I Like to Watch

The sexy vampires of HBO's "True Blood" charm our mortal pants off, while the churlish motorcycle thugs of "Sons of Anarchy" stoop to a new low. Is the new fall TV season just a filthy tease?

Published November 2, 2008 11:20AM (EST)

 I'm over this fall TV season. Like a dull girl who hides her below-average intelligence by cultivating a mysterious vibe -- mostly by keeping her mouth shut and refusing to put out -- the fall TV season somehow teased us into submission. She flashed a little thigh in mid-June, made one half-assed joke at the television critics' tour in late July, claimed not to believe in sex before marriage throughout September (while sleeping around like a filthy whore behind our backs), then she threw herself on us in October, sticking a rough, sluggy tongue down our throats and pledging her undying love forever and ever while we reeled in agony.

We're supposed to believe that the pseudo-scientific ass-hattery of "Fringe" is a cult hit? No amount of Kool-Aid can make me watch a show about a tangle of idiotic conspiracies, a kooky mad scientist, and an eeeevil corporate entity run by a one-handed Cruella de Vil. We're supposed to be excited to watch two guys fiddling with bamboo pea-shooters on NBC's "Crusoe"? NBC's "Knight Rider" is a big hit? Who do they think they're kidding?

And that's not to mention HBO's "Life and Times of Tim" and CBS's "Worst Week," two positively awful, irredeemable messes that it's hard to believe made it onto the air in the first place

Narmed to the teeth

But then that sleazy halfwit girlfriend of ours sidles up with a few glasses of Cabernet and an elaborate seafood lasagna and reminds us about HBO's "Summer Heights High" and ABC's "Life on Mars." She recalls how CBS's "Gary Unmarried" made us laugh last week, and reminds us that we watched another episode of "The Mentalist" and sort of enjoyed it.

No matter what that slut says, the only new show I never miss is "True Blood" (9 p.m. Sundays on HBO). Admittedly, Alan Ball's kooky vampire mystery baffled me at first. I guess I half-expected those small-town vampires to seduce the mortals in their midst with vitriolic psychoanalysis and ultra-witty complaints about the pretensions of art school, then adopt scrappy, adorable foster children, indulge in illicit affairs with relative strangers, and finally, fall down dead from scary brain infections out of the blue. (Narm!)

Instead, Ball offered up a kitschy town full of oddballs and misfits with seriously fake Southern accents. For someone who grew up in the South, these exaggerated drawls couldn't be more chafing. Imagine a British guy attending a production of "Hamlet" put on by a bunch of 8th graders in Texas, and you get the idea. Tara (Rutina Wesley) is particularly awful at the Southern drawl, and seriously needs to tone it down. That's the trick, see? You take your idea of a Southern accent (hopefully not derived from watching "Gone With the Wind" because, uh, those accents were fake, too) and then you cut it in half. Otherwise, you sound like a space alien.

But there's something so tasty and irresistible about "True Blood." Even when the dialogue is a little predictable, even when there are lots of ignorant rednecks milling about, gossiping to each other (How many times have we seen the same stereotypical Southern nosy neighbors and sugarcoated snakes before?), even when the vampires other than Bill (Stephen Moyer) really do seem like the scary perverts most of the townsfolk take them to be, I'm always anxious for the next chapter in this story.

Why? Somehow I want to know how Sookie (Anna Paquin) and Bill fare as a couple. He's brooding and intense, she's picky and untouchable: It's the ultimate high-maintenance girl's fantasy of a passionate affair with a libidinous artistic type. He's a little bit depressed and slightly creepy, she's a little bit prudish and stubborn, plus she's a tease. They're made for each other.

And I need to know what's going on with the creepy bartender, Sam (Sam Trammel). He was easy to dislike even before he started sniffing dead women's dirty sheets and dashing through the swamp naked as the day he was born. (Didn't a character on the show actually use those words? See how this Southern crap writes itself?) But wouldn't it be too obvious if Sam were the killer?

Obviously it couldn't be Sookie's hapless whore of a brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten), either. But I did love the addition of the totally understanding, drug-wieldin' new-age-hippie girlfriend, Amy. That character is pure Alan Ball. She's the open-minded, affectionate, idealistic, gorgeous, utterly perfect lover -- until she's not getting exactly what she wants, and then she manipulates and twists the knife until she does. Amy proves once again that Ball has a serious knack for modern archetypes. Think Lisa, Lilli Taylor's character on "Six Feet Under," one of the most loathsome, irritating humans ever to be depicted on the small screen. Ball drags Lisa into Nate's life, turns him into a sniveling, soft-pedaling wuss in front of our eyes, and then -- surprise! -- she's secretly rotten to the core. For all of his very enlightened perspectives on life and death, Ball is clearly a man who finds many, many people wildly distasteful -- and that makes him a great writer.

