Y’all know me. Know how I make a livin’. …Er, that is, you know the kind of stuff I’m into: monsters, giant sharks, mutant zombie blood fiends, space chickens, supernatural and extraterrestrial whatsits. Not to mention: guys with guns, chicks with guns, ‘splosions, de-facings (that is – removals of faces), guts ‘n stuff, etc. I am a man of simple, disturbing pleasures. And I like entertainments that trade in fear, fantasy, ham-handed analogies, and things that go bump in the night.
So it’s not too surprising that new shows “True Blood” and “Fringe” are on my DVR recording schedule, or that I am keeping up with them. Unforunately, it’s also not too surprising that both of them are rather disappointing.
“Fringe” is the new hyped project from the face of “Lost,” J.J. Abrams. Right off the bat we’re in dangerous territory, though, because any Lostie worth his salt knows that J.J. was never a key creative force behind that show, and has barely been involved with it for the last couple of seasons. The real work in the trenches of imagination warfare (this metaphor worked better in my brain, sorry) has always been done by the writers, Cuse and Lindelof. Abrams himself has been more responsible for a series of projects that initially titillated but eventually underwhelmed me: “Alias,” “Cloverfield” chief among them. But I held out hope for “Fringe.”
So far, it is what it is. And what it is, is a mixed bag. My initial suspicion that it was too derivative of “The X-Files” has been partly correct, though it has marked off some new territory for itself. The performances range from competent to unexpectedly good. I’m not fond of Blair Brown as Nina Sharp, who has been set up as the heavy, and a key figure at one of those shadowy corporations that combines the worst aspects of Microsoft, Eli Lilly, and Hitler’s experiments with genetics and god knows what else. Lance Reddick, so ominous in a few scenes on “Lost” and supposedly great on “The Wire,” has been an enigmatic presence so far. And lead Anna Torv is a bit expressionless and strangely disconnected from the rest of the show. However, John Noble is doing a good job with the make-or-break role of the (literal) mad scientist Walter Bishop, and Joshua Jackson (previously seen paddling down “Dawson’s Creek”) is surpassing my expectations, and has good chemistry with Noble.
As far as what it’s about – that’s where it gets a little wonky. “Fringe” strives for a hybrid of the “X-Files” experience and the “Lost” phenomenon, without quite rivalling the spooky best of either show. Unlike “Lost,” “Fringe” wants to catapult us swiftly into its labyrinthine conspiracies and mysteries. Watching “Lost” in the early going felt like the proverbial blind man feeling an elephant’s tail – you knew something big was attached but you had no idea what, and the thrill was in the guessing. “Fringe” on the other hand wants to establish the basic parameters early, and as such it can’t help but fail to live up to the eerie, “oh god this is much bigger and totally different than I thought” feeling that “Lost” is so good at. In this respect it’s a lot closer to “The X-Files,” but “The X-Files” pioneered this type of writing, so “Fringe” can’t help but feel a little derivative. It also feels as if they’re trying too hard to make everything cohere. We get monster-of-the-week episodes and lots of bizarre happenings, but the writers go out of their way to bring in the Nina Sharp character and make regular mention of “The Pattern,” “Fringe”‘s lamely-named umbrella conspiracy. I may be too critical after just the handful of episodes that have aired so far, but “Fringe” feels like it started a bit too fast and scattered for its own good, while still assuring the viewer at every opportunity that it will all tie together soon. When you add in the fact that only two characters ever seem to have any interactions of note (that being Noble and Jackson as father and son), “Fringe” seems to come up short as a whole. Still, I keep hanging in there because there are good elements to it, and maybe it will develop into something better.
