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How 'True Blood' Lost Its Bite

As the HBO vampire soap starts its seventh (and final) season, we examine how the once-great show defanged itself

Sam Trammell, Ryan Kwanten, Anna Paquin, Joe Manganiello, and Chris Bauer on 'True Blood.' Tony Rivetti
Tony Rivetti/HBO
June 19, 2014 2:30 PM ET

In its first season, HBO's True Blood was one of the best guilty-pleasure shows on TV. Not only did it make for great water-cooler entertainment, but it also helped usher in the vampire-craze wave that eventually culminated in movies like The Twilight Saga taking over the universe, The Vampire Diaries punching up the CW, and Dark Shadows getting a big-screen reboot (albeit a terrible one). There was a time when you couldn't hit the Jersey shore without seeing someone wearing a shirt that said "Fangbanger" on it.

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True Blood, however, took Charlaine Harris' novels about a young waitress named Sookie Stackhouse (played by Anna Paquin) in a vampire-infested fictional Louisiana town called Bon Temps, and made Sookie, the lovelorn bloodsucker Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), and alpha-vamp Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard) the hottest human-undead love triangle since Buffy, Angel, and Spike. The show's first season introduced quirky, interesting characters — Sookie's brother, Jason; her best friend, Tara; her mysterious boss, Sam — and a great little southern gothic mystery. It presented questions that fans were dying to know the answers to: Why is Sookie so special? Who killed the Stackhouses' grandmother? Will Sookie and Bill make it? Why does everyone hate vampires so much? 

True Blood posed all these questions and occasionally delivered answers, all while cashing in on the metaphorical currency of its night creatures (e.g. vampires as stand-ins for the LGBT community) for even more serious debate among fans. It was camp, but it was high camp, the kind of sexed-up, gloriously trashy horror TV that Internet recappers and hardcore fans could still dissect for deeper messages.

HBO had struck TV gold just like it had previously when The Sopranos and Sex and the City ruled the airwaves; as the show's second season started to get underway, its ratings had doubled. But as its sophomore year went on, something genuinely wicked had come crawling into Bon Temps: a sense of bloat. You can imagine how the pre-season meeting in the HBO offices went:

EXECUTIVE #1: "People really seem to like this show. They love the characters. They love the sex. They love the nudity. We're killing it!"
EXECUTIVE #2: "I know exactly what we need to do for Season Two!"
EXECUTIVE #3: "Tell us!"
EXECUTIVE #2: "More of everything! More characters. More sex. More nudity. And we should make it trippy as hell!"
EXECUTIVE #3: "Right, but what about the characters we already have? Should we try to work all these new things into their storylines? Maybe try to keep some continuity so people actually care about what's happening?"
EXECUTIVE #2: "…"
ALL THREE EXECUTIVES: "Hahahahaha!"

For dedicated viewers, that's certainly how it felt when the second half of the second season started to squander the good will it had built up. Sure, we got to continue hanging out with Sookie, Bill, and the rest of the gang, but we also had to spend far too much time with a character named "Eggs" and suffer through the usually-excellent Evan Rachel Wood as the Vampire Queen of Louisiana. The arrival of new, subpar characters like Reverend Steve Newlin left less time to flesh out stories involving fan favorites like the gay line cook/amateur medium Lafayette. There were still plenty of reasons to watch (strong acting, sexy scenes, some adherence to the source material), but the writing was splattered on the wall at that point. True Blood was starting to hemorrhage in a big way.

The next few seasons only added more distractions: Werewolves started stealing the spotlight, and it wouldn't be long before we would see werepanthers, the ghost of a serial killer, and… wait, are those fairies? Yes, fairies. Most of what drew viewers in initially was gone in favor of bigger spectacle (can you say Fellowship of the Sun?) and even more characters. Sure, they had abs you could wash your clothes on (Joe Manganiello's lupus hunkus Alcide) or a cheerfully creepy disposition (Anna Camp's anti-vamp zealot) or simple batshit craziness (Denis O'Hare's former Vampire King of Mississippi). And though True Blood had always been politically-minded in its use of the mistreatment of vampires, the show had gone from subtly using the idea as subtext to hitting us over the head with its message-mongering.

Sure, some of them came directly from Harris' books, but that's not really a valid excuse as TV has long been adapting source material without slavish adherence. Remember when this was a show about a girl with some special powers and her relationship with an ancient vampire?

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With its seventh (and final) season about to premiere on Sunday, June 22nd, True Blood is barely recognizable from what it was when former showrunner Alan Ball first brought the vampire tale to TV. Bill and Sookie seem about as far from each other as two characters could possibly be. Tara is a vampire or something (we stopped caring about her character once they introduced her crazy mother). And one of the best things the show ever did — pair baby-vamp Jessica Hamby with Sookie's brother Jason — is a distant memory.

Can the show regain some of that vampire magic during its last season? It may be too far-gone at this point, but who knows what a little dose of "V" might do. It would be truly great if True Blood pulled out of its nosedive at the last minute and remembered what it did best in its first season: made us care about strong, fleshed out (if also bloodsucking) characters; delivered highly charged, sexed-up escapism; and centered on a cohesive storyline that remained firmly implanted in the rich, downhome fright-funk of Bon Temps. Just give us a simple story about a girl, her vampy boyfriend, and the heat that the two generated on screen. Provide a satisfying resolution for Sookie, Bill, Eric, Tara, and rest of the core group we got to know originally. And as for everybody else? Let 'em all burn.

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