There is something wistfully evanescent about the experience getting caught up in a large-scale work of storytelling that has no redeeming qualities beyond its own power to entertain. The popular serial novels of the 1840s, full of mad stepsisters locked in Italian castle towers and nefarious uncles, feel like a slog to us now. We can no more compel ourselves to be engrossed in Dallas, or any other TV show that gripped an earlier generation, than we can listen to more than one Michael Bolton album at a time, if ever. Levity dies under scrutiny. Critics look for the things that will last: the works of enduring meaning that will survive the decades and even the centuries. Serious criticism misses, almost by definition, the unreasonable, fizzy pleasures that obsess us in a given moment, but wither in a matter of years or even months.
When HBO's television show True Blood, whose sixth season begins on Sunday, went on air in 2008, critics looking for an intellectual justification for watching turned to politics. They pointed out that the "vampire rights" movement depicted in the show was obviously a metaphor for the gay rights movement, involving similar degrees of overcoming social shame, navigating the mainstream, and time spent in nightclubs. (The show continues to wink at this in its title cards, which include a shot of a cheap marquee sign reading "God Hates Fangs.") Exactly what this elaborate system of comparisons meant was never entirely clear, and then-executive producer Alan Ball said flatly, "I really don’t look at the vampire as a metaphor for gays," but those who felt like they needed an excuse to watch went along with it.
The notion of political allegory had definitely fallen apart by the most recent season (the series's fifth), in which the Vampire Authority — a kind of Politburo of the pointy-toothed — was hijacked by a coup of undead religious fanatics who worship Lilith, the vampire goddess who preceded Adam and Eve. Under the leadership of the nefarious Russell Edgington (Denis O'Hare), the fundamentalist cabal really did want to lead vampirekind to sole dominance in a world where ordinary humans would be farmed like cattle. The human-friendly vampire Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgård) killed Edgington as the latter was on the brink of devouring all of New Orleans's faeries (sic), including the show's protagonist, half-faery half-waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), at the end of last season. But Eric and Sookie could not stop the converted Authority, now under the leadership of Sookie's ex-lover Bill Compton, from enacting its plans to resurrect Lilith, and in the last shot of season five, it was revealed that Bill had actually become Lilith herself, newly reincarnated. (Just go with it.)
I'll happily give away a couple pints of my own warm, ferrous A-positive to anyone who can make convincing sense of this as a metaphor for gay rights, or anything else for that matter. And thank goodness. True Blood has freed itself from the need to denote, symbolize, represent, or theorize. It occupies an aesthetic category between the good and the flat-out trashy. Garbage, after all, is repulsive. Garbage fails to stay on the air for a full season because no one is watching it. (But it is my contractual duty as a Bryan Fuller fan to note that not all unwatched shows are garbage.) Real Housewives is persistent garbage: cheap to make, watched by just enough people to justify its air time.
Television used to be full of that kind of crap. But so many shows now aspire to something more, a plague that has befallen TV in the past decade or so. I think of it as a J.J. Abrams movement: Alias was about spies; Lost, however, purported to address human nature and theories of reality. The West Wing is to blame; The Wire is to blame. The dialectic of show-runner and critic has demanded that premium cable shows, in particular, be interpreted as social commentary and high mimesis. That's why, say, Mad Men and Girls get in trouble for their lack of non-white characters with substantive story lines: we expect them not only to mirror reality, but to represent social reality in a holistic way. That's why Breaking Bad gets scrutinized for what it says about the American economic crisis. That's why television critics in 2008 felt the need to claim that a show about libidinous vampires was actually about the gay rights movement.
But True Blood is actually a spontaneous piece of fantastical free-association storytelling of a kind that is sorely lacking nowadays. The TV show it most resembles is another sanguineous HBO series, Game of Thrones. Both Game of Thrones and True Blood are based on series of novels: George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and Charlaine Harris's The Southern Vampire Mysteries, respectively. It is telling that both these series are genre fiction of a kind that an outsider to the world of fantasy epic or romance would probably never stumble upon, at least not left to their own devices.
Film has always been the great popularizer, of course. But it is ironic that, in an age when widely respected critics seriously wonder whether the TV show has outpaced the novel as the prime locus of narrative culture, TV's most pleasantly fluffy programming comes from an infusion of niche novels into the broadband bloodstream. It's easy to make a story with content tick. What's hard is achieving the old Flaubertian dream of a story that carries itself along on style alone. But things re-equilibriate over time. Soon, resentful of watching another important, meaningful, socially serious TV show, we'll turn the thing off and read some mindless book instead.
You can read more of Spencer Lenfield's writing, and see a few drawings, at loosesignatures.blogspot.com.