Friday, September 05, 2008

Sunday Nights on TMN: Must-See TV

Do you remember the golden years of Fox Sunday nights? The Simpsons, King of the Hill, X-Files... there was no night like it on TV. Well, Sunday nights are back, and it's on The Movie Network. This Sunday will see the premieres of HBO's new vampire series, True Blood, and the fifth season of HBO's Entourage. They will be joined on September 28th by Showtime's Dexter. I think y'all know where I'll be on that night.
True Blood is the new show by Alan Ball, he of the legendary Six Feet Under and American Beauty. The series is based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris, which are a funny and original take on the vampire myth (unlike Twilight, ahem). Because of a new synthetic blood that is very similar to the real thing, marketed as Tru Blood and sold in six-packs like beer, vampires are finally able to "come out of the coffin," and walk amongst us. They no longer have to hunt humans (not that the nastier ones don't still like to) and instead can survive on the synthetic blood. But there's a twist. The vampire legend states that vamps drink human blood to feel more alive and energetic, and can imbibe some of the soul of the person they drink. In True Blood, if a human drinks vampire blood, it can energize them, heighten their sex drive, and even heal them if they're sick or hurt. So now it's the VAMPIRES who are on the run from the nastier humans. And as we all know, there are a LOT of those around.

Sookie is portrayed by Anna Paquin, who won the Academy Award for her role in The Piano when she was a young girl (I think she was 11? I can't quite remember, but I do remember her up on the stage in a little purple velvet outfit and this adorable poofy hat, and she kept giggling instead of giving her acceptance speech, and finally in a Kiwi accent said, "I'd like to thank the Academy" and launched into a very mature speech). Here she's a southern belle who can read people's minds, and occasionally the noise around her turns into what Buffy was hearing on Earshot... so many people talking she can barely keep her head straight. She's learned to control it by stopping where she is, closing her eyes, and concentrating, but sometimes it gets the better of her. When a vampire walks into the restaurant/bar where she works, she's fascinated by him because she can't read his mind, and by looking at him it can turn the other voices off. HIs name is Bill (which earns a guffaw from her, saying she'd expected something a little more romantic) and he's from the Civil War. Stephen Moyer plays Bill with a gentlemanly air, since the last time he walked among humans he was opening doors for ladies in hoop skirts. It's a great premise, watching him try to talk to Sookie, who is in short shorts and a tight t-shirt, chomping on her gum, while he's using old-fashioned language and trying to figure out how to communicate with her.

Sookie's brother Jason is a vampire hater, as are a lot of people, and he's about as horny as vampires are fangy. Sookie's grandmother, on the other hand, is fascinated by them, and wants to hear about stories from the Civil War, which is her favourite historical era. The show is light, funny, and there are some genuinely scary moments. Each episode ends on a massive cliffhanger that keeps you guessing until the next week (and since I've seen the first two, I need to wait until the 21st to see how this one's going to be resolved!). Someone commented here that the only reason I didn't like Twilight is because it wasn't Buffy, and I'll never like a vampire story that's not Buffy, but in fact, Twilight is possibly the only vampire story I didn't like. True Blood, on the other hand, is everything Twilight isn't: funny, sensual, alluring, and great storytelling.

To get your funny bone in the mood for True Blood, Entourage returns with season 5. The first episode is a bit of a transition, cleaning up the mess we ended with in season 4 and getting us prepared for the new adventures of our favourite hangers-on. Vincent and E's disastrous Medellin has garnered reviews previously saved up for Vincent Gallo, and Vince has disappeared to Mexico to grow a shaggy beard, forget about the world around him, and get lots of chicks. Turtle has remained there with him, since he has nothing better to do than help lure in the women using his famous friend. Just as Vincent is about to turn into Billy, the horrible director who got him in this spot in the first place, E and Ari show up with an offer that will bring him back to L.A. But it's upon his return that he really sees what Medellin has done to his career.

We've watched E do everything in his power to save Vincent and keep Drama and Turtle at bay while Vincent just ignores him and does his own thing, and usually in the end, Vincent proves things work out if you're charming. But this is one time when Vincent is jolted awake, and when he finally decides to get serious about saving his career, Ari forces him to recognize it just might be too late. Vincent needs to smarten up FAST or all his roles will be taken by Emile Hirsch.

The show still has its zing, and while I'm sure some critics will complain about the samey premise, I love coming back to these guys. Drama still has an ego too big for his apartment; Turtle is still a loser; E is still trying to get some respect from ANYONE; and Ari is still one forehead vein away from a massive coronary. But by the end of the second episode, Ari's wake-up call just might have been enough for Vincent. As Ari yells to him in the closest thing he has to a motivational speech: "It's time for a comeback, Vince! And since Britney Spears fucked hers up, it's all down to you!!"

