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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2008-2009 season. Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot - or in this new post-strike/straight-to-series world, reading the pilot script. We'll start with the ones that were actually filmed and move on to the others in the coming weeks.
With that in mind, it's even more important to remember that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. Plus: as an added bonus, we've got a backlog of passed over pilots - some from this season, some from last season - we'll be tackling as well. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
TRUE BLOOD (HBO)
(written & directed by Alan Ball; TRT: 58:28)
The network's description: "HBO has concluded an exclusive two-year television deal with Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball to develop and produce original programming for the network, it was announced today by Carolyn Strauss, president, HBO Entertainment. Balls first project under the agreement will be an hour-long series based on the popular Southern Vampire books of Charlaine Harris. HBO and Alan Ball are battle-tested, a perfect creative fit, noted Strauss. His new show promises to be every bit as original and provocative as Six Feet Under, which was a landmark series for the network. I'm thrilled to be working with HBO again, said Ball. I picked up Dead Until Dark, the first book of the Southern Vampire series, on impulse and could not put it down. The same was true of the remaining books. Charlaine Harris has created a rich world filled with unique characters, a world that's as terrifying as it is hilarious, as well as sexy, generous and profound. I'm humbled she put her trust in me and I look forward to bringing her vision to television. Ball will executive produce the project, as well as write and direct the pilot, with other talent to be announced as it is confirmed. The series will take place in the rural South, at a time when vampires have made their existence known to the world following the Japanese development of synthetic blood."
What did they leave out: I'm not familiar with the "The Southern Vampire Mysteries" so I'm not sure how or if the show deviates from the books. Also, the role of Tara has apparently been recast with Rutina Wesley taking over for Brook Kerr. Kerr played said part in the version I saw.
The plot in a nutshell: It's been two years since the vampires "came out of the coffin" so to speak. And it's all thanks to "Tru Blood," a synthetic blood substitute developed by the Japanese (and sold in beer bottle form). Now vampires are just like any other subculture in America - they even have their own lobbyists in Washington (amusingly revealed by a clip from "Real Time With Bill Maher"). But despite their advances in civil rights, vampires are still generally mistrusted and shunned by the public at large. Stories about their extreme sexual habits and how their blood can be used to get mortals high still make them bogeymen to most people. And so, with that in mind, we meet our hero, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a waitress at Merlotte's - a dive bar in a small town in Louisiana. There she finds herself being one of the few genuine ladies left amongst a town of drunks and harlots. She's also quite special in that she can hear people's thoughts. Everything changes however when Bill (Stephen Moyer), a vampire, appears and she finds herself inexplicably drawn to him, much to everyone's horror - from Sam (Sam Trammell), the bar's owner who carries a torch for her; to Tara (Brook Kerr), her perpetually-fired-because-of-her-big-mouth best friend, a fact that's even more amplified after she discovers her talent doesn't work on him. And thus when a twitchy couple (Karina Logue, James Parks) tries to kidnap Bill to drain his blood for cash (and to get high), Sookie finds herself playing hero, much to her (and Bill's) surprise. Meanwhile across town, we also meet Sookie's brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten), the town's Lothario, who finds himself arrested by the cops (Chris Bauer, William Sanderson) after local "fangbanger" Maudette (Danielle Sapia, slang for a woman who sleeps with vampires) - whom he spent a wild night with - turns up dead. In any case, Bill quickly recovers from the attack and asks if he can call on Sookie sometime. Now only if Sookie can survive her rematch with the aforementioned thugs before their first date.
What works: The show's core concept - that vampires have "come out" to the world and subsequently are relegated to second class citizen status - proves to be extremely clever. There's just something about the show's matter-of-fact mythology that feels natural, in that should something as crazy as this ever happen in the real world, it "feels" like this is exactly how it would play out. From the inherent distrust to the "you don't belong here" stares to the rampant stereotypes, all the wheelhouses of racism are represented. It's too bad then that all of this is simply used as a backdrop for...
What doesn't: ...a warmed over girl-loves-the-monster story we've all seen before. Not helping matters is that all of Sookie and Bill's scenes feel decidedly awkward, as if they are attracted to each other because the story demands it, rather than because of actual chemistry between the two. What really sets the show back however is how its tone shifts from one scene to the next. Whether it be straight up horror to start the show, workplace hijinks involving Tara telling off a customer, or a softcore S&M sex scene between Jason and Maudette, the dots don't ever seem to connect. Are we supposed to be laughing? Be scared? Turned on? I'm not quite sure. That's not to say that there aren't some promising elements - hints about the nature of Sookie's special abilities, how vampires can be harmed, that her brother may be special as well and the appearance of a mysterious savior during Sookie's encounter with the thugs all seem to suggest something larger is in the works. Until that starts to come together and a more consistent tone is set...
The bottom line: ...one can't help but be disappointed so far.