TRUE BLOOD (TV SERIES) – Blu-ray review

I didn’t think it was possible, but “True Blood,” HBO’s smash hit television series about vampires in rural Bon Temps, Louisiana, has officially weirded me out. Season two dug a bit deeper into the Sookie Stackhouse adventures with fanged characters, unveiling that vampires exist in a world with its own rules, hierarchy, laws and challenges. But season three, which arrives on Blu-ray in an absolutely jammed five-disc set, takes things to a more bizarre place than even dedicated “True Blood” fans may have ever thought possible.

Honesty is always the best policy, so I’ll note that I don’t particularly like “True Blood.” It’s too big a stretch for my linear mind and too difficult to follow (having never followed the series and being too cheap to pay for HBO, I wait for the series to plop down in stores), especially as more and more characters have been worked in through the seasons. This aside, “True Blood” is addictive for many fans, and I imagine it’s because this stuff is really, really well made. For that reason alone, “True Blood” deserves a good review.

HBO’s press release states that “True Blood” is the best selling television on DVD series for the past two years, and it’s easy to understand why if you watch an episode or two. This stuff is a guilty pleasure for viewers, and in many ways a simultaneous escape from the laugh tracks and boring stuff being tossed onto primetime networks. “True Blood” is violent and profane all the way through, and it’s equally riddled with sex and nudity. Maybe it’s as close to pornography as curious but not adventurous viewers will go, or maybe there’s something else here that draws loyal fans to the series.

If you’re new to “True Blood,” understand that things start and end with Sookie (Anna Paquin), a beautiful telepathic waitress who works at local watering hole Merlotte’s. Sam (Sam Trammell) owns Merlotte’s, and it’s where Sookie’s brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten), hangs out and drinks on a regular basis. Sookie’s co-worker Tara (Rutina Wesley) and her cousin Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) also work at Merlotte’s, which is where several century old vampire Bill (Stephen Moyer) saved Sookie one night during a nasty mugging.

Vampires have become more prominent than ever before during season three, evidenced by a larger exposure to and explanation surrounding their structure. See, vampires have kings, sheriffs, deputies and territories to keep on top of. Eric (Alexander Skarsgard), another high ranking vampire who has female vampire Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten) in place to do some of his dirty work, and Bill go back and forth about this pretty often as they jockey for control of Bon Temps, but unsurprisingly, everything circles back to Sookie.

In season three, Sookie goes to Eric because Bill has disappeared at the end of season two. He also proposed to her and she loves him to death, but the series shifts to Sam, who is also busy searching for someone (his birth parents and family). Tara, meanwhile, gives up on life (she complains there are too many supernatural whackos out there for her) and tries to commit suicide. We discover some nasty henchmen who work for Russell (Denis O’Hare), Mississippi’s vampire king, kidnapped Bill, who finds out his captor wants to expand his territory to another state and truly mess things up for everyone back in Louisiana.

Meanwhile, Sookie gets assigned a werewolf bodyguard, Jason and county sheriff Andy (Chris Bauer) collaborate to cover up a murder, a sheriff’s deputy resigns, a Merlotte’s waitress finds out she’s pregnant and Jason’s best friend Hoyt’s vampire girlfriend Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) rents a chainsaw to chop up a body. Tara’s family tries to unsuccessfully help her deal with a tragic death she’s witnessed, Hoyt (Jim Parrack) dodges an old flame to pursue Jessica, Russell’s found to be in cahoots with werewolves, Sookie wins up in a coma and Jason tries to shed his old ways for a new career and love life.

Sookie eventually finds Bill, who pushes her away, then wants her back, then pushes her away again, but wants her back because he knows more about her than she knows about herself. Season three is essentially all out war for Sookie, with Bill, Eric and Russell vying for the top prize. Maybe the biggest “True Blood” revelation to date comes as Sookie finds out who/what she really is. Oh, and Lafayette starts seeing a witch.

Sprinkled between the five densely packed Blu-rays are twelve episodes that, while a major cluster to follow amongst the nasty elements I’ve already mentioned, are surprisingly smartly written and even better looking. HBO doesn’t skimp with “True Blood,” and it shows throughout season three. Costumes are sharp looking, makeup is realistic, sets are detailed, and all while atmosphere is created and tangible. Each episode flows independently, yet gradually extends the line leading from point A to point B and keeps things accessible. There’s serious attention to detail here, and such an approach is now critical to the series and its success in the future. “True Blood” may have hit a new high, or, depending on your perspective, a new low.

