Mehcad Brooks). Tara slowly falls under Maryann’s influence but never seems able to fully shake the feeling that something is seriously wrong. The seemingly benevolent Maryann clearly has ulterior motives and casts sphere of influence over the mortal townspeople of Bon Temps, turning the town into a raging orgy-cum-party. The real question why is she doing it, and what is her special interest in Sam Merlotte?
Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell) the shape shifting owner of Merlotte’s Bar and Grill (which seems to employ roughly 50% of the residents of Bon Temps, with the other 50% being its clientele) wrestles with his romantic feelings for Sookie and a budding interest in new waitress Daphne (Ashley Jones) who he feels a kinship with since she’s a shape shifter as well (the first he’s encountered). However, a secret past that connects him to Maryann and the fact the he plays a pivotal role in her plan means that he winds up on a sacrificial altar.
Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten) joins up with anti-vampire ministry, The Fellowship of the Sun (FotS) and is singled out by the leader of the cult, preacher Steven Newlin (Michael McMillan) as a potential leader in what he sees as the coming war between humans and vampires. He also must contend with his increasing sexual interest in the preacher’s wife, Sara (Anna Camp) and fend off her increasing advances. When his tenure at the FotS doesn’t end the way he plans, he returns to Bon Temps and teams up with Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer) to save the town from the chaos that’s enveloped it ion his absence.
Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis), the flamboyantly gay, drug-dealing short order cook, begins the season captive in the basement of Fangtasia. He tries both to escape and barter his way to freedom but finds his natural charm ineffectual against vampires. After gaining his freedom, he returns home a changed and broken man. When a gunshot wound he received during an attempted escape gets infected and threatens to kill him, Erik manipulates him into drinking his blood. When Lafayette finally gets his groove back he then tries to help his Aunt Lettie Mae (Adina Porter) break Maryann’s hold on Tara.
Meanwhile Erik, owner of Fangtasia and sheriff of Reynard Parish, continues his fascination with Sookie. He grants Lafayette’s freedom as a favor to Sookie with the understanding that she will reciprocate. He calls in that favor and brings her to Dallas to help him investigate the disappearance of that city’s sheriff, who also happens to be Erik’s maker and the oldest vampire living in the new world, Godric (Allan Hyde). Erik must deal with losing his maker while he machinates ways to draw Sookie away from Bill and claim her for himself. He also begins supplying Lafayette with vampire blood and forces him to start dealing it at the behest of vampire queen Sophie Anne (Evan Rachel Woods). To what end, we are left wondering until next season.
Any high concept television show that makes it to a second season has a daunting task ahead of it: how to maintain interest (and an audience) once the novelty of the concept has worn off. Many shows have withered and died on the vine in their second season. True Blood manages not to fall prey to this phenomenon due mainly in its ability to reinvent its own narrative. The first season is structured like a strict whodunit, while at the start of the second season we’re pretty sure whodunit. What we’re not sure of is how or why.
It’s often said that the strength of a drama is in its villain, and season two gives us one deplorable villain that we can have no compunctions about hating. Maryann cloaks her viciousness in free spirited hippie spirituality but we can see the tempest lurking below the surface. Who, or what, Maryann is and why she does the things that she does is a bit predictable to anyone with a passing knowledge of Greek mythology (or anyone who’s read Dominion by Bentley Little, a book this season seems to borrow liberally from) so the revelation doesn’t pack as much punch as the reveal of the killer in season one. Still, even for those who have the big reveal figured out before the finale, there are still enough small twists, turns and imaginative plot developments to maintain interest throughout the season.
