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'True Blood': Sookie Stackhouse is on the case

July 11, 2010 | 11:18 pm

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 One of the bigger problems "True Blood" has had from its very earliest days is that its central character -- Sookie Stackhouse -- isn't the best character to build a series around. She can be a little dumb. She doesn't always have the best ideas. And she tends to settle into her one true love with Bill and end up kind of boring. She's not a bad character to build a show about vampires around, because she's someone who seems naturally empathetic and open to just about everyone she meets (a plus in a universe where vampires are often hated). Plus, her telepathic powers open up the storytelling somewhat, when she's smart enough to use them well. But too often, the show has to figure out ways to sideline Sookie, and the really interesting stuff is happening in some other storyline, but we keep going to spend time with Sookie and Bill making out or something. None of it feels as exciting as the other stuff.

Fortunately, the biggest fix the producers of "True Blood" have made in the third season is reorienting Sookie as kind of a spunky junior detective. I'm not sure I completely buy that she would continue to search for Bill after he was so cold and cruel to her when breaking up with her on the phone, but at least she's out there doing something. An active protagonist is usually a compelling protagonist, and that goes for this show as well as any other. In general, "9 Crimes" is an outstanding showcase for the Sookie character and Anna Paquin. She gets to weep. She gets to disguise herself as a trashy biker chick. She gets to be proactive. She gets to crack a few jokes. I've never been on the "Anna Paquin for an Emmy!" bandwagon, but if she got nominated next year and submitted this episode, it would make a certain kind of sense.

Well, it would make sense but for the fact that the episode builds this really interesting portrayal of a telepathic woman dealing with the realization that her vampire boyfriend  can be kind of a monster, then completely abandons that plotline about halfway through to look at other things that aren't as interesting. Up until the halfway mark, this is unquestionably Sookie's episode, and everybody else is in support. After that mark, Sookie turns up, but it feels as though the show has remembered that it has a gigantic ensemble and randomly begins bringing up plotlines it seems to have forgotten, like just what's up with Arlene's baby (and Terry's paternal feelings toward said baby). And when it comes right down to it, that ends up scattering an episode that felt like it could have been one of the show's better ones up until this point.

A lot of the stuff that happened in the other plotlines was entertaining, and I'm certainly not going to complain about an episode that developed the conflict between Louisiana and Mississippi in as many varied and interesting ways as this one did. But there are times when I wonder if "True Blood" wouldn't somewhat benefit from taking a more character-centric approach, as "Lost" used to use. If this were a Sookie-centric episode, maybe next week's could be a Bill-centric episode, with a Sam-centric episode the week after that. The thing is, you don't need to rearrange the storytelling all that much to pull this off. All you need to do is shift a few scenes around from week to week, and you have tighter, more coherent episodes that don't scatter all over the place. I know the appeal for a lot of viewers is the way that this show seems like it's coming apart at the seams, but it hurts the individual episodes. Scenes of the show can be fun. Seasons of the show can be fun. But it's hard to think of single episodes that are terrific as self-contained units.

The big take-away from this episode for a lot of people is going to be that Bill has apparently descended completely into evil darkness in the clutches of Russell and Lorena. As if his cold, cold breakup with Sookie weren't enough (over the phone, no less!), he also betrays his old Louisiana pals and finds a stripper for his new boss to feed off of. A part of me wants to think that this is all an act Bill is putting on, that he's gone deep, deep undercover at the behest of Sophie or something, but if he did, he's doing such a good job of it that I'm not sure of those thoughts any more. He didn't race off to save Sookie from a bar full of rapidly shifting werewolves, for God's sake. Similarly, I liked this plot for giving us more of a taste of Russell's plans, particularly regarding his connection to the werewolves. There's some dark, twisted stuff going on here, and the show is executing it perfectly.

Over in Bon Temps, the Jason, Sam and Tara plotlines continued to hit mostly the same notes over and over. Same with Jessica, who now has a job but is still dealing with the pain of giving up her old life to become a vampire. There's a nice scene where Jessica is confronted by a former friend (who was one of the show's mock-worthy conservative Christians, but not in the over-the-top way the show usually indulges in), but for the most part, Bon Temps is not the place where the interesting stuff is happening. Even Eric and Lafayette seem as though they're less interesting when swept into the shenanigans going on around them in the little town, and the two are among my most favorite characters on the show. Tara should really be more interesting than she is with Franklin tying her up and interrogating her and stuff, but these scenes are a little uninteresting without the requisite context.

But, OK, as mentioned, this is Sookie's episode, and she delivers when she needs to. I'm still not sure what to make of Alcide (who seems kind of a blank slate), and I have absolutely no connection to his love for his ex-fiancee. But having him and Sookie wander through the werewolf subculture is a lot of fun, and watching Sookie try to blend in in her disguise and ending up in way, way over her head made for a great cliffhanger. "True Blood" is an ensemble show, yes, but it often is only as good as the storylines it gives to its main character, and this episode had some of the best storylines Sookie has gotten in a long, long time.

Some other thoughts:

  • * Among other Emmys, "True Blood" received a nomination for Outstanding Drama Series. Show Tracker caught up with the show's producers to talk about their thoughts on the nomination.
  • * Props again to Paquin, who made what felt like 20 minutes of crying genuinely saddening and moving. I wasn't terribly invested in the Bill and Sookie relationship, but the end of it made me feel for the girl.
  • * That was a really lovely cover of Damien Rice's "9 Crimes" at episode's end. Anyone know who performed it?
  • * Straight male moment: Anna Paquin looked pretty adorable in just about every moment of tonight's episode, even while weeping.
  • * Straight male, straight female, gay, lesbian and all other sexualities moment: The daydream Eric has of flying into Sookie's bedroom and having his way with her (or, rather, she having her way with him) was pretty sexy.
  • * Not a lot of laughs in this episode, but some surprisingly well-scripted dramatic moments. I loved Sookie being able to smell Eric's memories in the dream and Bill's talk with the stripper.
  • * "Let's go, RuPaul!"
  • * "I know the truth about love. It's a hell I'll never get out of alive."
  • Remember to toss me your thoughts and theories in comments, in my e-mail or on my Twitter.

--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: Bill (Stephen Moyer) is behaving very badly. Is it all an act? (Credit: HBO)

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