I Like to Watch

Hot-tempered vampires are running amok, from Alan Ball's new HBO drama "True Blood" to CBS's "Big Brother 10" to Bravo's "Flipping Out"!

Published August 10, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

The world is filled with hot-tempered vampires, whether they're bearing down on you in their 18-wheelers on the freeway or unleashing their ill-mannered children on yours in daycare. Most recently, reports indicate that hot-tempered vampires are manning the phones at AT&T, which is why, from the dark confines of their blackout-shaded offices, they so viciously refuse to explain the unauthorized charges on your phone bill.

Investigate the charges a little more, and you'll speak to even more hot-tempered vampires who will take great pains to explain to you that all it took was for some hot-tempered vampire teenager to go online and plug in your phone number, and voilà! You're paying $32 a month for someone else's Internet services. "But that isn't our fault!" the bloodthirsty ghouls will tell you, "because a little screen pops up that asks 'Are you 18 years of age?' and 'Are you the legally authorized owner of this phone account?' and since the marauding vampire youths did click through, indicating that they were old enough and were in charge, we are legally permitted to bill you through AT&T. Yes, you are the deluded, crack-smoking imbecile in this picture, so please go back to hitting the pipe and stop wasting our time with your trivial mortal concerns."

Eventually, you'll be redirected to even crazier, more rabid vampires, the sorts who ask you if you have children, then explain that while you personally may not have authorized those mysterious Web services, nine times out of 10 there's some wayward child in the house who went online and signed up without their parents ever knowing about it. The vampires will chuckle at your supreme ignorance of your own children's habits as they tell you this. And when you explain that your kid is 2 years old, the vampires will assure you that someone in your house is being sneaky, as if all households were filled with hot-tempered vampires just like theirs. Then the nasty bloodsuckers will demand to get your mailing address, hissing demonically that if you don't give it to them, they won't be able to reverse the charges and your credit will be ruined!

Now, I ask you, is it really wise to give your street address to a pack of drooling, hungry vampires? No, it is not wise. So after several months of this, you go online and find out that this sort of unauthorized-charge thing happens all the time, thanks to an increase in the vampire population. Not only that, but AT&T refuses, in many cases, to block particular companies from authorizing charges on your bill even when they are repeat offenders, and AT&T reps will often claim that they can't block third-party billing regardless of the fiends involved.

In other words, AT&T not only hires hot-tempered vampires to handle its phone lines, AT&T not only colludes with companies run by hot-tempered vampires, but AT&T itself is run by hot-tempered vampires -- which explains why the corporate behemoth aided the president in his nefarious eavesdropping activities. But look, don't get rid of your land line, because even though the hot-tempered vampires at the FDA keep assuring us that cellphones are safe, international studies have correlated excessive cellphone use with brain tumors, something we might've known a decade ago, if not for the hot-tempered vampire CEOs of most of our large corporations and the hot-tempered vampire lobbyists who work for them and the hot-tempered vampires taking over the House and the Senate as we speak.

See how, once you start noticing how many hot-tempered vampires there are in the world, moving in, whispering, cackling, gnashing their teeth, calling for your blood, people start to think that you're paranoid?

That's how you know they've already won! It's just like the end of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," only replace the pointing, screeching alien pod-people with bloodsucking corporate executives, senators and customer service reps.

Schlocky horror picture show
Compared to the living, breathing vampire plague we're dealing with these days, Alan Ball's new fall drama for HBO, "True Blood" (premieres 9 p.m. Sept. 7) is like a sweet little sexy fairy tale. Based on the vampire series by Charlaine Harris, "True Blood" tells us the story of Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a sweet-natured waitress in Louisiana who just happens to be able to read other people's minds. Inconveniently enough, Sookie can't stop reading them: She knows when her best friend thinks she's being stupid or her boss wants to sleep with her.