Although they are the lead roles, Sookie and Bill have grown less and less interesting as the series has worn on. Any interest they generate is usually directly related to their interactions with other, more peripheral characters. Cluing in on this, the writers of True Blood make the wise choice of bringing some of its less explored supporting cast forward for more time in the limelight. This leads to perhaps season two’s greatest asset: the budding romance between Hoyt and Jessica. This relationship is great for so many reasons. It gives the show a bit of innocence to temper all the decadence on display, especially since Sookie has become worldlier after the events of the first season. More than that, though, it’s just utterly charming. Hoyt starts off a naďve, well intentioned but utterly dunderheaded lunk and Jessica as an irredeemably spoiled brat, but when put together the two bring out the best in each other in a believable way. One of season two’s biggest laughs comes from exploring the practical implications of their physical relationship. I’ll say no more on that.
With all this at the forefront, something has to give and this season it’s Tara. A virtual force of nature and one of the best drawn characters in the first season, she’s largely sidelined for the entirety of the second season in a sub plot that doesn’t give her much to do and strips her of her fierce independent streak. As perverse as it seems to say, a happy Tara is an uninteresting Tara. The silver lining here is that, by the end of season two, she seems ready to resume her role at the forefront of the series with a vengeance (literally).
They almost made the same mistake with Lafayette; he’s largely out of commission for the first half of the season. While that makes sense dramatically, the series just isn’t as much fun top watch without him at his flamboyant best. There is a dearth of strong black characters on television and even fewer strong gay characters, so it’s awesome and amazing to see Ellis steal every scene he’s in.
Additionally, while season one cannily wove the plot threads that would continue throughout the entire season, the set up for the third season feels much more forced. Perhaps the creative team wasn’t sure that audiences would respond well to the change in tone and structure that they were attempting and didn’t want to count on a third season. Whatever the reason, season two concerns itself primarily with the main story and then rushes to leave some plot threads hanging in the last couple of episodes. As far as it’s done, it’s done well. It just suffers in comparison to the first season in this respect.
True Blood is the perfect antidote to those chafing at the thought of the popularity of the Twilight series. It’s essentially the same story, a sappy romantic melodrama with vampires, but played out in a campier, sexier, far bloodier, and far more adult fashion. It’s also far more satisfying. True Blood also manages to touch on some heavy issues such as gay marriage, racism and even slavery without ever morbidly dwelling upon them. I have no idea how closely the series follows the Charlaine Harris novels that inspired it, nor do I really care. True Blood stands on its own strengths.
There’s no reason True Blood should be as entertaining as it is. In terms of story and character, there’s little here that hasn’t be done elsewhere and with more class. Perhaps it’s the palpable glee with which the writers recycle old ideas and put their own spin on them. Or perhaps it’s due to the control of tone that Alan Ball and his writes exhibit; while True Blood is hoary and tacky and over the top, it’s always knowingly so. They know how to write a good hook so that you keep watching even if you hate yourself just a little bit for allowing them to suck you in. After a while you just give in and go with it. It’s not great art, far from it in fact, but it is great entertainment through and through.
Wow. Just…WOW. True Blood: The Complete Second Season is easily one of the best-looking Blu-rays I’ve yet seen. Colors are bold and pop right off the screen; in a scene where Jason is shot with a red paintball, the mark the paintball leaves looks almost 3D. Flesh tones are incredibly realistic, even for those effected with a deathly pallor. Blacks are rock solid without ever crushing and losing detail. There’s nary a hint of compression, mosquito noise or any other flaws. At the end of the year, I wouldn’t be surprised if True Blood’s video quality rivals that of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. Stunning.
The audio is just as good as the video is. True Blood’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is as aggressive and in-your-face as the show itself. The surrounds are almost constantly alive with ambient sound effects, yet dialogue is always crisp, clear and intelligible. Channel separation is perfect and there’s an amazing amount of panning effects. I hate to use the term “reference quality” or “demo material” but if I were pressed to pick a show to show off my home theatre gear, True Blood would be it (assuming, of course, that I wasn’t showing it off to kids).
While there’s a wealth of material included with this release, most of it is postmodernist and geared towards fleshing out the world or Bon Temps. I would have liked the supplements to be a bit less meta and to delve into the creative process but if I’m honest and judge the supplements for what they are rather than what they’re not, I have to admit that HBO has put together a great package of extras.
