Season Premiere — True Blood, “She’s Not There”

As begins its fourth season, True Blood is a series I no longer give the benefit of the doubt. After two severely flawed, but wonderfully entertaining seasons, last year’s offering of episodes failed to provide the same kind of enjoyable thrills to balance out the laughably large number of problems. Early last season, the series reached a tipping point where the addition of countless new characters became too much for the writers to handle, leaving so many of True Blood‘s most compelling or likable folks with nothing to do or trapped in stories that made me wish they had nothing to do. Most egregious is that somehow the series became lethargic and boring, which basically means it lost its one primary strength. For the second season in a row, TB limped to the finish line without momentum, leaving me to wonder why I really ever liked it in the first place. No longer will I or can I shrug at all the series’ faults and say “Well, at least it’s insanely entertaining.”

Unfortunately, what True Blood presents in the premiere episode of season four reaffirms my decision. As its constituted now, True Blood is not only no longer “good,” it is similarly no longer entertaining. That could certainly change — a number of folks have pointed out that episodes two and three are much better than this one — but there are just so many characters and plotlines on this series that I have never or probably will never care about. Of all the series on television, True Blood needs commercial breaks so that I can take a moment to throw my hands up in the air in frustration and/or boredom.

For a series that prides itself on unpredictability and insanity, True Blood has let way too many characters live for too long. Heck, I’m not even asking for people to get murdered in a horrible way, but with this season jumping forward a year due to Sookie’s 10-minute stint in the fairy world, the series could have easily just let them move away. You know, like Tara did at the end of season three. But instead of letting the character ride away, we now have to watch her journey as a lesbian cage-fighter. I kind of want to fight Alan Ball in a cage for having to type that sentence. Sam’s terribly annoying and pointless brother that he appeared to shoot last season? Still alive and apparently a born-again living with Hoyt’s mom, another character that sucks any energy out of the proceedings.

Speaking of Sam, poor Sam Trammell. Can’t HBO get him out of this wheel-spinning role and onto Treme or something? Jason is now a cop even though his big moment at the end of S3 was about how he wasn’t going to be a cop. He’s also stuck helping the dirty homeless folk from the junk yard. Well, until they trap him in an icebox. Terry and Arlene are wonderful, but often feel like part of another program that I probably wouldn’t watch but wouldn’t jab anyone else for enjoying. And even Hoyt and Jessica are trapped in domestic hell, which is totally frustrating after watching them dance around one another for two seasons. We were able to see them officially happy for roughly three episodes last year.

If you haven’t noticed, I’ve burned through more than half of the series’ massive ensemble. Throw in the 392 new characters True Blood started to and will continue to introduce in the next few episodes and that leaves us with a large part of the series’ narrative that is taken up by boring, poorly constructed or just plain stupid stories. I have no problem with large ensemble casts, but this series’ production team has absolutely no idea how to balance theirs and it has become infuriating.

The jump-forward in time feels like a good move in theory and one that I think might play out better over time, but it creates something of a slog here. The first three seasons took place over such a short period of time, but slowing down the narrative so that “She’s Not There” can re-introduce us to all the characters doesn’t really work. True Blood is a series that thrives on ratcheting up the pace and keeping it at a frenetic level, so having to stumble through the changes in everyone’s lives works in direct contrast to that. Some of the changes we learn about are interesting, especially those that deal with Bill and Eric, but many of them are not, which only makes generally boring characters feel even more boring. I get it, Arlene thinks her baby boy is going to be a murderer. I get it, Sam’s brother still sucks. Perhaps rebooting the primary love triangle is a great idea — and by the looks of this episode, it is — but I’m not sure that I’m willing to take on all the other problematic threads just so I can see more of Bill being a bad-ass. I think. I do love bad-ass Bill Compton.

Moreover, the season’s big new elements are mostly mishandled in this episode. Sookie’s time in fairly land was compelling almost in spite of itself. I’ve always enjoyed the somewhat grounded approach the series has in regards to vampires and werewolves, but the fairies are still hard for me to swallow. The depiction of their world was goofy and somewhat dumb, but the info-dump felt natural enough without being too excessive. Gary Cole is always fantastic and it was nice to circle back to Sookie’s grandfather, which of course makes it even more frustrating that he was dead before the opening credits. I’m still not sold on why I should care that Sookie is a fairy, but the opening moments sort of nudged me closer.

The introduction of the witches was much less successful. I love Kevin Alejandro and am very glad that Nelsan Ellis’ Lafayette is going to have lots to do this season, but witches are tricky to portray to begin with (too powerful, sometimes hard to visualize) and nothing in this episode calmed my fears that their inclusion to this world will be immensely dumb and/or pointless. Fiona Shaw is fine, but she’s never going to touch the powerhouse work Denis O’Hare did last season and it kind of feels like she’s trying hard to do so anyway.

Of course this is just the first episode, but it is part of a larger trend with True Blood. When I don’t care about more than half of the characters and stories happening on-screen, it’s difficult to call an episode enjoyable. “She’s Not There” is another problematic, middling and worst of all, boring episode after the previous season ended in the exact same way. It doesn’t really accomplish much with what could have been a useful, interesting time-jump and generally fells to create a hook for the season. This is just a bad episode of a series that is coming close to losing the ‘but’ in the obvious “it’s bad, but…” qualifier I’ve used since it began.

Other thoughts:

  • Let’s give other misused TB actors different, better HBO series to work on! Deborah Ann Woll could totally be a love interest on How to Make It in America. Kristin Bauer van Straten would absolutely fit in on Boardwalk Empire and maybe even Game of Thrones. Ryan Kwanten could take his southern accent to Eastbound and Down. I actually kind of dislike Marshall Allman so might as well put him on Hung.
  • Seriously, non-lovesick Bill is really the best part of this episode and one of the series’ best weapons. Hopefully he doesn’t go away too quickly.
  • Eric’s recorded commercial was also very good.

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