This recap contains spoilers through the second episode of the current season of HBO’s True Blood.
If I have one major objection to HBO’s True Blood, it’s the way the show handles Southernness in general, and Sookie Stackhouse as a representative Southerner in particular. That hasn’t always been a problem for the show. Usually, it’s more of a matter of degrees in how Alan Ball shades the microcosm Charlaine Harris created to explore how humans would react if vampires revealed themselves. He’s made everything a bit darker, a bit more freighted. I realize this is a problem unique to me, and to other folks who read Harris’s books long before the show even went to adaptation. But I think it’s worth thinking about, given that HBO’s other current smash, Game of Thrones, is also an adaptation, and a much more faithful one. The alterations to Ball’s texts are major from a plot and characterization standpoint. And while I think that keeping Lafayette alive, while requiring plot adjustments down the seasons, hasn’t irrevocably changed the character of the series, some of the other things Ball has altered have really change the spirit of the show, and not always for the better.
I think the way that bothers me most right now is in how the show depicts Hotshot, the community on the edge of Bon Temps populated by werepanthers. In Ball’s interpretation, that unusual ability and that isolation translate into a kind of inbred stupidity, rather than a profound strangeness. True Blood‘s per-episode budget runs about $3 million, about two-thirds the price of an episode of Game of Thrones, and the show has to spend a lot more of that budget on the effects that are in almost every scene. It might have cost too much to try to make the folks in Hotshot look truly other all of the time, but it would have been pretty cheap to do some physical coaching to get them to walk differently, rather than have them say things like declaring that a refrigerator is their air conditioning. Treating poor Southern people like pathetic, dumb hicks is the laziest trick in the book, and cheaper than dressing folks up as Southern belles.
Similarly, there was one bit of tossed-off dialogue that got me thinking along the same lines. When Sookie goes to ask Pam for help with Eric, who has bought his house, and after coercing Sookie has set about wooing her (“The house does not come with me inside it,” Sookie declares to him. “Then I seriously overpaid,” Eric purrs back.), Pam shuts her down. “Did I miss something? Are we girls now?” Pam asks Sookie. “Did we join a book club and read some queer chick lit memoirs, and now we’re bonded by estrogen, or sisterhood, or some other feminist drivel?” “I don’t do book clubs,” Sookie snaps back. Because the seasons are fairly short, we don’t see Sookie in repose much, and so I guess Ball’s cut out an essential bit of characterization that Harris slots in those moments when Sookie’s relaxing: she reads a lot, to make up for her lack of formal education (and she’s also a Buffy fan, in a nice little joke). Cutting that out, and having Sookie deny being a book club kind of gal here all feels to me to be part and parcel with flattening the character a bit in ways that have been a bit unfortunate.
The one place I think the show’s depiction of stereotypical Southernness is really working this season is in Jessica and Hoyt’s relationship. Tonight, when Pam holds Jessica back from fighting to protect Hoyt, she’s doing it to protect Jessica from anti-vampire zealots, but she ends up protecting Hoyt’s right to defend his girlfriend at well. And Hoyt’s reaction to Jessica offering her some of her blood to help him heal is an effective way of demonstrating someone who is trying to live beyond their preconceptions and bumping up against the limits of their ability to do that. “That shit is my blood,” Jessica tells him, then turns around and insists on caring for him properly. “I’m going to the drugstore. If you won’t take my blood, you need to at least take some Advil.” But she plays into a very human script, going to Fangtasia and finding a man who will let her drink his blood, a pale substitute for the man who won’t take hers even in a gesture of tenderness. These sweet, limited people, partnered too young and in a dangerous time, are headed for bad trouble—on vampire terms, and on human ones.
I’d be really curious to hear how Alan Ball’s own experiences with the tropes of Southern culture, particularly as a gay man, are affecting his approach to this show. Ball grew up in Atlanta, went to the University of Georgia and Florida State, and started his career in Sarasota, Florida. He’s lived in the region, and he’s got a fancier critical pedigree than Charlaine Harris. But this is one case where the source material often feels more sophisticated than the adaptation.