Alan Ball listens to his critics. That doesn't mean he agrees with them, but in the latest episode of True Blood, he appears to respond to the complaint that the show gleefully portrays violence against women. Jason refers to Bill's attack on his sister as "domestic … something." It's true that Bill did ferociously bite Sookie, though he lost control because he needed blood to survive, but the point here is that the charge simplifies rather than clarifies. If Jason can't recall the proper term, Russell, the most woman-hating of characters, invents his own. "How so very sexist of you Bill," he says, in response to some old-fashioned macho bluster, before adding a line that could have come out of Ball's mouth himself: "When it comes to killing, I am an equal opportunist."
Ball's answer to an even more common line of attack—that his show is overstuffed—is to mock it by jamming more and more blood and sex into every episode. If the excess of characters and plotlines is a flaw, it's a necessary one, since this show is built on killings that leave a mark. You need the hard work of constantly introducing and developing potential victims. So I have never been bothered by the too-muchness of True Blood—until now.
This has been a good season, but there have been worrying signs that in the distance a shark approaches a vampire on water skis. On Sunday, the fish got closer. It was a lumbering episode that went nowhere. Sookie and Bill, both in tears, break up unconvincingly, and then, by the end, grind out some make-up sex much more persuasively. There were two top-shelf sex scenes, but the surprises this time were telegraphed: When Russell tells Talbot, "At least you're safe, that's what matters most to me," you just knew the make-out session with Eric would end with the wrong kind of penetration. The stake through Talbot's heart was as inevitable as Debbie acting like the big bad wolf before busting through a white door in the style of Jack Nicholson from The Shining. A much savvier horror reference was the tip of the shower cap to the sultry opening scene of Dressed To Kill with Tara fondling herself like Angie Dickinson.
A dull episode every now and again is to be expected. The larger problem is the increasingly crowded melting pot of supernatural creatures. In the first two seasons, it was basically just vampires and humans, with the occasional shape-shifter, demon, or maenad thrown in. This season, Ball has added a pack of werewolves, new shape-shifters, and those mystical swimming hippies who danced with Sookie. And there appear to be more to come.
Most of the suspense left this season revolves around not what will happen, but who is what? What kind of growling beast is Crystal? What in the world is Sookie? And now we learn that Lafayette is very "powerful"? Ball has already announced that the fourth season will features witches; he appears bored with the focus on vampires. "I feel like the more supernatural creatures we can get in there … the more interesting the world is," he has said. "Because if it's just about vampires, than OK, alright."
No! Vampires are not just OK. Bill and Eric and Franklin and Russell and Talbot and Sophie-Ann and the magister and Jessica are the main reasons to watch this show. The boring shape-shifters and dopey werewolves are at best distracting and at worst, filler. Ball never figured out a compelling way to dramatize werewolves this season, as evidenced by thudding lines this week such as Alcide saying "too bad we're so stupid." Moreover, one of the comic pleasures of the show was the juxtaposition of human normalcy with the wildness of the supernatural. If everyone turns out to have some special powers, the show will lose its bearings.
The vampires are compelling in part because they are smart and passionate and incapable of sticking to their own codes of conduct. They are dominated by one overarching desire—avenging the death of parents, earning the love of Sookie, world domination—and will do anything to accomplish that. But it also helps that the show has delved deeply into their mythology, their mores, and political systems. The world of the werewolves and shape-shifters, by contrast, seem simple and bland by comparison. Maybe they eventually will become more complex but with so many creatures fighting for time and attention, the task for the writers becomes increasingly difficult.
Don't get me wrong: I'm all for diversity, but with so many different tribes trying to assimilate, might the true dramatic character of the show get short shrift? True Blood was built on a solid foundation of human and vampires. That is what made the show great. It may be time to tighten up its borders. Can Tom Tancredo move to Bon Temps?