No wonder she's drawn to the tall, dark, handsome vampire stranger whose mind she can't read when he comes into the roadhouse for a drink. Apparently vampires have recently come out of hiding in a quest to be a part of society and live like normal humans. The Japanese have developed synthetic blood, so vampires no longer have to kill people just to eat. This means that Bill can sit down for a glass of wine (that he doesn't touch) and take in the sights.

Not surprisingly, though, the rest of the townspeople are seriously suspicious of vampires and they don't want Sookie running around with one. Not only does it seem just a wee bit dangerous to attach yourself to a man who must struggle mightily to contain his urge to bite your neck and suck you dry, but also, vampires are weird and different and immoral and other metaphors for being black or gay or foreign or super-creative with a glitter pen.

Of course, people are afraid of most things that are mysterious to them, says the smart-talking, black, gay short-order cook at the roadhouse where Sookie works. "I know every man -- whether straight, gay or George motherfucking Bush -- is terrified of the pussy!"

And what do people crave the most? That which terrifies them, of course. Sookie gushes to her co-workers when she spots Bill in a booth, "I've been waiting for this to happen ever since they [the vampires] came out of the coffin two years ago!"

But Sookie's friend Tara (Rutina Wesley) is suspicious, and warns the somewhat innocent Sookie to watch out. "Do you know how many people are having sex with vampires these days?" Sookie's brother, meanwhile, tells a lady friend, "I read in Hustler that everybody should have sex with a vampire before they die."

Yes, "True Blood" is that odd mix of kitschy, campy, over-the-top ridiculousness and weighty, message-laden social commentary. Alan Ball calls it "popcorn TV for smart people," but the average viewer is likely to find it at once addictive and stupid, intoxicatingly weird and confusing and goofy.

The show has a certain B-movie taint to it, from the scene where Tara tells off a customer at the hardware store where she works, then quits her job, to the scene where Bill the vampire (Stephen Moyer) tells Sookie she smells "like sunshine." Then there are the many cheesy, horror-movie-style sex scenes, plus a lot of really clunky, obvious dialogue.

Personally, I've never really enjoyed vampire books or vampire movies or vampire anything. On top of that, I loved "Six Feet Under" and would really prefer for Alan Ball to write a show that's exactly the same as "Six Feet Under," but with new characters: Smart, heavy, soul-searching TV for smart people, that's what I want. So naturally for the first hour of this show, I felt disappointed. I didn't like the campy weirdness, I didn't like the uneven Southern accents, I didn't like the "Different people are scary!" redneck clichés.

But even though the second episode of the season isn't structured very well, with lots of rambling talk about nothing, even though the show lacks the tightness and the natural momentum of "Six Feet Under" (and the weight and the intensity, for that matter), "True Blood" is still odd, unpredictable and off-kilter. And while the same might've been said for the ill-fated, rambling David Milch experiment "John From Cincinnati," the difference is that at the end of each episode of "True Blood," I want to see what happens next. Sookie and Bill are both good characters, and the setting and the story are both original and unfamiliar.

Maybe that good feeling will turn bloodless after the first few episodes, but for now, I'm ready for more. After creating my favorite show in the history of television, Alan Ball gets a free pass to have some fun. I'll suspend my disbelief for the moment. Bring on the hot-tempered vampires!

Hothead headquarters
Sadly, though, unless Alan Ball is in charge, hot-tempered vampires aren't all that sexy or all that interesting. Just look at "Big Brother 10" (8 p.m. Sundays and Thursdays, 9 p.m. Tuesdays on CBS), which really deserves to be accompanied by the subtitle "House of Hot-Tempered Vampires." After an entertaining Season 9 that paired up reasonably weird and slightly crazy people into "couples" and forced them to work together, the producers of this show decided to bail on such relatively subtle strategies, and instead chose to pack the "Big Brother" house with belligerent, short-tempered devils and succubi. And while I can't confirm that they're all literally undead demons of the night, I will tell you that they are alarmingly short-tempered and disconcertingly stupid and they do seem to stay up very, very late to scream at each other. I can only assume the cameras cut away when the blood-sucking begins.