“True Blood,” on the other hand, probably has no real hope of evolution. Showtime’s vampire/Southern gothic is adapted from a series of books, for one thing, which indicates that unless the show’s writers get very creative with their source material, the notes and characters and relationships we have so far are the ones that will carry on through the series. And while these aren’t particular weaknesses of “True Blood,” neither are they particular strengths. Rutina Wesley’s Tara is problematic on a good week – her accent is the worst of a bad bunch, but not enough to cross over into camp, and her fixation on incorrigible horndog and slack-jawed idiot Jason is asking the viewer to suspend way too much disbelief. A team of civil engineers with an unlimited amount of cash couldn’t build a bridge that would keep that disbelief off of the… out of the… oh, whatever, it’s unbelievable, OK? The lead character’s grandmother was a sweet, warm presence so naturally, they just killed her. Anna Paquin as the oddly-named lead character Sookie Stackhouse (I’m guessing she was originally envisioned as a superheroic Thai prostitute) has been getting very mixed reviews, although for me, her weird, skittish performance is fitting to the show, if not especially realistic or good. Stephen Moyer does a pretty good young/old vampire as Bill Compton, and Sam Trammell is charming enough that I’ve started rooting against Bill so that Sookie will end up with a normal, decent guy.
But all of that is fine. Where the show gets itself into trouble is in two related areas: tone and metaphor. The tone, first of all, has so far been a blend of deep South trash fiction (a label I just made up, but seems suitable to describe movies like “Wild Things” and the skeevier parts of “Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil”) and Anne Rice. I think they’d do well to pull away from the Riceisms – the eternal love/vampires-and-mortals/deep mythology bullshit – and embrace their destiny as a trashy, campy slice of fried gold. Many of the episodes have had a fair amount of gore (these vampire wounds look like lacerations more than demure punctures) and a tremendous pile of nudity and sex. Amp up these aspects and take the vampires and other supernatural stuff less seriously, and this could be one of TV’s great guilty pleasures. So far, “True Blood” can’t quite decide which avenue it prefers to walk down.
But the thing that really holds it back from becoming all it could be is the writers’ insistence on lousy analogies. In “True Blood,” you see, vampires = homosexuals (and sometimes, blacks). To underscore these points, we have a prominent black character, Tara, who wasn’t even black in the books, but is Black And Proud in the show; and a prominent black AND gay character, Lafayette, who vamps (heh) his way through a few scenes per episode and teeters on the edge of stereotype. Meanwhile, the plot has vampires “coming out” – “mainstreaming,” as it is called in the show’s universe – and a whole lot of dialogue and minor plot twists are supposed to illustrate that vampires (gays) are people too, and we shouldn’t hate or fear them. …Except, unfortunately, all the vampires in “True Blood” except Bill are capital-E Evil, and Bill’s hanging by a finger himself. It becomes hard to agree with the show’s convoluted concept when one minute we’re told that vampires should have equal rights, and the next we see a den of vampires ready to kill the main character and drink her blood. “True Blood” is hardly the first show or movie to try to make its monsters into metaphors – this is a well-worn path, beaten into place by “Frankenstein,” “Night of the Living Dead” (and even more so “Dawn of the Dead”), every werewolf movie ever, etc. And this is where it really suffers. The most direct precedent for “True Blood” is probably “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which was sledgehammer-subtle but always accurate and careful with how it turned ordinary human problems into fright nights. “True Blood,” on the other hand, has just one basic idea, and it’s been problematic from the outset. And in a clumsy attempt to force it to work, the writers keep injecting scenes like the one last week where Lafayette confronts a group of homophobic rednecks in the restaurant where he’s a short-order cook. It was the best scene in the episode, but it had nothing to do with anything else happening in the series – except on that rock-strewn terrain of Big Ideas. At best, you could say it was entertaining but intellectually and creatively unfortunate.
Throwing in the failure of “Heroes” to work itself into presentable shape (if anything, “Heroes” did the opposite over time), supernatural genre TV has had a rough couple of years. I suppose I’ll keep looking to the old stalwart “Lost” and the more mundane, realistic blood splatter of “Dexter” to get my fix of monsters – both of the smoke and next-door variety. The new shows just aren’t quite as good.