True Blood: Season Four (US - BD RA)
Gabe goes to Bon Temps to hang out with all the pretty supernatual people...
To truly enjoy True Blood I need to take it at its face value. It’s trash, it knows it’s trash, and it’s proud to be trash. It’s a shameless harlequin romance, an unabashedly gory horror story, an audaciously tawdry soap opera, and it cherry picks other genre stories without even so much as a wink to its audience. It isn’t thoughtful or challenging like Mad Men or Breaking Bad, it isn’t as unique (to television) or epic as Game of Thrones, and whenever it tries to be socially and politically relevant it’s especially awkward, but damn it, it’s a barrel of fun. You can try to insult something this tongue-waggingly pulpy a hard-R take on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer or even Twilight formulas (we’ll ignore the publishing dates), but you might as well be screaming at a wall, because sometimes some of us just want a hard-R take on a familiar formulas. The first season works as a world and character building experience, and as a standalone murder mystery. The second season wasn’t as tightly knit, but was a better and more unique story overall. The third season had high points, but was a disappointing experience overall. The new season begins somewhere between Dr. Who and Fairytale Theater, with lead protagonist Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) escaping the fairy realm (yes, really) only to discover her brief time away kept her missing from Bon Temps, Louisiana for an entire year. Given the fact that the third season saw so many of the series’ core concepts growing old I was all for a massive change of pace, but of course knew this wouldn’t last. Quickly we’re back to the status quo. The ‘year away’ gimmick isn’t a bad idea, and throws us into the action without requiring us to recall exactly what happened over a year ago in real time, but it’s also clearly a gimmick, and leads to some really awkward expositional dialogue.
The nicest thing I can say about the show altogether (not just this season) is that I still don’t hate Sookie Stackhouse, aka: The Deus Ex Machina Doll. She regularly embodies the worst aspects of a textbook ‘Mary Sue’, and is regularly treated as a perpetual damsel in distress, both tropes I’ve grown to despise thanks to popular young adult fiction. But Sookie is something different, she’s aware of her perpetual victim hood, she comments on it, and she’s generally likable enough that her optimism is usually pleasant. It’s easy and trendy to compare Sookie to Twilight’s weak and meaningless Bella, but the comparison is also plenty apt, enough that a sizable essay could be written comparing and contrasting the characters, and their impact on their female audiences. It’s also easy to downplay the value of Anna Paquin’s thoroughly consistent performance, but she does great things with a pretty thankless, Luke Skywalker/Frodo Baggins, infallible hero role. Sure, she rests on her sexuality a lot (there’s a whole lot of nudity this season), but it doesn’t define her character or performance.
The other character that is regularly enjoyable (if not ‘likeable’ due to his actions) is Eric Northman. This may be because, like Sookie, Eric doesn’t really change a lot throughout the first three seasons, and it might have even more to do with Alexander Skarsgård inescapable charisma, but there’s also a lot of love put into the character, and a concentrated sense that he and Sookie were being led somewhere interesting and new for the fourth season. By episode three Eric is basically rebooted into a childlike state, which is a pretty damn big change, and I think that it works, even though I can perfectly understand other fans finding the whole thing a little too precious. Without this particular gimmick Sookie and Eric’s budding affection for one another would probably be more hard earned, but with it the turn makes more sense. I found myself missing the old, witty, cruel Eric, and the paperback romance sex scenes (which I understand are an important part of the formula) are usually more silly than sexy, but the change-up is appreciated, and generally makes Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) a stronger character in the process. I was warned I wouldn’t like him as a human supporting vampire king, but I find myself mostly enjoying the turn and the way it connects him to the strongest through element of the season. It’s also good to learn about Bill’s still mysterious past, which works to build the core mythology, and it’s fantastic to get a break his usual simpering mess of guilt shtick.
The character that has most challenged my affections throughout the series is Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten). His character is defined by his simplicity, and he works well in ensemble situations, but his sexual misadventures continue to gum up the works. The writers make a valiant and creative attempt at punishing him for his transgressions early on, but it just leads to more goofy puppy dog faces until they finally pair him off with Bill’s progeny Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll). Jessica is another personal favourite, and I was really expecting to enjoy her new home life with her human boyfriend Hoyt (Jim Parrack) following a touching road to romance in previous season. I knew, of course, that their happiness wouldn’t last, but I wasn’t expecting their romantic strife to be so boring. The dimming of their ‘honeymoon’ period is so predictable I had assumed that the writers would just bypass it out of boredom, yet they keep going through the motions. Hoyt loses almost all his charm in the process, turning into a puddle of sadness, but Jessica is still a reasonably likable character, especially when interacting with Bill or Jason. And speaking of progeny, the one character that exponentially improves with every season is Eric’s progeny Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten), who is handed the keys to Eric’s small kingdom while he and Sookie hang out. She spends a great deal of the season in various states of rot after a nasty spell is cast on her, and doesn’t have a chance to be a pseudo hero, but is a strong source of comic relief.
