It’s indisputable at this point that True Blood, HBO’s supernatural drama chock-full of skin, sex, and camp, is Not a Good Show. Though it’s inherited Game of Thrones’ all-important Sunday night time slot and ostensibly shares a genre with the fantasy series, it is far from a worthy successor to the smart writing and subtle characterization of its more critically acclaimed counterpart. In fact, True Blood has been on something of a downward spiral since its second season, when the Godric story line gave the show its last attempt at a character whose inner life couldn’t be summed up in a single paragraph. But here’s the thing about True Blood: even though it’s awful and most of its viewers know it, those same viewers just keep coming back, by the millions, season after season.
Until very recently, True Blood was HBO’s uncontested ratings champion, boasting an impressive 11.3 million average viewers per episode throughout its fifth season. Not only did more than ten million people willingly tune in to a season with plot lines ranging from the vaguely ridiculous (Detective Elliott Stabler as vampire president/despot) to the downright tasteless (vengeful Iraqi desert spirit as metaphor for PTSD), but many of those ten million people are the same viewers who watch such higher-brow fare as Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Witness the proliferation of recaps, traditionally reserved for more analysis-prone material like the ins and outs of Walter White’s meth empire, including roundups on Vulture, AV Club, and, yes, Flavorwire. Although most of the writing about True Blood these days does gently poke fun at the show’s absurdity, the tone is still far from the mood of outright hate-watching that accompanies chatter about The Newsroom or the recently canceled Smash. Whatever its flaws, True Blood is clearly doing something right.
So, what is it about vampire political coups and fairy strip clubs that makes True Blood worth viewers’ time? The glaringly obvious answer is sex appeal, which has been the show’s main selling point from day one — and it knows it. Relaxed censors, a genetically blessed cast, and a target audience significantly older than Twilight’s teen demographic add up to a show that’s much more interested in exploring the psycho-sexual implications of vampirism than Stephenie Meyer’s series or the CW’s Vampire Diaries. But as True Blood has progressed, sex and relationships have become increasingly tangential and irrelevant to the central conflicts of the show. Last night’s premiere was a perfect example: a werewolf threesome scene felt tacked on, and with the exception of Pam and Tara, none of the characters are in the kind of “epic fucking romance” that made Bill and Sookie circa Season 1 so addictive. Instead, attempted stakings and shots of vampires exploding into goo outnumber love scenes three to one.
At least some of True Blood’s staying power can actually be attributed to such attempts to transcend the vampire romance micro-genre. Starting as early as Season 2, True Blood decided it wasn’t just about what happens when humans come into contact with vampires; it’s about what happens when humans come into contact with an entire supernatural world that overlaps with our own, in ways that leave endless possibilities for new third-tier characters and subplots. Of course, those subplots usually turn out to be True Blood’s least interesting (if anyone genuinely believes Lafayette’s ability to commune with the dead does anything for his character, they’re in the minority), but they allow the show to cover all its bases. Rather than picking a niche within fantasy — fairy godmothers, sexy werewolves, normal people who suddenly have crazy powers — True Blood provides something for everyone. Whether it does any of those things well is another story.
Yet one ambitious project that’s been in True Blood’s DNA from the get-go is its attempts at political allegory. The show is hardly alone among popular fantasies in trying to comment on the real world while constructing a fictional one; Twilight’s thinly veiled equation of Edward’s suppressed desire to drink Bella’s blood with chastity is infamous, and even Harry Potter draws comparisons between its villains and real-life racists. But True Blood has always been the most overt in the analogy it draws between its supernatural protagonists and various marginalized groups in American political life, with the residents of Bon Temps consigned to the role of simple-minded reactionaries too often relegated to small-town Southerners by the liberal coast-dwellers that make up the show’s creators and audience.
The political comparisons — and ham-fisted commentary — began with the very first season, which smartly depicted the sudden emergence of vampires as an event with consequences that were as much global as they were personal. Throughout the series, we’ve seen the vampire community’s answer to Jay Carney in the form of spin mistress Nan Flanagan, vigilante groups that crudely swap out plastic Obama masks for KKK hoods, and most blatantly, debates over inter-species marriage. To its credit, True Blood also combines this approach with one of the more racially and sexually diverse casts on HBO: though Lafayette’s story lines often reek of tokenism, he’s still one of the best characters on the show, and Russell Edgington’s sexuality is presented without comment as just another facet of his character, as it should be.
However iffy its execution, True Blood’s use of allegory ultimately works in its favor. Even if they’re never fully explored, even if they’re never much more than window dressing for a bunch of sexy people and bad special effects, True Blood’s aspirations of exploring identity politics give it a patina of legitimacy for the typical cable drama viewer — the kind who hasn’t watched a CW show since Veronica Mars. Thanks to the clumsy parallels it draws between, say, vampire fundamentalists and the Christian right, True Blood allows its viewers to feel like they’ve grappled with political and moral issues without actually doing much grappling. In reality, the show’s politics mostly consist of center-left affirmations of diversity and tolerance — virtues to which the audience, in all likelihood, already subscribes.
As it turns out, True Blood’s closest contemporaries may not be other supernatural shows, but middlebrow political dramas in the line of The West Wing or Scandal. Like Aaron Sorkin and Shonda Rhimes, Alan Ball created a series that prefers to leave politics in the background, leaving the foreground free for sex and camp where Sorkin highlights dense, rapid-fire dialogue and Rhimes emphasizes romance and crazy plot twists. True Blood thus establishes itself as the guilty pleasure of choice for the Mad Men set: it’ll never be as lofty as some of its peers at HBO, but at least it pays lip service to the idea while providing plenty of shirtless shots of Joe Manganiello. And that’s good enough for most.