This season promises guest stars (Leighton Meester, aka Blair from Gossip Girl, guests in the second episode, as does Tony Bennett), heated-up rivalries, humour from the fallout of Medellin (a clip from Richard Roeper ripping it to shreds is hysterical), and more Johnny Drama. For what the future holds and whether or not this season will be worth it, I have just this to say -- Episode 4: Johnny guests on The View. 'Nuff said.

Entourage premieres Sunday, September 7 at 7:30pm on Movie Central and 8:30pm on TMN, and True Blood follows at 8pm on Movie Central and 9pm on TMN.


Ryan said...

"Here she's a southern belle who can read people's minds, and occasionally the noise around her turns into what Buffy was hearing on Earshot... so many people talking she can barely keep her head straight. She's learned to control it by stopping where she is, closing her eyes, and concentrating, but sometimes it gets the better of her. When a vampire walks into the restaurant/bar where she works, she's fascinated by him because she can't read his mind, and by looking at him it can turn the other voices off."

Another series/film/novel copying Buffy? *Rolls eyes* True Blood sounds fantastic, but Anna Paquin + Buffy references remind me of X-Men 2, in which Bobby Drake has the exact same conversation with his mother about being a mutant that Buffy had with her's about being a Slayer in "Becoming."


Anonymous said...

According to the panel at Comic Con, her being psychic fulfills a purpose that it didn't on Buffy. Sooky can hear everything guys are thinking, so she's never been in a romantic relationship. Until now.

Buffy didn't invent psychics, btw.

Ian said...

Ryan: No kidding, lay on the associations-which, don't get me wrong, I find intertextuality and textual poaching fascinating.

That said, however, Alan Ball has said he has never seen an episode of Buffy, which, to me, begs the question, if you're going to do a show about vamps, wouldn't you at least do your "research" and see what other people have done? Is there that much of a fear of copying a like-text?

Nikki Stafford said...

Hmm... I can assure you that while the noises in her head evoked Buffy, it certainly didn't feel like it was copying it at all. And the show itself is very different from Buffy. Sookie isn't in high school, the vampire isn't British, and vampires are out and about. In the background of several scenes you see on CNN this head of the vampire rights organization fighting for their civil rights, and that was a nice spin on things.

But I can assure you, despite the similarity to that one episode of BtVS -- which had nothing to do with vampires -- it really doesn't feel like Buffy at all. It's not a copy, in my eyes.

Ian: I'm not sure watching BtVS would have been research for this. He's adapting a series of books, not trying to pull in tropes from other series. So I don't think watching Buffy would have been mandatory to do the series. (It should be mandatory, however, just to see how brilliant television is made.) ;)

Ian said...

Agreed, I really think everyone in television should be contracted to enroll in a Buffy 101 class.

Ian said...

A fantastic article both comparing "True Blood" to "Buffy" and reviewing the series on its own.

Anonymous said...

But Nikki, Angel was Irish.

Freudian slip!! :)

Nikki Stafford said...

Actually, I was referring to Spike! Hahaha... (I know, I'm a Bangel so one would assume I was talking about Angel, but it was Spike I was thinking of, because unlike Angel, he actually retained his accent just like Bill retains his mannerisms from the earlier era). ;)

Unknown said...

I, for one, loved True Blood. So happy to have Alan Ball back.

Anonymous said...

Thank goodness Angel didn't retain his accent. ;)

Nikki Stafford said...

Wadderya sayin', my bonny lass? Arr ya sayin he can't doo the Oirish accent??

Seriously, on both Angel and Buffy it got to the point that during any flashback I was PRAYING he had the American accent by then. That Irish accent was worse than the goons on Heroes last season.

Anonymous said...

Just watched the first episode of True Blood. Loved it.

Which is good because I didn't want to be a hypocrite when I wore my True Blood backpack.

Jazzygirl said...

Another show that has hooked me!
Don't gasp, Nikki, but I was not a Buffy watcher. :-p But I can certainly appreciate those who loved it, including my mom.
Now, I'm a HUGE HUGE HUGE Anne Rice fan so for me, THAT was my comparison and concern. I didn't know if it would rip off from her works. But, happily, it didn't. I have never read the books this show is based on (I might now!) but I have to say that the facets that are similiar to Anne Rice's vampires made me smile. It's definitley not a copy, but has similiar elements that were nice to see....especially the intimacy and arguments about religion and good and evil. But whatever, I thought it was brilliant. And I loved Alan Ball's other works so I knew I'd like this one.
Anna Paquin is amazing...she nails this curious innocence in her character. I think the twist with her telepathic powers and what that means to he relationship with Bill is genious. These cliffhangers are going to kill me!!

David Kociemba said...

I got the first episode off a Chinese site, so I watched the unaired pilot and then watched the real one. Did you know that they recast and reshot the role Rutina Wesley plays, Tara? The prior actress was thinner, of lighter skin and much, much more uppity. It's a real shame that they didn't keep the casting. (She probably didn't test well with audiences.)