Tara (Rutina Wesley) and Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) were among my personal favourites throughout the first and most of the second season, but both turned into perpetual damsels in distress in season three. It seems that of all the major characters they are the two that the writers have the biggest problems with. Apparently Lafayette doesn’t survive this long in the books, so it’s understandable that the show’s staff would have trouble finding places for him in their version of Charlaine Harris’ story, but I can’t imagine what led them to crap all over Tara. If I was Rutina Wesley, I may have quit the series after reading the monotonous Debbie Downer plans for the character throughout the third season. The torrent of kicks to the crotch she endures verges on parody, like Griffin Dunne in After Hours, only she reacts in the most contentious and cantankerous manner possible. Things don’t get much better for her this season, but she at least reacts in a nominally amusing fashion. Lafayette gets an interesting character turn here, and a genuine romantic relationship, one of the least condescending gay male relationships I’ve ever seen on television, but he and Jesus (Kevin Alejandro) are largely wasted throughout the fourth season. In the end they come full circle, and it’s obvious there was thought put into their development since the end of season three, but their side-trips slow the narrative momentum more than Tara’s dull, but brief ‘adventures’.
Season three suffered from its lack of a strong central villain, especially following the second season and its two-tier antagonistic threat. Russell Edgington (Denis O'Hare) was a great character, but wasn’t really an effectively established threat until more than halfway through the season. Marnie Stonebrook is a unique threat for the series because she’s both genuinely threatening and understandably fragile. She and the ancient spirit named Antonia Gavilán de Logroño that possesses her have every reason in the world to fear and hate vampires, making their/her plight understandable despite the fact that we’re consistently rooting against her. Actress Fiona Shaw expertly balances the threat and fragility of Marnie, and never approaches the character without the show’s patented sense of humour.
The show’s male Mary Sue, Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell), has become a total bore as his character goes to darker places. If I could request one subplot be entirely removed from the series it would be Sam’s relationship with his family. They worked well enough for season three, but are a huge and repetitive waste of time here. There’s no growth in the relationship between Sam and his younger brother Tommy (Marshall Allman), and no good reason to continue exploring the same emotional battles over and over again. Sam’s new romantic relationship works fine, and actually introduces an enjoyable changeling to the series in Luna, but in the end this story just connects to the blandest side plot of the entire season. My ‘no care’ list is obviously topped by Tommy, but also includes the entire race of creatures known as werewolves. I enjoy Harris’ take on werewolves (they’re generally redneck biker types, and cast like a bunch of Sons of Anarchy rejects), but as people they’re easily the least interesting thing the series has to offer. They’re basically the series’ Klingons – they’re cool-looking, and make great Halloween costumes, but they are boring when they aren’t treated as supporting characters and given free narrative reign. I like Alcide (Joe Manganiello) alone plenty, but the story momentum is driven to a halt any time we cut to his problems sans-Sookie.
In preparation for this review I mainlined the entirety of the first three seasons via standard definition DVD. I got so used to the look of 480i/p that this upgrade to full 1080p is a pleasant surprise for me. True Blood is shot on traditional 35mm film, and makes good use of the format’s intrinsic grain levels. The show’s general stylistic pattern is pin-pointed focal points, and the juxtaposition of colour during day and night. The focus pull keeps detail levels in the fore or middle ground, revealing plenty of fine texture and complicated patterns, but not a whole lot in the way of wide angle background elements. The soft backgrounds blend well enough despite the obvious film grain artefacts, but there are some issues with haloes along the sharper foreground elements as they sit apart from the out of focus stuff. The daylight sequences feature plenty of high contrast shadows and beautiful black levels, but really stand apart from the night time sequences in terms of hue warmth and vibrancy. Colours are particularly rich when lush, green plants are present. Dark sequences often feature warm pops, and a handful of barroom scenes are bathed entirely in red, but in general the vampire’s world is defined by soft pin lights, and cool colours. The blacks are more consistent here (daylight scenes have grayish background blacks), and the generally desaturated hues feature sizably more grain than the warmer colours, but the grain is no thicker. Outside of the edge haloes, which are definitely noticeable and thicker than I’d expect from the material, only minor sharpening effects and moiré noise create any issues here.
