A decade ago, HBO was touting its willingness to make something different from the escapist soapy programming on the broadcast networks. Now its biggest hit is True Blood, an escapist, soapy, and sometimes campy show about vampires in the U.S. South, full of bad accents, severed limbs, and lines like “you were fighting the Nazi werewolves.”
The show’s third season, which premiered on HBO Canada last week, is as crazy as ever: one upcoming episode has a vampire taking a bullet in extreme slow motion and fighting a naked redneck werewolf—before the credits even start. Charlaine Harris, author of the Southern Vampire Mysteries books that the show is based on, told Maclean’s that “in times of economic downturn, people are more interested in escapism and fantasy.” That means even HBO, the place for high-class programming, can’t resist the temptation to feature a vampire queen threatening to rip off someone’s genitalia.
With the departure of its flagship series of the ’00s, such as The Sopranos, HBO was in danger of losing its relevance. True Blood, based on Harris’s novels about mind-reading waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), has restored its success. The show, full of old-fashioned twists, including a mysterious pregnancy and a brooding love triangle involving the heroine and two handsome vampires, even follows the Aaron Spelling tradition of dressing lead characters in titillating clothes as often as possible; during the first season, Paquin told Media Boulevard, she’s “practically naked the entire time.”
Had it not been for the involvement of writer-producer Alan Ball, who was responsible for the Sopranos-style hit Six Feet Under, the network might have considered this kind of material beneath it: “I don’t think HBO was that interested initially,” Harris recalls, “until Alan showed them what he had done, and then they got plenty excited.”
Not only did the show start from a more populist position than the usual HBO show, it’s gotten less classy and more over-the-top as it’s gone on. Just as The Wire and Deadwood were dark takes on cop shows and westerns, True Blood was supposed to be Twilight for grown-ups, with “vampire rights” standing in for serious modern issues of sexual identity. But this season, while there are bits of social commentary thrown in (Ball uses an allegorical scene to mock religious people who think that sex should “be used only for procreation”), relevance is harder to find in a lot of episodes—unless a flashback to vampires and werewolves in 1945 Germany is a serious comment on the horrors of war.
True Blood has also figured out how to use HBO’s famous freedom—the lack of restrictions on language and content—in a profitable way. The camera lingers on naked guest stars and horribly charred bodies, but unlike The Sopranos, which had an artistic veneer to its violence and nudity, True Blood uses it all for pure fun, giving a light touch to its bloodiest moments. When a character holds up a severed head, he proceeds to use it as a ventriloquist’s dummy; after sideburn-sporting Bill (Stephen Moyer) rips off someone’s ear, there’s a comedic moment where he makes fun of one of his opponents for being named “Cooter.” Harris says that while most vampire stories are “gloomy and angsty and dark,” her creation gives audiences “a look at the sunny side of monsters.”
That approach may make good business sense for HBO, which has seen AMC’s Mad Men and even some broadcast dramas steal its thunder when it comes to serious, socially conscious drama. By emphasizing sex and violence for their own sake, HBO can again do something the other networks aren’t doing, and draw in male viewers to what otherwise might be a female-skewing show.
That may be why HBO’s recent projects are heading in True Blood’s direction. Hung is theoretically a look at the recession, but is mainly an excuse for penis jokes. Even its darkest new show, Game of Thrones, is based on geek-friendly fantasy novels. In this atmosphere, a subtle show like Treme seems like an anomaly. The new HBO is a place where, as Harris puts it, “there is nothing wrong with fun.”