True Blood's "Barrage of Homosexuality"
Was the Philadelphia Eagles' Todd Herremans on to something?
"Caught up on True Blood," began last week's notorious tweet by Todd Herremans, the 320-pound offensive guard for the Philadelphia Eagles, who perhaps has too much free time since being sidelined with a fracture in his left foot. He didn't like what he saw. True Blood has poked fun at football this year with its dog-fighting subplot and low-stakes, high-drama quarterback controversy, but that's not what bothered him. "Not a fan of how they get u hooked with the 1st 2 seasons then bring on a barrage of homosexuality," " he wrote.
The inevitable backlash online and in the press quickly followed, and after getting his arm-twisted by team management, Herremans apologized, calling his comment "insensitive and tasteless." By the time yesterday's episode aired, he was back at practice, giving him less time for television criticism. That's too bad, since while his take was homophobic, he was also onto something.
The writers clearly enjoy making their audience feel uncomfortable. The excess of gore and the violent sex are designed to shock. They haven't recently introduced homosexuality, as Herremans would have it, although you could make the case that there has been something of a barrage lately. And this season, the show's fluid sexuality has a pointed dramatic purpose that invites and even encourages this kind of gay panic.
We got a hint of this strategy in the first episode this year, during the dream sequence imagining sex between Bill and Sam, both straight hunks whose taste in women is no secret. Last week, what bothered Herremans was surely the sex between Talbot and Eric. Straight male audiences surely identified with the confident alpha dog Eric, perpetually surrounded by adoring topless strippers. It was a shock to hear him explain that, when he said it's been a long time since he's "done this," he was referring to vampires, not men.
Other shows feature sex between men—and even surprise you with a supporting player turning out to be in the closet—but True Blood consistently gets straight male audiences to identify with characters in homoerotic situations. In the most recent episode, we see this dynamic play out in a slightly different way, when Sam approaches his brother's house to get him to quiet down; the rough sex is waking Arlene, pregnant with a serial killer's child and needing her nine hours of sleep. You hear the young shape-shifter inside howling, "yea, girl, jump up and down, let's see those titties shake." Sam looks in the window and just when the straight male audience is titillated, a nude male butt walks right into the foreground. Sam himself flinches. The girl (and her impressive bosom) eventually enter the frame, but female nudity gets no pride of place here.
Manipulating the expectations of the audience has a tradition in fantasy. In her seminal book Men, Women and Chainsaws, Carol Clover argued that exploitation films long attacked by feminists regularly ask male audiences to identify with female victims. Explicitly building on this analysis, Laura Miller's trenchant The Magician's Book explains how C.S. Lewis invites boy readers to put themselves in the shoes of a heroine in the Narnia trilogy. True Blood performs a similar trick by getting straight male audiences invested in scenes of gay sexuality. Herremans's tweet shows that it worked.
This episode continued teasing us about what exactly Sookie is. Previously Eric learned the truth in a whisper, and the big revelation this week is … Bill also knows. The problem with dragging these things out is that it raises expectations as much as it builds suspense. The rest of the episode did not play so coy. We got plenty of skin, some vicious violence, and finally a peak at the Authority, the vampire leadership. Sitting at a table, staring at a large video screen, the five well-dressed people looked like management consultants hanging out on a high-tech set designed by the Wooster Group. The cold, corporate power works for me, especially since it nicely contrasts with the colorful kings and queens and sheriffs.
The Authority asks Eric to kill Russell, the vampire king gone rogue. Franklin returned from the dead and got killed again, but not before one last sick love-drunk frenzy. Sam took out his midlife crisis frustration on Crystal's dad, pummeling him into a bloody mess. And the bumbling Jason Stackhouse and Andy Bellefleur * are turning out to be a hilarious buddy act. Andy won the dumb-off this time, suggesting that they call in the ATF, CIA, FBI, DEA, DoJ and Blackwater to solve a local crime.
Since I worry that we won't have much more time to savor the flamboyant genius of Denis O'Hare, let's linger over his camp classic monologue to end the show. In an attempt to destroy the carefully managed integration of vampires into the mainstream orchestrated by the Authority, he shows up on live television, rips out the bloody spine of a television anchor and announces the "real face" of the vampire. What follows is a thick and delicious ham sandwich of a performance that reminded me of Jack Nicholson at his most giddily indulgent.
The theatrical spirit here is justified because the character is himself putting on a performance. He wants to scare humans into not trusting the American Vampire League. Of course, it is a wonderful irony that his message—as much as they try to convince you otherwise, vampires are not like you—is more correct than the line Bill and the Vampire League are trying to sell.
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.