Where True Blood Went Wrong: A Cautionary Tale for Writers

TrueBlood-PosterI am a strong believer in the power of stories.  Because of that, I look up to storytellers.  So much so, that I’m doing something very painful right now.  I’m writing about something I no longer care about… True Blood.

Why am I doing this?

I’ve taken on the job of helping writers by showing them a fan’s perspective… particularly a fan who is not an active writer.  I’m writing about True Blood because I believe that it’s the best example of how a promising series can go downhill.

There are many articles about how disappointing True Blood became, and subsequently how that manifested itself in the season finale.  Yannick LeJacq wrote a great article about this.  Based on the detail he went into, it’s clear he cared more and longer about the series than I did.  I recommend reading his article as well.  Mine, however, is specifically targeted at authors.

This is actually the first time I’ve talked about a series twice.  That’s interesting, given how I feel about it (or don’t feel about it, depending on your perspective).  In my original article about it (True Blood: Is It More Than Erotic Vampires?) we were at season 4.  My article argued that the show should not be overlooked just because it features erotic vampires.  I discuss the show as being both thought experiment and social commentary.  I still don’t take this away from it.  I think that it tried to be those things until the very end.  However, I think it became less successful at it.

So, what happened?

True Blood’s Biggest Sin

When the final season started, I Facebooked that if you are still watching True Blood then it’s because you…

  1. Are a vampire fetishist.
  2. Feel you devoted too much time to it not to see how it ends.
  3. Happen to be in the same room as someone who is one of the first two while it’s on.

It wasn’t because you thought it had a great story.

After some thought, I’ve identified what I believe to be True Blood’s biggest sin… lack of focus and direction in the storytelling.

When consuming a story, people have a finite bag of give-a-crap for the author to fill with subplots.  And, when that bag gets too full, the seams start to tear and things start to fall out of it.  These things are then either perceived as annoying diversions or are forgotten about altogether.

There are tricks, though.  If you begin to show how certain subplots are associated with one another, then they become one subplot.  Also, by doing this, the consumer will start to think about how the other subplots could also be associated.  This creates engagement.  So, not only do you lesson the number of subplots in the bag, you increase the size of the bag by increasing the consumer’s interest and engagement.

For True Blood, this wasn’t done well in the later seasons.  It felt like the series was throwing in as many subplots as possible, and many didn’t have obvious connections with each other.  Also, many of the non-associated ones weren’t interesting enough to be kept on their own.  They sort of left you with the feeling of, “Why are they telling me about this?”  Because of this, it didn’t always feel like there was a cohesive centralized storyline.  This seems to have happened around seasons 5 or 6, which is when the showrunner changed.  So, that may be why.  Also, season 6 was the first season not to be loosely based on a specific book.  Instead, things were pulled from multiple books.  This can kill focus and direction pretty quickly if not handled well.

Decisions That Don’t Make Sense

When I consume a story, it isn’t very hard for me to care about the characters.  If the author fails with this for me, then they must not be trying very hard.  For True Blood, I went from caring about many of the characters to hoping that the finale would kill them all.

A character can be good, evil, weak, strong, fascinating, or annoying, and they will be successful as long as they are realistic.  What’s not realistic is having characters make decisions that don’t make sense for them, so that the writers can move the plot where they want it to go.  Doing this too often will literally pull the life out of the characters, and will make them look like puppets and not actual living characters.  The more recent, and largest example of this involves the story around Bill and Sookie.  Matt Fowler writes about it in his article TRUE BLOOD: “THANK YOU” REVIEW:  DEAD BY DAWN.  Meredith Woerner also does a good job of identifying several of these issues in her recap of the series finale.

Abandoned Mythology

Mythology is often the most interesting aspect of fantasy and science fiction for me, and I really cared about it at first with True Blood.  However, it didn’t get much attention later in the series.  Abandoning it may have been the biggest reason why I lost interest in the series.

With the mythology downplayed, True Blood started to feel like a soap opera with mythical creatures, and the mythical creatures were used mostly as excuses for weird sexual situations.  For instance, if you drink the blood of a vampire, then you have erotic dreams about them (no matter what gender).  A male character was tied down and forced to “mate” with were-panthers.  I’m not sure I even remember why.  And, there was that delightful vampire sex scene where the one vampire twisted the head of the other vampire around 360 degrees.  I don’t have a problem with sex scenes, but I have a problem with using fantasy elements as excuses for weird sex scenes.  It’s a cheap trick.

The Flawed LGBT Metaphor

In my original article on True Blood, I expressed my opinion that some of the metaphors fell short.  The metaphor I called out was the one concerning the use of vampires as a metaphor for the LGBT community.  This metaphor breaks down because those who maligned members of the LGBT community were unjustified in their criticisms.  Nothing about a person’s membership in the LGBT community makes them want to hurt or kill people in order to feed on them.  The vampires of True Blood, on the other hand, are murderous by nature.  Some of the criticisms leveled against them are valid.

The last two seasons of the series decided to extend this metaphor by adding “Hep V”, an illness that slowly kills vampires and is an obvious AIDS metaphor.  In order to be invested in this season, I had to care about that.  I didn’t.  The series presents vampires as mostly dangerous, with a handful of them transcending their bad tendencies enough to be “okay”.  In fact, when it came to the vampires, you had a lot of face/heel switches like in professional wrestling.  They would be bad sometimes and good other times, depending on the situation.  So, why should I care that a disease wipes out a bunch of dangerous, undead assholes?  I don’t.

What do you think?  In your opinion, did True Blood go downhill?  If so, why did it go downhill for you?  If not, what am I missing?