True Blood S4 E1-5

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Contains spoilers up to episode 5 of the series.

I was going to write a mid-season review of the fourth season of HBO’s vampire series True Blood, but then I looked up what I wrote about the previous season last year and realised that actually my thoughts are sill pretty much the same. Only more so.

So to recap: season 1 was a delight, especially the relish it took breaking every taboo it could possibly find about sex, violence and bad-language on television. Season 2 was almost as enjoyable and sustained the level of frenzied overkill really quite magnificently. But the show lost its balance in series 3 and went over the top, much like Joel Schumacher could never stop himself from going way too far in the Batman motion picture franchise; and series 4 continues and worsens that trajectory.

One of the few bright spots in the overcooked gooey mess that the show has now become is Alexander Skarsgård as thousand-year-old Nordic vampire prince Eric Northman. He remains as magnetic an on-screen presence as ever, and his recent witch-induced personality transplant has given Skarsgård even more room to work with and develop his role. He’s been getting to show a new vulnerable side to the previously brooding and taciturn character, making a possible romance with Sookie (Anna Paquin) both credible and even appealing – and not just to the many understandably besotted Eric fans out there in fandom.

The show has also finally given Eric’s loyal progeny Pam De Beaufort (Kristin Bauer) something interesting to work with after three years of being ceaselessly cold and arch. She has also been afflicted by a witch’s spell, one that has resulted in her much-treasured looks rotting day-by-day leaving her simultaneously livid, dismayed and aghast at the state of herself as bits, uh, drop off.

As for the rest of the show, the problem isn’t just that it’s gone deep into high camp territory, it’s that it’s also developed a very nasty streak to it while it does so. It’s like a stand-up comedian that you once liked, but who now just shouts and rages at random targets from the stage. Where before the Deep South Louisiana milieu was an important and colourful backdrop to the show, now it seems to be the butt of many of the nastier attacks the show lashes out with.

How else to explain the deeply black sub-plot of Sookie’s brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten), once the show’s comedy relief but who has spent much of the fourth season chained to an iron bed being gang-raped by a bunch of deeply stereotyped inbred redneck hicks that he was initially trying to look out for? Or the implied mocking of Tommy’s (Marshall Allman) achievement of learning to read which leads him to be nearly choked to death by his stepfather, until he turns round and kills not only his attacker but his supposedly beloved momma by accident as well?

This is on a level with the Deep South torture porn like Deliverance and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but its inclusion here and the sheer torrent of the material overwhelms us and leaves us feeling more assaulted than entertained. I have to admit, I haven’t much enjoyed long stretches of this season so far.

There’s also the problem (that reared its head in season 3) that there’s almost no humans left in the cast. Where the show’s original premise was how a bigoted, isolated and very conservative southern township would deal with the public emergence of vampires into their midst, now the vampires have been shooed to the sidelines and instead we’re crowded out with shapeshifters, fairies, werewolves, were-panthers, poltergeists and witches. It turns out that none of them are very nice, either. Actually, neither are the remaining humans. We have very few audience points of identification left anymore.

At least the witches boast among their number the wonderful Irish actress Fiona Shaw as their coven leader Marnie, a delightfully barking performance that reminds you of how good this show used to be and the heights it can still occasionally reach. Her ability to embody both the meek and timid shopkeeper Marie with the possessed, all-powerful witch queen is a genuine acting tour de force and a compelling character as a result.

There’s still some great lines to be had in the show, although fewer than there used to be it seems to me. I’ll admit that Nan Flanagan’s withering “Go clean yourself up, you’re covered in queen,” had me howling, and Sookie’s plaintive “You just killed my Faerie-Godmother!” to a blood-covered Eric was a hoot. But two particularly memorable lines in five episodes – where before there used to be two or three per episode – is more evidence of the rate of decline in the show overall.

And yet, after all that’s been said, I have to admit that the whole thing still has a terrifying addictive quality. Much like vampire blood, it makes you come back for more despite the bad taste and the nasty side effects even when you know you shouldn’t – however much it drifts perilously ever closer to becoming Carry on Vamping.

Currently airing on the FX channel on Sundays at 10pm.

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