Monday, 21 July 2008

Pilot Watch Part One - Bloody Mess

It’s the time of year that the pilots of upcoming shows leak out into the internet for all the contempt and bile we can pile upon them. Or vice versa, we take a show to heart and praise it widely and loudly to anyone that will listen. Of course then it hits the air, the general audience sighs and flicks the channel to Deal or No Deal. Then the little show that could is swiftly stamped with cancellation by the big network that can. Still, some shows are already picked up to air regardless of this and its always worth giving them a bit of face time before the tweaks are made (or in some cases the culling, massacre style of a show’s entire cast and crew) and the official television premiere arrives.

True Blood

This fantasy pilot revolves around the premise that vampires live among us and have for some time unnoticed (old hat) but when a new synthetic blood is released they decide to reveal themselves to the world at large (not so old hat). Obviously they don’t exactly become media darlings, being treated with the same fascination and scorn the press and public exclusively reserve for Britney Spears these days.

With Alan Ball, widely known for writing American Beauty and for creating Six Feet Under for HBO in the past, adapting this for television from a book series you’d assume we are in safe territory with this pilot. It not only features Ball’s favourite theme, death, and a cast packed with the quirky characters but for some reason the whole thing doesn’t really mesh together. This could have been a gloriously mad piece of work, the dark comedy of Ball’s previous work in a fantastic new setting where he can get away with playing his trademark fantasy sequences straight but (at least in the pilot) this isn’t the case.

It’s disappointing, imagine you watched a show that had glowing reviews throughout its run. So, you sit down to watch the other show they created, thinking all the while how fantastic it will be and how much you will love it. And yet when you turn the TV on you discover you are watching Saved By The Bell, with full knowledge that the gawky one Screech went from this to an insanely creepy porn career. You would vomit your brains out of your nose whilst simultaneously shitting yourself in horror.

The characters are the first problem. If this were a UK show I’d be convinced the writers were sat making notes on characterisation from a combination of Buffy reruns and Jeremy Kyle. Sookie, the main character, is essentially a demure version of Buffy, with her own superpower to boot. Although the most action Sookie is likely to see is at the diner where she works, hearing what the overweight, horny patrons imagine they’d do to her if she was to find them remotely sexually attractive. Sookie wound up lumbered with the superpower no one really wants: telepathy. The actress also played Rogue in the X-Men movies so at this point she must be wondering why she keeps getting stuck with crap, useless superpowers. Anna Paquin does turn in solid enough work here, but she looks as bored with the material as I was watching it. The primary vampire, Bill, plays to type with the usual mix of pseudo mystical bullshit and mystery shrouding him. This doesn’t really work either, perhaps the actor didn’t pull the material off but I generally find Count von Count from Sesame Street a more intriguing character, hell he has arithmomania which practically shouts to me spinoff (or just replace one of the leads on Numbers with him, it couldn’t be any worse).

The rest of the cast includes the main character’s African American best friend who is such a caricature that she is frankly uncomfortable to watch, an ex-Home and Away actor as Sookie’s brother who wanders around the pilot gormless and horny as if some pages from that show got mixed in to the script here. Two lesser characters are the stereotypical and overly camp homosexual chef and the lead’s grandmother, who you can’t help but fear will wind up being a wholesale ripoff of the grandpa in The Lost Boys. Making matters worse are the actor’s dreadful attempts at a Southern accent, which range from a slow Forrest Gump drawl at their least offensive to a vacant George W. Bush impression at their worst. The characters didn’t appear to have much depth to them beyond what the plot demanded and so were painted in broad strokes that didn’t make them particularly endearing. The best friend and chef in particular contrast appear like flimsy cardboard cut-outs behind Six Feet Under’s Keith Charles who managed to be both African American and gay without seeming like a parody.

The plot that wraps around the characters isn’t particularly compelling either. The change the vampires have had to society isn’t truly explored beyond a few whispers of worry, whereas you can’t help but feel if it happened in reality The Daily Mail would be having more than a field day, the pitchforks would be quite literally drawn and paraded through the streets. The rest of the plot seems to be idly ticking of a checklist of vampire fiction staples, for instance when Sookie meets Bill the show doesn’t even attempt to subvert your expectations, as you’d expect she instantly falls for him like an insipid schoolgirl. The pre-credits scene shows the potential of the premise, reminiscent of horror films it establishes the setting neatly, building tension and it manages to achieve a decent twist within only a few minutes that need not be spoiled here. But this sequence isn’t connected the rest of the pilot and by the end it seemed the show could have benefited from similar scenes with focus on building the world and the characters so that they are believable. Instead the pilot meanders; you can’t immerse yourself in the world and you find that you are drowning in its plot holes. Similar to my feeling on Lost really, except four years haven’t passed and the plot holes haven’t yet turned into a yawning canyon of lost hope and forgotten mysteries.

The True Blood pilot isn’t on par with the witty, subversive nature of Buffy’s early years, not enjoyably melodramatic like 60s vampire soap Dark Shadows nor does it really add anything new to the vampire genre on screen. CBBCs cheesy Young Dracula contributes more and for something that is basically a loose rip-off of The Munsters that is saying something. All in all, the only thing the pilot is comparable to is bad Anne Rice fan fiction. The show of course may end up doing well and HBO does need new drama at the moment with many of its old series having recently ended. Perhaps the show itself will improve as it goes on or the pilot will be tweaked before it airs, revealing a masterpiece that was hiding between the cracks.

But as it is, I’d rather watch a show about a Count… that counts. Preferably while solving crime.

Coming Up: A look at J.J Abrams upcoming Fringe, the X-Files ripoff dressed up in Lost trappings and Dollhouse, the new show from Buffy scribe Joss Whedon.

STUART THORNILEY

9 comments:

Nash said...

If this thing survives beyond the first season, it'll be due to someone selling their soul and not entertainment value.

Tubereuse said...

The book was dumb.

Anonymous said...

The books are excellent.

Nocturnal Squirrel said...

A bit hoidy-toidy on the review there-- Paquin turned in a performance that stood out against the rest-- she worked with what she was given. Frankly, I saw a girl who could empathize with Bill the Vampire because she understood what it meant to be looked at with scorn and worry because of her ability. I'd also comment that you're judging the whole show too harshly-- perhaps the writer/creator is going with a wide range of stories that will funnel down and all tie in together-- just because the whole plot hasn't started rolling doesn't mean that's what we should expect for every episode. Bill is the catalyst, and ultimately everything seems like it's going to tie in around him and Sookie.

I'll wait before I go driving a stake into this show.

Anonymous said...

"The pre-credits scene shows the potential of the premise, reminiscent of horror films it establishes the setting neatly, building tension and it manages to achieve a decent twist within only a few minutes that need not be spoiled here. But this sequence isn’t connected the rest of the pilot and by the end it seemed the show could have benefited from similar scenes with focus on building the world and the characters so that they are believable. Instead the pilot meanders; you can’t immerse yourself in the world and you find that you are drowning in its plot holes. Similar to my feeling on Lost really, except four years haven’t passed and the plot holes haven’t yet turned into a yawning canyon of lost hope and forgotten mysteries."
I couldn't agree more. That 1st vampire was the most interesting too. Ironically I think that same actor was Charlie's Dad on LOST. Wait let me check. Yep same guy.

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