The series has reached a point where its supporting characters now hold just as much water as its leads. Heck, given how much audiences now know about everyone else around Sookie, it’s as if they could start their own spin-off and make bank. Sure, things seem to always circle back to our blonde heroine and her endeavors, but it’s not a bad thing to have a supporting cast with so many different layers they could, and often do, hold their own.

On the flip side, this might be what brings down “True Blood.” It’s possible the creators, especially Alan Ball, have written themselves into so many corners they won’t be able to keep every plot line straight. Given how much is happening at such a high level all the time, it’s possible that too much of a good stuff will overwhelm, or worse, repel some audiences. Additionally, you can’t help but wonder what else is stored in the “True Blood” safe deposit box. It started with vampires, but now we’re on to werewolves, witches and fairies. What next? Unicorns? Oompa-Loompas? Evil, cunning and over sexualized sea turtles? “True Blood,” as entertaining as it has been and still seems to be, should tread lightly as it marches on.

Thankfully, there isn’t much wait time between season three hitting Blu-ray/DVD and season four hitting HBO. Will “True Blood” last as long as other popular HBO series like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “Entourage”? Yes, it’s possible, but let’s just hope it doesn’t go on as long as some of its vampire characters have lived. Then we’d really be pushing the envelope.

Video:
“True Blood” is second only to “The Pacific” in terms of sharp looking HBO Blu-ray releases. The third season looks rich and clear via a 1080p High Definition 16:9/1.78:1 video transfer. Blood is dark red and visible with ease, as are facial expressions and meticulously detailed sets. “True Blood” also has some sharp cinematography and focuses on using various camera shots and angles in each episode so viewers feel the emotion, be it good or bad, that each character exudes. Don’t be surprised how dark things are in season three, but even night sequences (and there are a lot) are vivid and grain free. As the vampires trudge through Bon Temps with lightening quick reflexes, their arrival and disappearance slices transition scenes into sharp looking and don’t blink or you’ll miss it moments.

Audio:
As sharp as the video is, the audio matches and nearly exceeds it. Every spoken word, growl or fang deployment will whip your speakers to life thanks to the English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack. “True Blood” and its characters sound extremely emotional all the way through season three, especially when someone is being attacked or bitten. Foreground noise like dialogue or punches will protrude from your speakers loudly, while Sookie’s careful footsteps through the woods come through softer and lighter with a background tone that’s detectable but doesn’t dominate. The sound is rich and powerful, especially given how emotional everyone gets. Additional audio options are a French DTS 5.1 Digital Surround and a Spanish 2.0 DTS Digital Surround. Subtitle choices are English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish.

Extras:
Season three’s bonus materials provide lots of bite for devoted “True Blood” fans and new viewers too. HBO’s Enhanced Viewing, which provides amplified picture-in-picture display with original, interactive content that extends the fiction of the series, is a pretty sweet feature on all twelve episodes. You’ll get character perspectives, a flashback/flash forward option that allows for jumping to pivotal moments in the past or ahead to relevant future scenes, as well as vampire history and character bios, plus trivia and fun facts. While Enhanced Viewing is exclusive to Blu-ray, things like an interactive on-screen guide that highlights the connections between the many worlds in the series (“True Blood” Lines), an in-depth look at the werewolf introduction scenes (Anatomy of a Scene), end-of-episode tidbits (“True Blood” Post Mortems), a Snoop Dogg music video (“Oh Sookie”), a disc-to-disc seamless menu system (Seamless Play) and seven audio commentaries with cast and crew are available to all “True Blood” fans on DVD or Blu-ray.

A Final Word:
For as truly gross, violent, immoral and bizarre as “True Blood” is, it’s very, very well made. While I question how long HBO can keep this stuff going, its popularity is no doubt solid. As a series with only 36 total episodes so far and another dozen on the way this summer, “True Blood” has already cemented its place in television history. But only time will tell whether or not that place transforms into a legacy someday.

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