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'True Blood': The center cannot hold

August 29, 2010 | 10:25 pm

Sookeh  After Sunday night's episode of "True Blood," it's becoming immensely clear that not all of the storylines the show is spinning are going to come to closure points by the end of the season or tie together in any way, shape or form. The question, then, becomes whether the individual storylines were entertaining enough to keep the show afloat or whether you think the lack of cohesion has fatally damaged this season.

I realize I should pick a side in this fight, but I think this season has been the best for "True Blood" while simultaneously being the worst. The main plot has been riveting throughout, helped out by splitting up Sookie and Bill and giving them each compelling plot threads and by casting Dennis O'Hare as the villain. Any time one of those three or Eric was on screen, the season has been terrific, more or less.

But "True Blood" is a massive, massive show, and that means those characters can't always be on screen. The series solved this last season by splitting all of the characters up into two storylines. The storyline in Dallas — wherein a bunch of the characters confronted a band of fundamentalist Christians bent on wiping out vampires — was often fun. The storyline back in Bon Temps — wherein most of the other characters were enraptured by the machinations of a maenad named Maryann — was less consistent, but it certainly had its moments, and it had the side benefit of involving every character who wasn't in Dallas. That meant that the show didn't need to go out of its way to incorporate a scene featuring Sam or Andy every week, because both characters were involved in the Maryann storyline. 

At this point, I'm wondering just how much of the show's disconnection this season stems from its source material. I can't imagine that Charlaine Harris features plotlines that have nothing to do with one another from chapter to chapter and plots that seem as though they're going to just end with no resolution one chapter before the end of the book. Since the show and the book seem to share a compressed time frame, it's possible that a storyline like Arlene's pregnancy played out over several books. But at the same time, it probably would have been less important to the books, where Harris can keep Arlene in the background and remind readers every so often that she's pregnant with apparent demon spawn. On the series, Carrie Preston is a regular and has to be worked into a good number of the episodes, which leads to the storyline essentially repeating the same information over and over. Books may have ties between volumes, but series usually find a way to have a story that is told and closed off in a single volume. "True Blood" has gotten so big that it's virtually impossible for the series to do this at this point.

It doesn't help that the series is even more chock-full of characters than the books. Lafayette died in the books and is still around on the series, so the series has to come up with something for him to do. This leads to the poor guy standing around and staring at various voodoo knickknacks that come to life and dance around for him. Similarly, Jessica is an invention of the series, and the show needs to toss her a scene or two every week. But it often seems uncertain of what to do with her, which has led to a long, rambling storyline about her reunion with Hoyt (who's now inviting her to drink his blood) and her killing of a trucker and realization that she prefers human blood. But in addition to these two storylines, the show has had to come up for weekly business involving Jason, Sam and a host of tertiary characters, like Crystal and Alcide. When it could bring these storylines into contact with the Russell plotline, they got more interesting, but none of them were ever able to stand on their own like the show wanted them to.

So roughly half of any given episode this season has been the worst this series has ever been. It's been a centerless mess where it became harder and harder to ignore that the show wasn't sure what to do with nearly two-thirds of its ensemble. Every so often, there would be a scene where one of these storylines would spark to life, but those scenes have been few and far between. What's more, the resolutions to these stories have been mostly big anti-climaxes. Crystal's a were-panther? OK. Sam uses his family issues to take out his aggression on everyone else, then has sex with Tara? If that's the direction you want to go in, show.

But — and I can't stress this enough — the main plotline has been borderline amazing throughout this season. Even the Sookie and Bill scenes, which I often couldn't stand in previous seasons, have been much better written and acted than usual. Take a look, for instance, at that scene in Sunday night's episode where the two rue the life they can never lead. It's a fantasy they get lost in, this world where Bill is a third-grade teacher and Sookie is a real estate agent, but it's easy to see the sadness of that fantasy never coming true shine through in the faces of both Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer in this scene. It's ultimately heart-rending, and it ends with Russell nearly flipping their car. Nearly every scene in this storyline has landed. The action scenes have had punch and great pacing. The emotional scenes have been thoughtfully written and nicely performed. And even the exposition has been well handled.

The question then becomes whether the show's riveting main plot is enough to excuse everything else it's doing. For me, it has been, with the sizable caveat that much of the rest of the show hasn't worked at all. Every week, I've grown more and more disheartened at how little the show has been able to pull itself together, and these last two episodes have driven that point home more than anything else. At the same time, I love scenes like Eric tricking Russell into coming outside so he can slowly burn himself and the king to death in the sunlight and have his ultimate revenge. "True Blood" has always been a show that feels like it's holding itself together with spit and twine, but the twine and spit have mostly given up trying this season. If that works for you, great. But I'm hoping next season can find a model that feels less chaotic and somehow keep hold of the strong center that's kept this season so much fun.

Other thoughts

  • The "True Blood" post-mortems are often kind of silly, but I liked Sunday night's, particularly Alan Ball's thoughts on how the fairies in the series' world are like aliens, playing off a tossed-off line from last week's episode. It's a cool idea, and it appeals to my inner "X-Files" fan.
  • The football scenes all play like bad parodies of "Friday Night Lights," right down to the dialogue. And vampire blood as steroids? That was such a groaner of a line.
  • My home state of South Dakota gets a shout-out Sunday night when Lafayette says it's one of two places you could end up in when high on vampire blood. The other? Hell. We South Dakotans, current and former, appreciate the comparison point.
  • Looks like "True Blood" just lost the best drama series Emmy to "Mad Men." I didn't encounter any hardcore "True Blood" fans who thought the show could win, so this wasn't exactly a surprise.
  • On the other hand, Anna Paquin seemed really nervous when presenting her awards with Stephen Moyer and Alexander Skarsgard. It was kind of cute, actually.
  • Violently disagree? You can e-mail me or Tweet at me. Or you can talk in comments. But we'll be off next weekend for Labor Day. Boo, HBO! Boo!
  • "This is not just about your relationship, you infatuated tween."
  • "I'm having trouble switching tenses. You understand."
  • "You are nothing more than a lump of muscle with a blood grudge."
  • "Can't even reach up on my own closet shelf without a grabber."
  • "You are cute as pigs!"
  • "Nothing in my blood is a supernatural sunscreen for y'all."

Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: Sookie (Anna Paquin) is the lynchpin to Eric's plot to trick Russell "True Blood." Credit: HBO.

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