Why doesn't True Blood get as much critical love as Mad Men?

Obsessive analysis of True Blood.
Aug. 2 2010 11:16 AM

Style, Soap, Sex—and Splat!

Why doesn't True Blood get as much critical love as Mad Men?

You may now air-kiss the bride.

How apt that the day after the preposterously overhyped nuptials in Rhinebeck, N. Y., True Blood gave us the real wedding of the century. The bride, just under a millennium old, wore white and pearls, but this was not exactly a traditional affair, starting with the venue: a dank dungeon with moody lighting. The groom, a vampire three times her age, didn't pop the question so much as level a threat, and once the ceremony was over, he chopped off the officiant's head. It flipped through the air in slow motion before landing with a messy splat.

True Blood likes to mix horror and romance, but this season, comedy comes first. It's a sneaky brand of humor, the grandeur of old-time vampire lore juxtaposed with cheeky modern slyness. Denis O'Hare's Russell, the vampire king and happy groom, spouts some Latin-sounding ancient language before saying "well, whatever." Evan Rachel Wood's Sophie Anne, the vampire bride, spits out dryly "Yes, thanks, I'm so happy I could bleed," before giving her new spouse a long-distance smooch.

The audience, two casually dressed vampires, do not cheer or throw rice, although Pam was in good spirits, since the officiant, the magister, needed to stop torturing her to conduct the ceremony. She musters two quick claps, the kind a starlet makes when she likes her salad, and a less than gushing "Congrats!" This comedy of ill manners sends up the sappy platitudes of the modern wedding so hilariously that you have to wonder: Why is everyone talking about Mad Men?

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Even though True Blood is a colossal hit, the biggest for HBO since The Sopranos, Mad Men gets more features, think pieces, and references from Maureen Dowd. If you doubt that it's the darling of the prestige press, take a look at Katie Roiphe's close reading in Sunday Styles yesterday, explaining how the appeal of Mad Men relies on "the thrill of casual vice, on the glamour of spectacularly messy, self-destructive behavior." It's a perfectly fine argument, but it would be much better if you replaced every mention of Mad Men with True Blood. The shows, both stylish and soapy and blessed with excellent actors work the same fantasy, but True Blood gives it to you with a splat.

It may be that old elite snobbishness toward lowbrow genres remains. Then again, The Sopranos earned acclaim for following and challenging conventions of the gangster drama, and the series did not shirk on the sex and gore either. And the period knowingness of Mad Men is no less heavy-handed than the political metaphors of True Blood.

The reason the vampire series has not been embraced as a must-see among the smart-set is, I think, its style of comedy. Its gleeful bad taste is part of the fun, but the sexual puns ("I want you to be my girlfriend, and I really want you to eat my biscuits") and sloppy violence may cost the show some effusiveness among critics, not to mention a few Emmys.

Incidentally, this week was a banner one for sex and scares. The magister (Zeljko Ivanek) was not the only vampire to be sent to "True Death." The twisted Lorena (Mariana Klaveno) was also turned into a milky pool of blood by a stake through the heart. They will be sorely missed. Jason Stackhouse's chiseled abs received loving attention. Male eroticism typically exceeds lesbian heat in vampire stories—although if you are looking for a counterpoint, start with the red-hot The Vampire Lovers, from 1970, which receives a rare big screen screening Thursday at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music—but this episode evens the balance with Sookie as the main crush object.

After one bite, Lorena declares her "delicious." Sookie, later hospitalized after being drained of blood by a thirsty Bill, dreams up a bacchanalian outdoor party where mostly women dance together in flowing white robes in what looks like a stylized modern update of Hair.

The plot seemed slightly more focused than usual. Russell is gearing up for a showdown with the vampire elite called the Authority. (The dog-fighting scene was as lame as expected, albeit thankfully brief.) But the show centered on this teasing question: What kind of supernatural creature is Sookie? While we still don't know for sure, there are some new clues. She was born at home on the dining room table because she came out too quickly to make it to the hospital. Her parents may not have died the way she thought they did. And most crucially: her "delicious" blood seemed to help Bill survive exposure to the sun, which would help answer my question from Week 2: Why is it that vampires can't get enough of Sookie?

Finally, let's peel the onion of this week's conspicuous literary reference. At the hospital bed, Lafayette's recitation of Inuit poetry that rethinks the importance of my "small adventures, my fears, those small ones that seemed so big," fits nicely with the current vampire plot to eradicate the human race. Its spiritual imagery also frames the mystical elements of Sookie's dream. But the writers of this show are tricky and I would bet that one of them spotted this quote from the end of the 1983 adventure film Never Cry Wolf.

The plot of that movie follows a biologist assigned to northern Canada to figure out whether wolves are responsible for destroying the caribou population, only to find that humans are more at fault. Is this a hint at the role the werewolves will play in the vampire conspiracy? Or might this be a lighter joke? Wikipedia reports that Never Cry Wolf was the first Disney movie to show a naked adult derriere. As die-hard fans know all too well, Alcide, the werewolf hunk standing around the bed, showed up in the nude for the first time last week. Only an obsessive fan would connect these dots, and it might be the case that someone just liked the sound of this quote. But True Blood loves its hints and teases as much as it does its skin and scares.

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Jason Zinoman writes about theater for the New York Times. He is the author of Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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