Monday, July 19, 2010

True Blood vs. Twilight

I know, you recoiled in horror when you read the title. Yet another blogger jumps on the vampire rant bandwagon — perhaps one of the most played out and tired internet memes.

And I really should have the commonsense to stay well away from this topic, but the storyteller in me can’t let it be. There are a number of things that I want to understand about these two franchises: Why do they work so well? What makes their respective fan bases hate each other with a passion normally reserved for politics in our ideologically bi-polar era? Why is it that True Blood fans always refer to their show as a “guilty pleasure,” while Twilight movie and book fans embrace their franchise with an entirely un-ironic fervor?

At present I'm throwing my lot in with those who believe it’s a question of age. Twilight seems taps into every selfish act of wish fulfillment that a young woman could desire, unconstrained by social norms, major life disappointments, or the deeply hurtful views of others. Its heroine is the center of attention for two groups of supernaturals, and her love life is of actual world-shaking consequence rather than just feeling like it. Then there is the hot, unobtainable older lover and his pec-flaunting shirtless rival.

Many of True Blood's progressive fans are quick to spot a hidden Mormon or even racist agenda in this teen drama. Personally, I think they're reading too much into a franchise that is essentially an ideological blank slate of primitive desires. Which is more than a little ironic as True Blood itself is laden with atavistic impulses. However, as the show is nominally a metaphor for the gray rights struggle, it provides a tantalizingly thin fig leaf of legitimacy for plots laden with violence and sex that good progressives would otherwise not go near.

Therein is that "guilty" part of True Blood's many pleasures. Where Twilight is teen desire, True Blood is all about eroticism, drugs, and beatdowns, though with the the initial restraint and wounded hesitancy of adulthood. Unlike Twilight's fans, both the older characters and audience know in their bruised bones that no matter how stimulating, these things really have consequences; that giving into them entirely leads to trauma. And yet they do give in because True Blood is entertainment. Blood flows, naked bodies glisten, and the living and the dead bump uglies with flesh-rending intensity. And because this series is also written by a woman with women in mind, Sookie Stackhouse is pursued by both a progressive-minded southern gentleman and a barbaric and edgy yet subtly suave Nordic god — or rather Alexander Skårsgard as vampire Erik Norseman.

In part, I think True Blood’s pattern of tension giving way to carnage and eroticism is also the child of producer/writer Alan Ball’s frustrations. He spent six years working on Six Feet Under, which was a brilliant series and admirably restrained in the best of ways. The characters were very realistic in their behavior and ordinary in their appearance. Their clothes rarely came flying off, and what little violence went down in the series was either starkly prosaic in the way of real world crime, or it held all the comic ineptness of suburban brawls between members of the white middle class.

After over half a decade of such well-nuanced self-possession, I’m fully sympathetic to Mr. Ball’s desire throw some taut-bodied Hollywood-beautiful actors and actresses onto the stage and have them fuck, fight, and intrigue their way across the Gothic South and back for all it’s worth.

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