Dear Alan Ball,
Earlier this month, HBO announced a rewatch podcast for your hit show, True Blood. The podcast is produced by cast member Janina Gavankar, and features other favorites like Kristin Bauer van Straten and Deborah Ann Woll. Exciting news for “Trubies” everywhere, but for me, looking back at the show has been more of a slap in the face than a comforting dose of nostalgia.
First, I have a confession to make: I love True Blood.
I love its messy, morally ambiguous universe, the complex, imperfect characters, and it’s progressively insane plot. It blends southern gothic, camp, and soap opera into one delightful Gran’s pecan pie for viewers to devour. Your show advanced Hollywood’s LGBTQ+ representation with diverse and dynamic queer characters before it was profitable for a mainstream genre show. I also hate your show.
Look Alan—can I call you Alan? There are many, many reasons someone could write you an angry letter. I’m sure you’ve received at least a hundred. Among your series’ crimes are the mistreatment of your show’s one queer Black woman main character, Tara, the questionable parallels drawn between fictional bloodsucking vampires and very real marginalized groups, or the misogyny, homophobia, racism and evangelicalism you sought to deconstruct ultimately consumed the final seasons. But we have limited time so first I’m going aim for the low hanging fruit: True Blood got kinda stupid.
Okay, so for the uninitiated, True Blood was an HBO series that ran from 2008 to 2014, averaging about ten episodes per season. The show straddled the line between drama, comedy, camp, and borderline softcore porn that at times questioned if the TV-MA rating had a limit of what it could show before TV Parental Guidelines forced HBO to just move the whole thing to PornHub.
Us fans are mixed on precisely when True Blood jumped the shark, some citing the fairies plotline, or the evil vampire fairy plotline, or the stripper fairies plotline, and others claiming that the cracks had always been visible and the show eventually fractured. But the consensus is that by season five, the show had been mortally wounded and was slowly bleeding to death.
When True Blood premiered, the premise was simple. In a world where vampires revealed themselves to humans after the invention of synthetic blood, a young waitress, Sookie Stackhouse, meets and begins to fall in love with a two hundred-year-old vampire, Bill Compton, who has returned to the small town of Bon Temps in rural northern Louisiana to live in his ancestral home after his last known living descendant passed away. Their fledgling romance runs up against various obstacles, from Sookie’s protective but idiotic older brother, Jason, to the inner workings of the vampire hierarchy. Also, there’s a serial killer running around town murdering young white women known to have sex with vampires. On top of that, Sookie is a telepath, but don’t worry, that won’t be explained until the third season and it was practically forgotten for most of the series.
And that’s pretty much it. And it was great! You had the building blocks of something not only entertaining for fans of the vampire subgenre, but a great deconstruction of the marriage of misogyny, racism, and homophobia to the purity culture and repression endemic to American culture, specifically in the American South. Then you looked at those building blocks, doused them with gasoline, and set them on fire.
“Then you looked at those building blocks, doused them with gasoline, and set them on fire.“
For the first season, it’s just Sookie and the charmingly flawed supporting cast navigating their own hang-ups with intimacy, relationships, and navigating those in a small town buried under its own tradition, and what it means to live in a world where vampires walk among them after dark. By the end of the season, the killer is apprehended, Sookie and Bill are in love and ready to make their relationship work, and I cannot shoot season two into my eyeballs fast enough.
And then the show immediately lost its mind. Season two not only introduced even more characters to an already sizable cast of series regulars, elevated the softcore porn of season one to town-wide orgies, but opened a Pandora’s box by adding the existence of maenads from Greek mythology to the Bon Temps universe. There was even a blink-and-you-miss-it line suggesting that the Greek god of excess, Dionysus, was canon to the world. If that seems out of place in a show about vampire romance, hold on to your prosthetic fangs because season two made an incredible show of restraint by only introducing one main supernatural creature, and that restraint lasted one season.
Season three began a quick freefall to werewolves, fairies, meth-dealing werepanthers, witches, brujos (a depiction that aged like milk), mediums, ghosts, demons, vampire gods, and vampire fairies. And that’s not even counting the human threats to our favorite characters.
There is genuinely too much insanity in the show to cover, but if the show had to be summarized in broad strokes, the one consistent plotline is the love triangle between everyone’s favorite telepathic waitress, Sookie, Bill, and Eric Northman, a thousand-year-old Viking vampire who runs a nightclub and is not interested in “mainstreaming” to fit in with the humans.
The love triangle is stupid because Sookie’s choice should obviously be Eric. It’s not, but it should be. Eric starts out as a low-level antagonist but is, for the most part, always on the side of the good guys despite some of the horrible things he does. Bill stops being Sookie’s main love interest by the end of season three, leaving the door open to a pretty fun season where Eric loses his memory and has to stay with Sookie, thus kicking off the romance that dominated most of the book series the show is based on. But not only do Sookie and Eric not end up together, the show insists on circling back around to the wet blanket that is Bill and Sookie’s boring romance. By the end, it’s touted as a star-crossed true love to the detriment of everyone involved.
