Saturday, 11 June 2011

What are the modernist and postmodern features of True Blood?

This is one of the posters for Series 4 being released this month.

The modernist features of True Blood are mainly related to its adherence to traditional generic conventions  
(1) The series’ form is closely related to the soap opera format of several story lines. For instance in Series 3 there were usually up to seven story lines at work within each episode. For example, Sookie is seeking the kidnapped Bill Compton; Tara Thornton is kidnapped by the psychopathic Franklin Mott; Jason wants to be a cop and gets romantically involved with young woman who is werepanther; Eric The Northman wants revenge against, Russell Edginton, the King of Mississippi; the bar owner and shape shifter, Sam Merlotte, meets the family who abandoned him; Lafeyette Reynolds meets a male witch who becomes his new love interest, etc. All of these story lines are present in the story arc for this series.
(2)  Soap-like melodrama is a key modernistic element in True Blood’s success. Melodrama, the nineteenth century fusion of drama with melody, that is, of music hall and opera, blossomed with the rise in modernism as a popular element in early cinema and television. The blond, independent Sookie Stackhouse, who is forever placing herself in harms way, is as much a modern heir of Pauline, from  The Perils of Pauline as she is a character in the American tradition of Southern Gothic

 Like many traditional (modernist) series from the past the show is built on sex and violence. The only difference is that these elements in True Blood are far more explicit and daring than in earlier shows. Some have suggested that True Blood is today what the US programmes Dallas and Dynasty were for the mass TV audiences in the 1980s.
(3) Cliff hangers have long been a regular convention of soaps and other modernist TV series and these are particularly important for True Blood as they keep audiences hooked for the next episodes; cliff hanging endings are even more effective for audiences watching the show on DVD box sets as it can lead to viewers compulsively watching the entire series in a just a couple of sittings!
How can one argue that True Blood is Post modern?
(1) Like any self-respecting post modern TV series, True Blood is a hybrid TV genre and it blurs, forges, extends and maintains its own genre conventions: the notion of vampires having to be invited to cross thresholds of homes is an extension of the vampire genre; the idea of vampires of being makers and having “progeny” is another and goes further than the old convention of vampires being able to make vampires out of their victims; the Vampire Rights Amendment is like a parable for similar “rights amendments” our times;  Audiences are expected to buy into the “reality” that vampires no longer need to drink human blood as they can survive on the newly invented, synthetic blood known as “Tru Blood”;  Conventions are blurred further with ”Vampire kings, a Queen, a Magister, The Vampire Authority, The V Feds and anything else the writers are free to dream up; all of which adds to the representation of reality as being hyper real. Audiences are expected to buy into it - and, if they do: after being immersed in the programme for several episodes, they accept its simulacra of our world as the hyper real world of the ironically named, Bon Temps.

(2) The programme is playful with its allegories on life and attitudes in America. Like all good fantasies True Blood can act as a cipher for attitudes to vampires with prejudices towards gays and race. “God hates fangs in the show’s opening credits is easily recognised by US viewers as a play on the homophobia of religious fundamentalists whose protests are often festooned with signs which state that  “God hates fags,’ etc. Fundamentalist arguments are played out on daytime TV between the Vampire spokeswoman, Nell Flannigan and the fundamentalist Reverend Newland Junior as they are in America’s “real” world on a range of left-right issues on US shouting match TV. A funny example of the show’s confidence in making points on “real life America" can be seen in the third episode of series three, “Night of The Sun”. (2010); Russell Edgington has killed the Magister, a vampire Spanish Inquisitor, and his Vampire gay lover,Talbot, is concerned about the consequences from the Vampire “Authority”:

Talbot: [to Russell, in a heated argument] You can't buy your way out of everything! 
Russell Edgington:  Of course I can. This is America!
True Blood’s playfulness is also evident in its false narratives in which characters have dreams but the audience is left unsure of the “reality” with which they are presented. In doing so, the “show runner” Alan Ball, loves toying with the audience in this way, in turn, surprising and then shocking them with the possible plot twists the show could take. The programme’s directors also love cross cutting between the show’s various story lines with parallel arguments and violence between characters. Another playful element is the show’s willingness to go back in time to any point in history to reveal how characters became vampires or their motives for carrying out acts of revenge. Eric Northman is shown with his family a thousand years earlier during the Viking age during which he loses his family to werewolves and Russell Edgington. Many post modern texts are comfortable delving into the past to aid the representation of the present. The boundaries between the past and present do not matter and in a remix culture they help create meaning!
(3) Sometimes there are intertextual references to other TV shows, etc. but they depend, as with other post modern texts, on the audiences' cultural understanding through age, gender and other cultural capital, etc. However,True Blood only lightly depends upon intertextuality for its post modern credentials.

(4) True Blood is one of the VERY FEW shows shown on US or British Television to represent people from a wide social range for gender, class and sexual preferences. This ethnic and sexual diversity is not the tokenism that evident in much of British TV; there are characters for various segments of audiences to relate to. For instance, most of the main characters are working class. Some of the decisions that they make are not always wise but they are multi-dimensional and these characters can be as wise and noble as they are sometimes foolish. 

The vast majority of television commissioned today is still traditional/modernist in style, genre and content. Mainstream TV channels and producers busily select and create make TV genre programmes around genres which they believe will satisfy audiences, build viewing figures and increase revenue from advertisers. Any subversion in its genre conventions is usually limited in scope as traditional narratives, hardly varying representation and lifeless, unintelligent dialogue is still considered mainstream fare - as that is what the majority of audiences seemingly want. After all, this is where the money is and most of us have to contend with the dynamics of the economic system we are living with: capitalism. Why take a chance on something really new when you take an old formula, give it a slight twist and make money and reputations from it? Such, it would seem, is the thinking behind ITV’s new cop drama, Scott and Bailey with its main twist, a couple of female detective “pals” but with the usual, stereotypical female problems, fits this formula. The trouble is the Americans thought up something similar, and better, in the 1980s with “Cagney and Lacey.”
It is therefore deeply ironic that the most creative and challenging TV series today have emerged from the centre of modern capitalism, the USA. The capitalistic element is still there as no one knows how the market TV programs better than they do. But some studios’ philosophy for making TV differs from the mainstream - to the point that they are creating not just successful progammes but some of the most confident, intelligent and daring television on the planet. 
HBO’s philosophy is “to be the preeminent source of entertainment experiences that change perspectives, defy expectations and challenge the status quo." And much of this is clearly evident in their hybrid genre series, True Blood. This TV series pushes and toys with genres of romance, vampire-horror, fantasy and thriller.  In doing so it lifts the bar for television several notches higher.

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