True Blood doesn’t quite make my list of television essentials, but it may have the best sound design on television right now, especially considering Lost has run its course. I was expecting a big leap in quality from DVD to Blu-ray in video, but I underestimated the wide difference between Dolby Digital and DTS-HD Master Audio. I watched this season with all the aural motifs well in mind, and was really surprised with how different these sounds are when better mixed and less compressed. The whoosh of off-screen vampire running goes from a silly whistle to a full-on sonic boom, and the zipping sound that follows is much more intricate in terms of directional cues. Scenes involving big drama witchcraft, which usually also feature fire effects and multiple chanting footage, are particularly fun in terms of surround and directional involvement, as are the big, booming fairy-powered energy blasts. The season finale gets a special boost of magic noises that feature booming bass impact and sound swaddling. At this point I’m also willing to count True Blood fifth in television music supervision behind House, Deadwood, Breaking Bad and Mad Men. The show has many problems, but finding pitch-perfect end title music is not among them.
Extras begin with a series of cast and crew commentaries. Disc one features commentary on episode two, You Smell Like Dinner, with actors Stephen Moyer and Deborah Ann Woll, and writer/co-executive producer Brian Buckner. Disc two features commentary on episode three, If You Love Me, Why Am I Dyin’? with actress Anna Paquin and creator/executive producer Alan Ball, and episode four, I’m Alive and on Fire, with actor Alexander Skarsgård and director Michael Lehmann. Disc three features commentary on episode six, I Wish I was the Moon, with writer/co-executive producer Raelle Tucker, and executive producer Gregg Fienberg. Disc four features commentary on episode nine, Let’s Get Out of Here with actor Sam Trammell and director Romeo Tirone, and episode ten, Burning Down the House with actress Fiona Shaw, writer/co-executive producer Nancy Oliver and director Lesli Linka Glatter. There are no commentaries on the fifth disc. These tracks are often charming, but uneven, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t learn anything about the production outside of a few amusing personal anecdotes.
Every episode features an ‘Enhanced Viewing Mode’, which include picture-in-picture ‘Character Perspective’ (back story on what happened between seasons) and ‘Flashback/Flash Forward’, and basic pop up facts concerning bio and episode information. The option was a little buggy on my system. Each episode also has a matching Inside The Episodes featurette option. These generally average between three and five minutes, and feature cast and crew members discussing the ins and outs of the show’s ongoing narrative. I’m assuming these are made available to people that order the show via iTunes or something, because I get something similar with my Mad Men season pass. These aren’t exactly in-depth, but do offer something extra for fans.
Disc five continues with True Blood: The Final Touches (28:30, HD), a post production roundtable featuring creator/executive producers Alan Ball and Gregg Fienberg, colourist Scott Klein, music supervisor Gary Calamar, editor Louise Innes, post-production producer Bruce Dunn, composer Nathan Barr, effects supervisor Jon Massey and sound designer John Benson. Discussion includes the practical and digital effects, sound effects design, source music and composed music, sound and film editing, and digital grading. The interviews are intercut with behind the scenes footage, series footage, and comparison effects footage. True Blood Line is an interactive series family tree of sorts, featuring categories for human, vampire, shapeshifter, werewolf, witch, werepanther, faerie and miscellaneous character types. It’s text-based, and features brief write-ups on each major and supporting character. Those not interested in navigating based on type have an alphabetical index option to choose from.
There’s a big part of me that wishes I didn’t like True Blood as much as I do, but it scratches a specific itch, and this fourth season is, in my passing fan opinion, an upgrade over the sloppy third season. I understand this may not be a popular opinion. HBO meets their relatively high expectations with this Blu-ray release, producing a sharp and colourful 1080p picture, an immersive and aggressive DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, and a decent collection of extras. I could’ve done with an interactive, in-episode experience on an episode, like the one on the recent Game of Thrones release, but the commentary tracks fill the space pretty well.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 29th May 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Dolby Digital 2.0 Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish
Extras: Cast and Crew Commentary, Enhanced Viewing Mode, Insider The Episodes Featurettes, True Blood: The Final Touches, True Blood Line, DVD Copies, Digital Copies
Easter Egg: No
Cast: Anna Paquin, Alexander Skarsgård, Stephen Moyer, Ryan Kwanten, Deborah Ann Woll, Jim Parrack, Kristin Bauer van Straten, Nelsan Ellis, Rutina Wesley, Nelsan Ellis, Marnie Stonebrook
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Horror and Thriller
Length: 730 minutes
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