They made a more expensive opening title sequence. It's now more lush and establishes setting; the prior one had a lot of filler shots of dental surgery, x-rays and MRIs, as if to "prove" that vampires exist. They also cleaned up the audio and added that viola and piano score for Bill.

The pluses for me with this series is that it's lush, it's got a nice bayou locale, they aren't afraid of sex, and the lead character. In addition, they confine the "vampires are real and I have superpowers" to the back story, which is good. The bayou should have an opportunity for them to delve into both Southern gothic and Vodun. (And, actually, Lovecraft's stuff too, as he had a cult situated in this area in "The Call of Cthulhu.")

This Southern vampire book series is plowing ground started by the Anita Blake series 8 years earlier--vampires come out of the coffin, face distrust, commit lots of crimes, are sexual catnip, etc. Since I liked that concept, I'm hoping that this series can expand on that concept. (The first book of that series had great potential to be fantasy noir with a touch of badass, especially when the protagonist uses silver shells in her shotgun. Unfortunately, it went into soft-core romance by book 3. Not my thing.) My thing is exploring the consequences of making this one alteration to the world.

The "their blood is an aphrodisiac" is new, however.

I really like Anna Paquin... but they've not really found anyone else. (They recast the other actress who was doing something interesting with her role.) This series also gets into the real headaches of mind-reading. BtVS, as a series on broadcast TV, had to fade out the nasty sexual thoughts when Buffy walked down the school corridor. This show rubs your noses in it.

And, yes, I really agree that it's disappointing that Sookie hasn't tried to profit off her power to aid her family, get a better job for herself, or find out what people think of her. I think they'll likely explain that in the backstory or part of her moral decline, instead of curiosity and excitement. The thrill of discovery is what's lost when you put the tedious "magic is real" bit in there. I'm most interested in figuring out what effect this power would have on people. I hope that the series will not simply make it a Paquin ex machina device.

Now, I'm hoping that Alan Ball did his homework on the special issues that the fantasy genre has when it comes to world-building. Because right now, my first question is how vampires came out the closet and successfully avoided the military-industrial establishment using them as super-soldiers or perhaps test bunnies for medical research. Remember how BtVS made sure to mention this possibility as early as "Out of Sight, Out of Mind"? I'm going to set a similar deadline on this series.

I never thought that I'd say this, let alone admit to it, but I like the BtVS vamp face. The teaser's revelation of the vampire face on Billy Joe Bob Yokel... is not really intimidating or strange or uncanny.

Also, I'm not loving the camera swirling around the telepath/smart person while they think. You get to do that once per season and they blew that shot in the premiere.

The Bill Maher guest spot as exposition was good and really fit how the media might respond to this issue once the shock wore off.

The bartender is clearly a werewolf. Dog that just watches out for Sookie. An unexplained inability to find them in his parking lot. And they hung a lantern on "werewolves don't exist," which only ensures that they do.

I'm not loving the fact that they threw away the discovery of a love triangle when Sookie says that she can't believe that Tara can't see that he doesn't love her. That's just wasteful. Perhaps Ball thinks that such narratives are cliche, but I think he'll find that he needs some B story lines. Then again, he has some experience being an iconoclast, doesn't he?

Jazzygirl said...

Nikki, not sure if you'll see this but do you know if the rumors are true...that they cancelled Trust Blood? I'll be so crushed! I love this show!

Jazzygirl said...

LOL that would be True Blood

Nikki Stafford said...

I can happily say you heard wrong. Season 2 is already in the works, and Alan Ball has been dropping tidbits of info about the show, including new romances for the main characters and Bill and Sookie having to deal with the new whiny teenage vampire he turned. I can't wait! It's tentatively slated for summer 2009.

Jazzygirl said...

Yay!! Okay so I just yelled at my boyfriend since he's the one who told me this "rumor". He just smiled and said "and you really believed me? I can't believe you asked Nikki about it!" Argh! Men!
I know you were so busy when this was airing and had it's finale...I've been dying to brainstorm about it. Given the twists that Alan Ball loves to throw in, I am thinking (and hoping) that Lafayette isn't dead!

Ronald Helfrich Jnr. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ronald Helfrich Jnr. said...

I find Ball horribly overrated. I have tried to watch his stuff but end up giving up soon after I begin. He reminds me a bit of Stanley Kramer with that I am oh so serious vibe. I actually prefer Blood Ties to True Blood. Anyway, if I am going to watch serious work by a serious US director i'll take John Sayles over Mr. Ball any day.

Jazzygirl said...

Season 2 is here! And OMG what a premiere it was! An amazing episode hopefully setting us up for another amazing season.
I'm not going to argue the point about Alan each his own. I find his work amazing. Six Feet Under was such a great show. I am glad I have another series of his to watch now. :)

Jazzygirl said...

I've started reading the books and so far it's great. They've stayed amazingly close to the first book, with some minor plot adjustments. I'm thinking they moved some stories from Book 2 into Season 1 of the show to add more characters. Fine by me! LOVE this show!