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'True Blood': World War II -- now with 90% more vampires

June 20, 2010 | 11:07 pm

Ohare  Let's talk vampire politics, shall we?

I mentioned last week that I like "True Blood" more and more the farther it gets from its central conceit: that of a human woman and vampire man falling in love. I found the show's first season, which focused on this relationship to an absurd degree, only fitfully interesting. The second season, which expanded the number of characters and settings the show would visit, was more fun for me, but I still wasn't fully on board with the show as a whole, finding certain elements of the season (particularly anything involving Michelle Forbes) to be several steps too far. The reason I'm liking Season 3 so far has everything to do with how the show has split up its central couple (while keeping them "together," for the Bill and Sookie fans) but also with how it's getting into some pretty bizarre notions of, like, vampire feudalism or something.

We've known for a while that vampires have a weirdly monarchical culture, based around kings and queens of individual states, and we've known that that culture expands just enough to let in other roles like state sheriffs. We've also known that the "True Blood" world has plenty of other supernatural beasties and powers, ranging all the way from Sookie's ability to read thoughts (something she does surprisingly rarely) to full-out werewolves. It's a weird little world, equal parts Southern Gothic romance, monster movie and ribald comedy, and while the mixture of tones doesn't always work, when it succeeds, there are few things quite like it. Season 3 looks to be trying to add yet another tone to this complicated balancing act: courtly drama.

Tonight, we meet Mississippi's vampire king, Russell, played by Tony Award-winning actor Denis O'Hare, who's been bombing around bit parts in Hollywood for a few years but has never gotten a chance to chew on the scenery like he has here. He rides in to stop Bill's surprisingly bloody fight with the werewolf pack on a horse. He tries to recruit Bill into some sort of scheme to bump off Queen Sophie-Anne. He admonishes Bill to put away his fangs in his house, in the midst of an elaborate dinner where the guests feast on blood from someone who ate only tangerines before the blood was "tapped" (if that's even the word) and "blood bisque." "True Blood" usually has great fun with expanding vampire culture, but the actors seem only mildly aware of how goofy it all is. (For example, I'm not sure Evan Rachel Wood has the requisite camp speed for her part, though I'm willing to be proved wrong.) O'Hare is always, always ready to go way, way over-the-top, and that makes Russell one of the better additions to the show we've had in a while.

But that's not all! We've got Nazi werewolves. Honestly, just those two words together would probably be enough to sell me on this plot line, regardless of how well-executed it was, but, fortunately, the show has found a way to make these Nazi werewolves into a grand comic-book flashback to when Eric and Godric (and how nice to have him back) were posing as SS agents and tracking down the monsters in the midst of the Nazi menace. There have been plenty of fun pulp novels that take World War II and toss in a monster or space alien or two for good measure, but I didn't think "True Blood" would have the pulpy skill necessary to pull this off as well as it could be. Instead, the show set my concerns at ease by making all of this just as silly as it needed to be, while still adding that dark edge that the show does well. It's a ridiculous conceit, but the show makes it seem simultaneously crazy and perfectly natural, which is hard to do.

I also enjoyed seeing Eric protecting Sookie, even if it seemed like the entirety of this storyline took place in five minutes on her porch. Similarly, I liked that we're getting some new shades of gray as to just why Bill approached Sookie way back in Season One, as the investigator uncovers a big drawer full of Sookie-stalking material that Bill's been collecting for a while now (he's even got a clip of her winning the spelling bee as a little kid -- creepy). The forward momentum in both of the main plots is rather thrilling, and it's nice to see the show moving so quickly and in such grandly ridiculous fashion that it mostly takes care of your objections to it even as they form.

I'm less certain about the other two plotlines that dominate tonight's episode. Tara's continuing spiral into depression is just one of those things that seems like it's been a long time in coming and simultaneously like something we've seen a million times before. That both of these statements are true suggests the writers have basically no idea of what to do with Tara and her crazy mother. Putting her in a plot with Lafayette might pay off down the road (and I'm always up for some Alfre Woodard), but right now, this is just a lot of drama in the midst of a show that is better when it's being silly and sexy. Rumination works best on "True Blood" when it comes in the midst of a whole bunch of things happening all at once. As such, Tara's plot feels like it grinds the show to a halt every time it comes around.

On the other hand, I'm less impressed with Sam's plot this week than I was last week. I like stories of long-lost family members coming back into the lives of those left behind, but this one was full of too much bizarre angst. It's one thing if we build to Marshall Allman's character telling Sam everything he resents Sam for. It's another thing altogether if he just does that from the first. Seeing the two change into dogs and run off to romp around was kind of fun, and the twist of the brother changing into a bird and flying away from the truck was good, but I keep waiting for something to happen here that's more than what has.

On the other hand, I could watch hour after hour of vampire politicking, particularly if it involves some fine scenery chewing from O'Hare. I don't think "True Blood" is ever going to be the world's most consistent show. It's definitely not for people who look for sophisticated plotting or deep subtext that is only slowly revealed. But when it gets on a roll -- as it has a number of times in these first two episodes -- it can be a heck of a lot of fun. Tonight's episode continued to have more fun stuff than boring stuff (though the balance was a lot closer than it was in the much more entertaining premiere), and that means that the show stays in my good graces.

Some other thoughts:

* Jason ... did some stuff. Honestly, it was kind of pointless, so I've mostly forgotten about it.

* I absolutely loved Terry telling Arlene about why he was good to take care of her kids. His three reasons for it were hysterical, especially the first one (with the armadillo) and the final one about never having killed anyone by accident.

* I liked Jessica's slow voyage toward vamphood last season, and I'm glad it continues, but it felt a little overwrought in this episode. In her storyline, less is usually more, as Deborah Ann Woll is capable of putting most of the stupider stuff she's handed over the top.

* "You're too busy praising Jesus to realize your daughter trying to move in with him permanently."

* "And then I got hungry."

* "I'd miss you if you got killed. Just so you know."

* "I found a baby armadillo by the side of the road, and I nursed it, and now he lives under my bed, and his name is Felix."

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

Photo: Denis O'Hare plays vampire king Russell on "True Blood." (Credit: HBO)

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