'True Blood' and the Problem of a Bad Lead

They're arguably the central characters of the often sloppy and overcrowded series that returned to HBO last night, but Sookie and Bill need to go, because it's everyone else around them who keeps the show going. This is not an uncommon dilemma.

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HBO's often sloppy and overcrowded horror-comedy series True Blood returned for its sixth season last night, picking up where we left off in last year's annoyingly entertaining season finale. It looks like I'll be watching yet another season of this show, despite every urging of the more rational parts of my brain to stop. So, if I am going to be with this thing for the long haul once more, would it be too much to make one simple request? Please get rid of Sookie.

And for that matter, get rid of Bill, too. I know that Bill has now changed from the moody old gentleman vampire we once knew into some sort of possessed all-powerful blood monster, and so in theory he's going to be an exciting character again, but I'm not buying it. Really, he and Sookie both outlived their usefulness on the show long ago. Though they're arguably the central characters — the show hinged on their romantic relationship for years — they've always been pretty dull, haven't they? And they've certainly never been the reason I've watched the show. It's everyone around Sookie and Bill, all their kooky friends and enemies, who have kept True Blood interesting.

Imagine the show without Sookie. Gone is the constant whining, the forever ham-fisted love triangle stuff, the dopey faerie mythology. Last night Sookie told Eric that she "wants to be that girl again," meaning, I guess, the Sookie from the beginning of the series, who was, I dunno, innocent or something? I honestly have no idea who Sookie's character was ever supposed to be other than a vessel built for receiving exposition. And Bill has pretty much been a bore since day one — imagine the show without his perpetual frowning and tedious moralizing. In losing both Bill and Sookie we gain a lot. But then imagine the show without Jason, or Jessica, or Pam, or Eric, or Lafayette. Each one would be a detrimental loss. True Blood's side characters (with the exception of Tara, perhaps) have always been more vital, more engaging than our two leads. They're the impetus of the show, but they're certainly not what keeps it going.

This is actually not an uncommon problem on television shows. Oftentimes leads are blandly rendered nonentities who are lost amidst a group of much brighter supporting characters, though they of course stick around because it's "their show." There have been plenty of examples of this funny, but also kind of aggravating, phenomenon in recently television history. Take Grey's Anatomy, a show with an eponymous lead character who paled in comparison to her costars. Sure everyone was pretty into the whole McDreamy thing, but what about Meredith on her own? Mostly you heard about Izzie, or George, or even McSteamy. As a real world reflection, Katharine Heigl's career took off instead of Ellen Pompeo's. Maybe Meredith gets more attention now that a lot of her beloved old friends have left Seattle Grace, but for the first few seasons at least, she was a lead character, all watery and whispery and flimsy, who was liked a lot less than her friends.

You could make a similar argument about Jack from Lost, the conflicted leader of the castaway group who was never as complex as Locke, as sympathetic as Sun, as satisfyingly competent as Sayid, or as beguiling as Ben. I suppose we needed a more basic hero to give us an inroad to the show's wild world, but maybe they should have gone with the original plan and killed Jack off in the first episode. Who needs a relatively milquetoast straight man when you've got all these wonderful weirdos surrounding him? (Sure Jack was tortured and saw ghosts and all that, but he never stood out as richly as many of the other characters.) This doesn't just happen on drama shows, either. It's maybe a silly example given how awful everyone on this series was, but Entourage centered on the worst and least interesting character on the show. When Ari and Johnny began to pop, the show shifted focus, but Vince always had to be there, dully anchoring all the more buoyant stuff around him. It was a bummer.

And so it is with Sookie and Bill. I've enjoyed certain moments of their characters' arcs — the first early bits of Sookie's faerie plotline were kind of cool before it got dumb, Bill had some interesting back story — but they feel done, and worse, unnecessary. And never more so than last night. With all this exciting war and scariness breaking out around her, Sookie is once again, sigh, passively imperiled. I'm glad that Rutger Hauer showed up as the menacing ancient vampire Warlow, but couldn't he be hunting Jason instead? Or anyone, really? It doesn't need to be Sookie. Nothing needs to be Sookie ever again. We know she can't and won't die, even though we wish that she would, so really there aren't any stakes for her. Which is what I suspect makes her — and Meredith, and Jack, all the others — such uninspiring leads. They might get theirs at the very end, a la Jack, but until then, we're stuck with them as distraction while we wait impatiently to get back to the good stuff. Not that there's that much "good" on True Blood, but there's a lot better lurking in the bayou than tired old Miss Stackhouse.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.