In fact, the books had the good sense to realize that Bill’s relevance to the story was over by book three out of thirteen. But the show can’t get rid of him, because actor Stephen Moyer is the second billed star in the credits and signed a contract! So, you and your fellow writers are stuck coming up with ways to keep Bill around. I know you were all capable writers, even if you seem to have been on shrooms when writing the later seasons. But was making Bill into a vampire god after he converted to vampire Catholicism after being kidnapped by the vampire Vatican really the best you could come up with? He also unknowingly has sex with his great-great-granddaughter and then it’s never referenced again . . . because reasons? It’s all very stupid, and what makes it worse is that the show did not have to make Bill a villain, because he already was since the first episode.
So, Bill, the vampire love interest of the first three seasons, the guy we are maybe supposed to be rooting for, was a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. Bill as an ex-Confederate soldier worked for me in the first season because it seemed clear that you were setting up an arc in which Bill personified everything wrong with Bon Temps. He infantilizes Sookie under the guise of protecting her, kills under the same pretense, oh yeah and almost immediately after first meeting her, he arranges a life-threatening “accident” as an excuse to feed her a ton of his blood, which will make her sexually attracted to him and heal her back from the brink of death.
Credit where credit is due, you left the show after season five and at that point Bill was a crazed vampire god out for nondescript, never clarified, evil intentions. So maybe you could convince me that your original plan was to make Bill the villain before you left and turned over creative control. But that being said, any thin ice you could have been on for this one broke a few seasons ago.
And that brings me to Tara. When True Blood premiered, there were five main characters that could be considered the protagonists of the show: Sookie, Jason, Sam, Bill, and Sookie’s childhood best friend, Tara. Tara is great. Strong-willed, underestimated, incredibly intelligent, self-effacing, and compassionate, Tara is one of the most emotionally complicated characters, which means something when your co-stars are thousand-year-old vampiric killing machines. She is also the only Black woman in the main cast for all seven seasons, and one of the only four women of color to be main cast members all together.
And, for reasons that escape me, you seem to hate Tara.
The devolution of Tara’s character is easily the most atrocious and morally reprehensible part of the show. In a show where horrible things happen to every single character, Tara drew the worst straw of the bunch. She is financially exploited and verbally abused by her mother. She loses a boyfriend to police violence. She is raped, kidnapped, then torn from the life she built for herself, away from the purgatory that is Bon Temps, and back into the show’s drama. Oh, and that’s all before she gets shot in the head at the end of season four only to be resurrected as a vampire, which she had explicitly said she would never want to become. And then she died offscreen in the first episode of the last season.
“The devolution of Tara’s character is easily the most atrocious and morally reprehensible part of the show.”
To everyone who screwed Tara over in the writers’ room: I hope the barista always spits in your drink.
So how did your successors choose to wrap up your unholy antichrist of a creation? Well, it escalates to the point that at the beginning of the final season, the entire world is living in a state of emergency because of essentially AIDS, but for vampires. It opens like the setup of a zombie film, with the humans and uninfected vampires trying to protect each other against the “zombie” “Hepatitis B” positive vampires. Those vamps are driven to madness by hunger and try to drink as much blood as possible before the disease takes over. Then, they explode in a burst of fake blood and viscera, much to the delight of your costume department’s drycleaners.
The writers’ room got bored of that idea after four episodes. So for the remaining six, the show pivots to a saccharine, last-minute, tragic love story between Sookie and Bill, THE CONFEDERATE SOLDIER, who is dying of Hepatitis V. The B plot features fan favorite bad boy and bad girl vampires, Eric and Pam, taking down both the Yakuza and the retired televangelist slash anti-vampire-terrorist-turned-new age LA bastardization of a Buddhist yoga practitioner, Sarah Newlin. If that sounds like tonal whiplash, that’s because it is.
And it only got worse from there. Bill manipulates Sookie into mercy killing him as one last “screw you” to her and the viewers at home I guess?
Flash forward three years, and all of your favorite characters—and I say your favorite characters because mine are Tara, Pam, Eric and Sookie, who are either not there or have lost all semblance of their initial characterization—are living a Stepford housewife nightmare where they eat Thanksgiving dinner together. And because there is no other way to show that she has achieved her happy ending, Sookie is pregnant and married to a man whose face we never see. The final message of your last season: life is meaningless without marriage and babies. Cool. Great. It’s fine and totally not as though the bulk of your series was about, even if poorly executed, celebrating individuals and relationships outside of Southern heteronormativity. It’s fine.
I hope you’re satisfied, Alan Ball. I however wish I could be glamoured by one of your vampires to forget this entire seven (one for every level of Purgatory) season experience.
Thanks for the memories, True Blood. We’ll meet again when the creator of Riverdale reboots you.
Caroline Kilian is a Staff Writer for the Blue Muse Magazine
Header Photo Credit: HBO