Now, I know that doesn't sound all that out of the ordinary, but please, stay with me, because you really can't imagine just how quick-tempered and demonic these houseguests are. They explode into shouting matches every few seconds. It's not even possible for the show's editors to piece together a regular, coherent narrative, because all of the houseguests run around like chickens with their heads cut off, screaming at each other, around the clock.

At first, you might try to take sides. Jessie is a self-centered bodybuilder who picks a fight with middle-aged Renny, and calls her old and lame. But then Renny loses her temper and starts shrieking, old former Marine Jerry blows up, bartender Memphis screams at Jerry, mom Libra and Jerry yell at each other, and Keesha freaks out and announces to everyone in the house that she "can't fucking stand" her close ally, April.

Throughout all of this, each houseguest warns the other houseguests almost constantly that he or she is "about to go off." They talk about losing their tempers as if it's some sign of toughness, as if it doesn't take much more strength not to lose your temper when you're surrounded by angry idiots. When one houseguest yells, some other houseguest yells even louder, to demonstrate that they're even angrier and crazier than the first, and then a houseguest who's not even in the loop walks in and starts screeching and waving their hands around.

All of which might be amusing, if they weren't such wretched, dimwitted ghouls. These are people who can't control themselves, who've obviously gained power in their lives by yelling the loudest, making everyone tiptoe around them for fear that their necks will soon be pierced by razor-sharp teeth.

That said, two of the houseguests, Ollie and Dan, may not be vampires at all. How will they escape with their necks?

Bloodletting vs. subletting
One last word about the "Flipping Out" season finale: Wow! How does a design-based reality show where major plot points typically revolve around heated cellphone calls and mistaken faxes to real estate agents become a soap opera overnight?

The last few episodes and the second season finale packed a serious punch. Jenni unexpectedly split with her underachieving slacker husband, Chris. Jeff Lewis broke up with crazy rich lady Courtney and her big, scary, gothic mansion renovation. (Who but a vampire would live in that place?) Chris Keslar, frustrated with not being promoted after his epic three-month stint as Jeff's houseboy, quit his job, did a little "Oh, what a feeling!" leap like he was high at a Toyotathon, and drove off into the sunset.

And Jeff Lewis, the King of Comedy himself, decided to move out to Malibu to start flipping houses there, since, while the rest of the world is in serious cash-poor, upside-down-mortgage shape, Malibu is filled with fabulously wealthy bloodsucking demons who can afford to pay too much for Jeff's precious, shiny, anal-retentive hothouses, particularly if he starts throwing in blackout shades and scary carved-wood canopy beds and deep purple velvet curtains free of charge. Instead of putting soft classical music on the sound system during open houses, Jeff can switch to Trent Reznor and Marilyn Manson and Mozart's "Dies Irae."

Regardless of his new, desperate marketing schemes, Jeff remains a comic genius. He's getting damn good at delivering his "No, I really am crazy" punch lines, too, isn't he? I loved it when he was surveying his new rental property and then declared to Jenni, "Good news! Everyone who lives here is attractive."

Or how about later, when he returned to his new business partner's apartment while she was on vacation, and started throwing stuff out and rearranging the furniture. "I don't think it's inappropriate to go into someone's house without asking," he said, his eyes wide and innocent. "Especially if you have good intentions."

See how deluded hot-tempered vampires can be? Whether they're cutting you off in traffic or rummaging through your stuff without asking or allowing their children to double-dip in the community salsa bowl, they always have a rationalization for it. "I was in a hurry!" "Who needs this old stuff, anyway?" "What can you do, tell your kid not to double-dip? That might hurt his feelings!"

The world is filling up with vampires, though, so we'd all better change our attitudes and tolerate their differences. Remember, just because they're rude, arrogant, self-involved, irresponsible, incapable of RSVPing, sloppy, thoughtless, temperamental and avoidant, that doesn't mean we should discriminate against them. Just smile and nod along -- but cover your necks!

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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