TRUE BLOOD (TV SERIES) – Blu-ray review

I do not, and never will, consider myself an expert on vampires, which makes me even less qualified to review “True Blood: The Complete Second Season” on Blu-ray from HBO Home Entertainment. Some guys have all the luck, don’t they?

This disclaimer aside, I do appreciate well-made television, probably even more today than ever before (quite frankly, there isn’t all that much of it to go around). “True Blood” takes a little getting used to, but no matter where you start your experience with this wickedly popular HBO drama series, you’re likely to find something you enjoy. I did, and despite the critical claim “True Blood” has received from critics and fans, I didn’t think I would.

To its credit, “True Blood” is a sharp series to experience. It drips with well-placed music, balanced cinematography and a very clear picture (for additional details on these areas, scroll to the “Video” and “Audio” sections). More importantly, I think “True Blood” successfully implements the Starbucks philosophy. For example, you can make a cup of coffee at home for pennies compared to what it costs to purchase one in your local Starbucks, yet daily, people wander in and cough up big bucks for their caffeine fix. Why is this? Your local Starbucks has unique smells, music, seating and perhaps most importantly, other people who will see you walk in, purchase and consume that very expensive cup of coffee. For many, it is this experience they value more than the beverage itself.

How does “True Blood” do this, in addition to its high quality video and audio? Its characters are surprisingly down to earth, maybe even normal looking compared to someone you might see on CBS, NBC or ABC. The execution in each episode, while clearly rehearsed, somehow manages to feel slightly rough around the edges. The series takes place in the deep South, a far cry from the glamour of a big city. The stories and plots will stretch even a five hear old’s imagination, but the scripts are well written, even slightly intriguing. And, last but not least, “True Blood” whittles itself a crevice in the increasingly popular vampire craze that has taken over the entertainment industry.

All these elements come together in a package that has earned “True Blood” and its creator, Alan Ball, some really high praise. Ball himself has an Oscar, an Emmy and Golden Globe. Since 2008, “True Blood” has been nominated for Satellite Awards, Golden Globes, Saturns, Emmys, Scream Awards, People’s Choice Awards, a Grammy and a BAFTA. Maybe more important is the show’s popularity among its diverse fan base. A colleague of mine expressed her jealously when I told her I’d received the series to review, telling me there was no better “vampire porn” on the market today.

And that is precisely the double-edged sword “True Blood” must support. It is emotional, funny, witty and charming at times. It is also violent, contains profanity and nudity, and occasionally generates a bloody or scary moment along the way. Trying to have something for everyone is fine, yet even though doing so might attract viewers, it has the potential to repel others.

Season two is twelve plus/minus 55-minute episodes spread over five Blu-ray discs. It is also jammed with extras and special features (see the “Extras” section) for die-hard fans, which, like the episodes themselves, may attract some and repel others.

In a big picture sense, season two draws on two primary plots. First is what happens to Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and her vampire boyfriend Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) when a vampire sheriff in nearby Area 9 named Godric (Allan Hyde), who also happens to be around 2,000 years old, suddenly disappears. Bar owner and Area 5 sheriff (you didn’t know vampires existed in Areas, did you?) Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard) enlists their help despite Bill’s hesitation (apparently, Sookie is telepathic), and this creates an indirect run-in with Sookie’s brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten), who has taken off on a pilgrimage with the Fellowship of the Sun church, a very anti-vampire organization.

Second, a wealthy, seductive and powerful spirit named Maryann (Michelle Forbes) shows up in Bon Temps, Louisiana. Maryann is interested in two locals primarily: Tara (Rutina Wesley), Sookie’s best friend and fellow bartender at Merlotte’s restaurant, and Sam (Sam Trammel), Merlotte’s owner and Sookie’s former love interest. Maryann and Sam have a strange history, and she seeks to involve Tara in her somewhat twisted affairs.

There is much more happening in season two than I have space to detail, but without knowing the series and its characters extremely well, intricate detail will do little good. I will note that “True Blood,” like each popular vampire incarnation, has its own house rules for the fanged creatures. If, when you play Monopoly, you put all incurred fines into the middle of the board and the next yahoo that lands on “Free Parking” collects the pot, you’re familiar with house rules. “True Blood” has vampires that don’t cry tears, but blood instead. Vampires also can apparently bite without biting to kill, evidenced by a pretty raunchy sex scene where Sookie and Bill reconnect. Their presence in the South and across the nation also attracts big time attention from national media, and season two is set against a backdrop of vampire controversy.