OK, so "True Blood" isn't exactly a brilliant, layered narrative, heavy with insights and thoughtful moments and weighty images. I almost wish Ball would fly free of Charlaine Harris' "Sookie Stackhouse" series of novels more often, and follow his own, seemingly less stereotypical instincts.

But I'm still hooked on this TV version of a page turner, with its quick fix of goofy interactions, sexy vampire lovemaking and backwoods nastiness. It may not be groundbreaking television, but I really do look forward to it each week -- which is much more than I can say for most of the new shows to air this fall.

 Love is murder

Speaking of sex and death, did anyone else catch the episode of "Sons of Anarchy" from the week before last, where Tara (Maggie Schiff), the cute doctor lady, and Jax (Charlie Hunnam), the hot Brad Pitt-ian motorcycle thug, finally do the deed after weeks of growing sexual tension?

Whether or not you watch this show or care, hunker down and listen up, because this was an episode for the TV history books. Here's what happened: Tara was being stalked by her obsessive exboyfriend, ATF agent Scott Kohn, who was, disconcertingly enough, played by Jay Karnes, the same actor who plays Dutch on "The Shield." While I applaud the move not to cast some smoldering tough guy in this role, it's about as hard to imagine Dutch stalking someone as it is to picture Don Draper running a prostitution ring or Nate Fisher beating his mom senseless. And really, would Tara date someone who looked like Dutch, when her high school boyfriend looked like this? Mmmm, I don't think so.

So anyway, having decided that Jax is his main rival, Dutch (aka the ATF boyfriend) breaks into his house and pees on his floor. As a result, Dutch is brutally beaten by Jax, charged with assault, and driven out of town forever and ever. Even after all of that, Dutch still shows up in Tara's house a few nights later and gets all lovelorn and violent and weird. Tara is clearly freaking out -- Maggie Siff does a great job showing us a mix of panic and desperate scheming to get out of this situation alive -- and she finally resolves to make out with Dutch to calm him down. She strips, crawls on top of him, then grabs his gun from the night table. It accidentally goes off! Dutch is hit! He yells at her to call an ambulance! Instead, she calls Jax, who comes to her house, blows Dutch's head off, and then makes sweet love to her, a few feet away from her ex-boyfriend's still-warm dead body!

Now look, I want to like this show, I really do. The cast is great, the writing isn't half bad, the whole premise is interesting and fairly original -- you know, all of the basics are in place. But this absurd scene sums up exactly what's wrong with the show: It has no self-restraint. A few stupidly sensationalistic choices damn it to mediocrity week after week. Everyone is absurdly corrupt and skeezy on this show, and as I've written before, it's far worse than it ever was on show creator Kurt Sutter's inspiration, "The Sopranos." Even the reasonably ethical characters do terrible, unbelievable things. Gemma and Clay scheme to keep Jax doing their bidding, while trying to hide all of the bad stuff they've done in the past (which obviously involves Jax's dead father in some way). Clay sleeps with a young prospective club member's crush just to demonstrate that he's the top dog, then Gemma breaks the poor girl's nose with a skateboard in a jealous rage. Rival gang members and innocent bystanders are killed left and right without remorse. It gets to the point where you feel sorry for anyone who's forced to associate with these bastards.

And how about the episode where a rival gang and the Sons of Anarchy open fire on each other from a few yards away, and half of them don't even attempt to take cover the entire time? Who knew that motorcycle gangs favored the trench warfare of World War I -- except without the trenches? I know these guys are supposed to be violent thugs, but could they really be that stupid?

Of course, the second that I write this show off, they go and air a really good episode: Tara and Jax struggle with their crime, Gemma struggles with the sight of Tara, and Clay (Ron Perlman) strikes an unexpected deal with the Mayans. It's remarkable how strong the dialogue is on this show, given how annoying and unrealistic the story lines can be. I guess I'll have to climb on board this crazy train and ride it for another week. It's not like there's anything else on.

Next week: "Friday Night Lights" flounders in obscurity (again!) on DirecTV, while CW's loan shark drama "Easy Money" straddles an uneasy line between dark and zany.

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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Alan Ball I Like To Watch Six Feet Under Sons Of Anarchy Television True Blood