After nearly a month, my fairly substantial hiatus here at TVS is over. I am happy to be back providing content for you folks on a regular basis. In my time off, I’ve missed all sorts of television, both viewing- and writing-wise. To combat that, I’ll be whipping up a number of random posts with thoughts on countless summer programming over the next few days. I hope you consider these posts fair payment for the weeks I took off so that I could work on my thesis and spend time with my significant other.
The network-specific excursion through the last month of television continues today with a look at a two HBO series. Neither True Blood or Entourage are what I would call a “great” or even “good” series. I argued a few weeks ago that Entourage used to be something I really appreciated and True Blood always finds a way to pull out a great moment no matter how consistently terrible it’s been prior to that moment. Although they are both part of the HBO originally programming stable, neither is particularly interested in the same kinds of things we expect “traditional” HBO series to be. That’s fine. I really don’t have a problem with True Blood trying to find soap gold on pay cable or much of a problem with Entourage‘s life-style porn. In my heart of hearts I wish both series were better, but hey, I don’t always get what I want.
However, what’s really interesting about these two series is that while one has sort of embraced its place in mediocrity, the other continues to devolve past blah levels and descent into something much worse. I’m not sure if you’re going to be surprised or not, but the first statement refers to Entourage while the second unfortunately refers to True Blood.
After the middle seasons got bogged down in the series’ patented “everything always works out for us!,” Entourage has been shockingly potent and enjoyable in its last two seasons. It’s odd to even think this, but the end-date has actually helped Entourage tighten up its storytelling and character focus. Sure, the series still turns in episodes all about Vince’s indecision about how to tackle a drug test, but instead of relying solely on penis jokes, last week’s “Motherfucker” actually did a solid job of making the story about Vince’s fractured personal and professional relationship with Eric — while still relying on some penis jokes. This is far from groundbreaking in regards to character development, but it is also nice to see that Doug Ellin and his team still remember how to emphasize the bonds between these guys. Vince’s struggle with E as a friend and as a manager? About friendship. Drama walking over salary disputes on his new animated series? About his friendship with Dice. Vince and Turtle getting into more business together? Sort of about friendship.
In any event, the point is that the goofy, but believable bonds between these five (now six or seven if you count Scott and Billy) has been Entourage‘s biggest strength for years, but in the series’ dark period it took a back seat so all the middling business deals and twists and turns could be spotlighted. This season it feels like Entourage flipped it back the other way. The writers have even figured out a way to layer Ari’s professional wheelings and dealings with a more personal edge thanks to his surprisingly likable relationship with studio head Dana Gordon. And I know he’s a target for hate (rightfully so, I might add), but Jeremy Piven has been pretty darn good handling the more sides of Ari Gold this season.* Of all the characters, Piven’s Ari has always been given the most recognizable “arc,” but the last two season’s exploration of how all the terrible things he did in the previous years impacts all facets of his life has been worth watching. If it weren’t for the Modern Family men’s choke-hold on the Supporting Actor Emmy category, I’d put some money on Piven to make noise in September 2012. He still might.
*OK, don’t kill me but Adrian Grenier has been solid this season too. Not “good,” not Emmy worthy, not even Dream Emmy Ballot worthy, but solid. Vince has been a blank slate for so many years that it is nice to see him transition into a man who wants to take control of his life a bit more, even if “taking control of his life” means using a fake penis with clean urine in it so that he can pass a drug test. It’s Entourage folks, we have to savor the small victories.
I’m not an idiot and I’m not here to tell you that Entourage is awesome again or something. The series’ narrative still has very little stakes and with four episodes to go, it is clear that things are going to end on a relatively high note for this guys. But because Entourage has never been a series about real stakes or development, all I can do is appreciate the fact that the writers appear to be trying to circle back around to the things that are important, most notably friendship. It’s not a whole lot to hang eight seasons worth of stories on as the conclusion draws near, but it’s better than nothing — which is honestly what I expected.