The primary supplement is True Blood Enhanced Viewing Mode. It’s basically a pop up video feature, similar to Universal’s U-Control or Warner’s In-Movie Experience. Enhanced viewing mode providers the viewer with “Flashbacks” or video clips of subjects or events referenced in the current episode. It’s great as a quick primer for those who may have let a lot of time lapse between episodes, or who haven’t watched the first season in a while. Enhanced Viewing Mode also provides “Hints,” or clues as to which plotline will become important as the series runs on, and cute pro and anti vampire ads from the American Vampire League and the Fellowship of the Sun. The most significant aspect is the Character Perspectives, delivered by the supporting actors in character via pop video. They discuss their thoughts on what is happening on screen. It’s a lot to take in and if you’re new to the series, it should probably be saved for your second viewing.
Audio Commentaries are provided on seven of the season’s twelve episodes. The actors as well as the behind the camera talent contributes and the commentaries are focused either on the actors experience or the creative process. The actor’s commentaries were far better than I’d anticipated; they have something to say that sheds some light on the story or characters and usually avoid falling into the rut of describing what’s on screen. In comparison, the creative team’s commentaries run a bit drier and more technical, but still never detour into Boringtown.
The Character Perspectives from the Enhanced Viewing Mode are accessible independent of the feature. Running a total of 2:02, they lose a lot when divorced of context. Characters like Hoyt are appealing because they’re used sparingly. To say that listening to him ruminate over an entire season’s worth of characters and events tested my patience is an understatement. It’s nice that these are included for completions’ sake but there’s only so much folksy wisdom one can take in a single sitting.
Next we have a collection of four faux infomercials collected as Fellowship of the Light: Reflections of Life (12:14). In these, pastor Steven Newlin and his wife Sarah deliver bite-sized messages on issues such as Vampire-Human marriage. One only needs to peruse the ministerial videos on You Tube for a few minutes to realize just how spot-on the satire is here, from the cheesy graphics and cheap productions values to the twisting of Biblical passages to find validation for personal prejudice. They’re an entertaining, post-modern way to touch on some of the series’ headier themes without getting dry or, for lack of a better word, preachy.
Vampire Report: Special Edition (23:50) is similar to Reflections of Light in style and tone. A spoof of a tabloid news show (think Inside Edition) the satire is just as sharp here. Vampire Report takes hilarious swipes at the Twilight phenomenon and the Paris Hilton sex tape scandal. I’d don’t want to spoil it by giving anything away, except to say that the nearly half hour running time goes by in the blink of an eye.
Lastly, the previous episode recaps and next episode preview bumpers are included. These probably aren’t terribly necessary if you’re watching True Blood on disc and the enhanced viewing mode provides flashbacks to key plot points anyway but, again, it’s nice that HBO included them for all the completionist fans out there.
While it may have lost the novelty factor of the first season, Alan Ball and his team of writers and directors have managed the seemingly impossible: to turn a series of pulp, throwaway novels into compulsive viewing. Building on plotlines established in season one, and allowing supporting players more time in the limelight, the creative team behind True Blood has crafted a show that has a huge roster of amazingly well fleshed out characters that inhabit a world as palpably real as our own. If you have yet to visit Bon Temps and meet its residents, you owe it yourself to do so, right now. Don’t be afraid of the hefty price tag: True Blood: The Complete Second Season is given top tier audio and video quality and a great collection of supplements in the same campy, satiric vein as the show itself. The Blu-ray release of True Blood: The Complete Second Season is beyond a recommendation; it’s an absolute must buy.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
"Additionally, while season one cannily wove the plot threads that would continue throughout the entire season, the set up for the third season feels much more forced."
Good point. There are so many new characters in Season 3, it's kinda crazy. Season 2 definitely felt like a continuation of Season 1 whereas the last episode of Season 2 felt kind of disjointed after a certain someone is killed. However, I am enjoying Season 3 and I hope the Newlins will be back soon!
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