All the additional characters, plot lines and sexual tension didn’t do much for me. I did enjoy how the central characters I’ve mentioned earlier had a real dynamic interplay with each other, and managed to set a tense undertone throughout the season that enhanced the drama but still allowed for the occasional joke or surprise. “True Blood” gets more extreme than it really needs to at some points, culminating with sacrifices, suicide bombs and more than a few soapbox speeches that grow old pretty quick. Still, this stuff is surprisingly entertaining to take in. “True Blood” feels like one of those guilty pleasure shows that an individual enjoys, but doesn’t tell his or her friends about.

Most of season 2 manages to relate back to Sookie. Paquin’s performance throughout is pretty decent. She looks like the all-American girl with long blonde curls and a curious appetite for life, yet is impressionable and gullible enough to get into trouble. Her emotional roller coaster is what viewers get strapped into, and as the season wraps up, don’t be surprised to find this carnival ride stuck between a rock and a hard place. Paquin convinces well enough, probably more so than any other character. After all the hiccups she’s had to deal with since “True Blood” began, you can’t help but want her to come out on top. But in this fictitious town with pro and anti-vampire sentiments running wild, doing so is far easier said than done.

“True Blood” is based on “The Southern Vampire Mysteries” novels by Charlaine Harris, but you wouldn’t know it unless you read the books or paid close attention to the main titles. It pulls emotions from all arenas and has a real ability to entertain, but how much more life the series has to it may be up for debate. I liked it because the performances are decent, the production elements are very strong and the blood is plentifully convincing.

Video:
HBO’s ability to provide extremely high quality video transfers for its programming in the home setting hits a new level with Blu-ray. “True Blood” sparkles, plan and simple, and I can’t remember a television series with this vivid a picture and image. Daylight scenes maximize the natural light with a unique softness that accentuates bright colors, and night shots project a balanced darkness that has high contrast with black levels. The cinematography incorporates close ups and wide angles, but no matter the shot, the characters, their expressions and body language all ring through with superior clarity and crispness. “True Blood: The Complete Second Season” was shot in a 1.78:1 1080p High Definition transfer that takes viewers to new (and better) places visually.

Audio:
The series comes with three audio options: an English DTS-High Definition 5.1 Master Audio, a French DTS Digital 5.1 Surround and a Spanish DTS Digital 2.0 Surround. I watched in English, and everything from vocals to background music to incidental noise was amazingly easy to pick up. My speakers projected the music especially well, though at no point did it dominate or overwhelm the spoken lines or vocal tones. Most of the time, the Southern accents are surprisingly convincing, and the sound effects placed throughout are timed perfectly (they usually catch your ears when the vampires make a sudden movement). The series has almost everything for an audio lover: violence, dramatic conversations and more. All shine without flaws.

Extras:
Tons to check out, starting with “Character Perspectives” that dig a bit deeper into some favorites from season one and some new additions to season two. A “Flashback/Flash Forward” feature lets the viewer decide which specific moments in an episode he or she would like to know more about, while “Hints/FYI” provides random information tidbits, trivia and show hints. A really neat “Pro/Anti-Vampire Feeds” option will put up fictitious news feeds from the vampire lover and hater camps as you watch, all trying to sway your opinion on the fanged creatures. Also attached is a special edition of the talk show within the series, “The Vampire Report,” and a look at the new-age church gaining popularity called “Fellowship of the Sun: Reflections of Light.” Top that with seven audio commentaries spoken by cast and crew, and you’ve got a rich body to draw from here.

A Final Word:
If you seek a somewhat unconventional series that is surprisingly well put together, “True Blood” might be the show for you. It has lots to offer, and hopefully can sustain its popularity and quality production elements over time. I enjoyed it more than I expected, but not enough to become a regular viewer or follower. Still, have a look for a change of pace, but watch out for a set of fangs where you may least anticipate.

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