True Blood doesn’t have the benefit of a conclusion* to circle its character and narrative wagons, but I’m confident that wouldn’t really matter. At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that neither one of these series is technically “good,” but for the majority of this season, True Blood has been technically “bad.” This follows a mostly dreadful third season that I could probably comment further on if I hadn’t tried so hard to block it all but this one moment out of my memory forever. I didn’t even buy the S3 DVD and if you know me, you know that’s a BIG deal. On a similar note, I definitely won’t be buying this season either because True Blood has only gotten more indulgent, more plodding and amazingly, more boring.
*The final season of True Blood sounds terrifying to me. I can only imagine how Alan Ball and company would try to put a button on multiple seasons of awfulness. Probably with excessive sex scenes topped off with excessively violent sequences. I’m just guessing here.
For a series that loves to push the envelope with its sexual and violent imagery, it’s a something of a triumph that True Blood is so horribly boring. I’m very much glad to have taken my hiatus during the meat of this season’s episodes because I probably wouldn’t have been able to keep from writing about how problematic every episode has been. I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but this needs to be said: True Blood would be a much better series if people actually died. I know what you’re thinking, people die all the time on True Blood. Sure, a few recurring folks get brutally murdered each season, but very few of the major plays ever really seem in danger — even when they’re in unbelievably dangerous situations.
I did a little research that I’d like to share with you folks. Of the 19 major cast members of the series’ first season (this includes recurring players like Todd Lowe and Kristin Bauer van Straten), 14 still remain alive in the series’ universe, though some have faded away. This does not include Deborah Ann Woll (Jessica), Jessica Tuck (Nan) or Dale Raoul (Maxine), all of whom had short guest spots in season one and have grown to have larger parts. So that’s 17/22 of the important people from season one who still play a role in the story. The sheer size of actors appearing in more than six episodes has increased from 19 to 24 to 28 over the first three seasons and is sure to top that by the end of this season considering there are 20 series regulars to begin with.
Obviously some of the regulars from each season died, but most of the original cast is still in-tact. This is supposed to be an extremely dangerous world full of death and the supernatural, but it is much harder to believe in that or really care when none of the dozen most important players bites it. I’m not asking for a mass murder of tons of characters all at once, but it makes so much sense to kill off characters who only drag the whole series down when they are on-screen. And unfortunately for True Blood there are many of those: Tara, Tommy, Sam and arguably Terry, Arlene, Hoyt, Lafayette and Jesus if the actors portraying them weren’t so likable or their characters so individually charming.
The series has another other big problem (well, aside from good scripts, staging and acting): Everyone has abilities. I understand that it is fun to bring in new supernatural entities each season, but without removing some of them or at least some of the characters who have those skills, the narrative becomes too heavy and spread way too thin. This season’s witch story has been pretty awful, but the shoe-horning in of the werewolf stuff is even worse. Plus, everyone having abilities means that the stakes are even lower because there’s always a back-door out of danger. If all characters have powers that prevent them from dying and the series refuses to knock off a few major characters to show what’s up, the narrative gets bogged down quickly. This is where we are with True Blood right now.
With so many characters to service and only a few of those characters in stories that are remotely interesting, True Blood has become a weekly exercise in DVR trickery where we are stuck intently watching as we fast-forward through all the terrible stuff to get to a few of the good moments buried in there somewhere. The series has helped us out a little bit by putting most of the quality beats and developments at the end of every episode, but there’s still probably only 10-15 minutes worth of that material each week.* As you might guess, I don’t really think that is good enough.
*Oddly, this makes it just like a soap opera, or at least my personal experiences with one. For years, my mother and grandmother have both watched The Young and the Restless, but both of them spend more time fast-forwarding through all the crap just to get to the few characters and stories they like than anything else. I always laughed. Until now.
There are things and characters on True Blood I do still sort of care about (Bill and his political dealings most notably, but I also like Alcide and am okay with the Jessica-Jason-Hoyt triangle even if I hate what it’s done to Hoyt) and I’m willing to keep watching for those things.* But now more than ever before, True Blood has lost the ability to balance the good with the bad.
*Also because I can’t quit anything. I will watch every episode of this horrible beast until it dies in six more years.