Ostensibly about vampires and werewolves, the HBO series paints a complex, historically sensitive portrait of rural Louisiana.
At first glance, True Blood seems to be a show preoccupied with sex, violence, and vampires, a combination that over four seasons has been successful for HBO and creator Alan Ball. But it's one character—comfortably familiar yet unknowable, modern but still historical—that breathes life into a show about the undead. This character is the South.
True Blood, HBO's biggest hit since The Sopranos, follows a telepathic waitress (Anna Paquin) in a made-up Louisianan town called Bon Temps, where life suddenly gets more dramatic when vampires make their public debut and "come out of the coffin."
For anyone suffering cuddly teenage vampire fatigue, True Blood and its generous helping of inspired deaths and even more ambitious sex scenes offers a breath of fresh, R-rated air. But Ball has pulled off something even more brilliant here—and will hopefully continue when season five premieres on Sunday—by making the South a character in its own right.
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The small-town Southern setting serves a purpose. Vampires, werewolves and other supernatural creatures are the things of old, well-loved stories. Making the South—an old, well-loved piece of America—as important as the rest of the cast satisfies our craving for stories about ourselves, while also mixing in some fantasy for extra excitement. It's the best of both worlds.
The South is to True Blood as Olympus was to the Greek gods, or the enchanted forest was to A Midsummer Night's Dream. In his introduction for The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Charles Reagan Wilson points out that "few topics are more important than mythology in understanding the origin and development of the American South as a distinctive place."
This mythical presence always threatens to appear at a moment's notice in Southern stories, and that is an integral part of the show. Alongside the South's traditional mythology—remembering the good fight and carefree antebellum living—the supernatural world slips right in.
Different versions of the South make appearances. Even with the majority of filming done in Los Angeles, the set is distinctly Southern. (It helps that it looks as if producers have trucked in tons of Spanish moss and coated every tree in sight.) There is a sense of a tight community, and even a bar where everybody does know your name.
One of the main characters, Bill Compton, the vampire king of Louisiana and a former Confederate soldier who didn't lose any of his manners when he was turned into a vampire, is the old South personified. A more contemporary example is last season's hookup between a good old Southern boy and another vampire in the back of a pickup truck with a planation-style mansion in the background. A pack of werewolves that seem to love their Harleys as much as they love howling at the moon is another example of the current South. At every turn, the South, as a state of mind and a place, fills characters with their essence or sets the scene to illuminate them.
The family dynasties of the South are mirrored in the close relationships between older vampires and the younger vampires they created. The old class system rears its head in the aristocracy of the vampires compared with the packs of werewolves, who are hicks in comparison, much like the so-called "white trash" of the old South. In a clever twist on history, the humans in True Blood are meals, in much the same way that slaves were often regarded as less than human. It's also not a stretch to see the hypnotism the vampires love to do as an example of the widespread delusion that developed after the Civil War that the South will rise again.
Ball's previous entry into television, the critics' darling Six Feet Under, applied a similar storytelling device. Six Feet Under had death as a character, making it a constant presence, as the recently departed continued interacting with the living to push each episode along. Death or the fear of it is a common theme in stories. By making death so routine and have characters desensitized to it, Ball made viewers confront death differently, too.
Since so many of the characters in True Blood are already dead, however, this trick would have been stale if it weren't reinvented. So Ball took something as abstract as a culture and made it work in his storytelling trick of seeing something familiar in a new way. People tend to form strong opinions about the South, either good (home and heritage) or bad (closed-minded and xenophobic). Ball, with all the positives and pitfalls in the show, makes it clear the land of Dixie is neither entirely here nor there.
In True Blood, Ball, an Atlanta native, stays away from a patronizing view of rural life or relying too heavily on the Old South. The complicated racial history is not forgotten, however. The werepanthers have more than a passing resemblance to the rednecks in Deliverance. The discrimination against vampires is a barely veiled metaphor for the current struggle for gay rights with antagonists using the slogan of "god hates fangs" and a Vampire Rights Amendment being pushed by undead lobbyists in the Senate.
"The South is a place of real extremes, really making it a perfect place for a horror tale," says Scott Poole, a professor of history at the College of Charleston and author of Monsters in America. "There's a long tradition of seeing the South as other, the evil twin."
Can you imagine True Blood set in the laidback California beach culture? In the bundled up and completely unsexy Boston winter? The South, with its blurred understanding of history and even murkier mythology, lends itself to the alternate universe of True Blood. It doesn't hurt that a made-up town in rural Louisiana is as foreign to an urban audience as some of the deeper recesses of outer space. Viewers want stories to take them somewhere new. The South, with its understanding of itself always changing, can be revisited again and again.
Vampires have been used in stories as stand-ins for societal concerns since Irish author Bram Stoker made up the name Dracula in 1897. In True Blood, vampires are just vampires and the South is something more complicated. It's a place, but it's also lifestyle, it's a land that scorns the unfamiliar while basking in its varied history. It's a place where it's imaginable that a vampire bar named Fangtasia could do brisk business.
In Absalom! Absalom! Faulkner wrote: "Tell about the South. What it's like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all." But Ball finds an answer in another quote about Southerners from the same novel: "No wonder you folks all outlive yourselves by years and years and years."