Sunday, October 26, 2008

Vamping 'Til November 4th

A vampire film comes out tomorrow, Let the Right One In, and everybody seems to be talking about it. The award-winning feature is a Swedish offering about a 12-year-old boy, Oskar, the sympathetic victim of some merciless bullying by mean-spirited classmates, who meets and befriends the new girl in town, a goth-looking pre-teen named Eli. And from the trailer, it would appear that Eli is a waif-like, pre-pubescent vampira on the prowl -- both in the playground and beyond its chain-linked fence.

I've always had a fascination with vampires, but I seem to be particularly intrigued with them lately, which (if I wanted to push real hard) might still be chalked up to the election-season zeitgeist. Why wouldn't I have a renewed preoccupation with could-be bloodsuckers who sometimes pretend to be something they’re not, potential threats that we have to invite into our homes (with our votes) before they can do us good or harm? Let the right one in, indeed!

That isn’t just it though. HBO’s new vampiric oblation, True Blood, is not quite The Wire, but it has my vote, so far, for the best new show on television.

Like many of HBO’s cult and popular hits, this one starts with an infectiously macabre theme song, Jace Everett’s “I Wanna Do Bad Things With You.” Unforgettable. I have to diligently police myself from singing its hypnotic chorus in front of my mimic-ready toddler.

The story, based on Charlaine Harris's mystery series, is set in an exotic and everyday Louisiana at a time when vampires have come out of the closet -- trying to “mainstream” themselves into public respectability. They have advocacy groups. Community activists. Their own late-night bars. You name it. They also drink a special synthetic blood beverage that allows them to get their nourishment without feeding on actual mortals. Even if some vampires don't like the concoction's faux-blood taste (and prefer humans anyway), this is still a far cry from Dracula's Transylvania.

The show does have the same unjustified conceit that X-Men made famous, which is part of what (I think) has turned fans off to NBC’s Heroes this season: an absurd plot device that has superpowerful beings somehow cowering from the potentially oppressive powers of the State. Again, this was X-Men’s basic problem, but it was still a suggestive allegory, so you let the narrative off the hook. The first time.

With Heroes and True Blood the device seems pathetically derivative, which gives the audience a little less patience for the thing. True Blood does a better job negotiating this overwrought terrain by demonstrating -- quite early in the season -- just how profoundly vulnerable vampires are to silver. (One of the few popular myths about vampires that the show offers up as accurate. The rest -- crosses, holy water, mirrorless reflections -- were all rumors started by vampires to keep humans off their scent.) Even the smallest amounts of silver effectively render vampires hapless and helpless. So, you might imagine global scientists working away in a bunker somewhere on all manner of techniques for deploying silver projectiles or liquids or gels or nets or whatever just in case they have to drop the hammer down on these undead creatures.

Few people have the same powers on Heroes -- or anything close to the same vulnerabilities. So, they aren't nearly as easy to beat with the shot from, say, a silver-bulleted smoking gun. Some of them can’t even be physically harmed at all. Others run at lightening speed. Still others throw flames or read minds or see the future or control time or create black holes that swallow people up. And the list of amazing abilities goes on and on. In fact, it seemed as though one of the heroes had the best powers of all, which should have made everyone else feel cheated: absorbing other people’s powers by osmosis. They don’t lose their abilities. He just has them, too. So, it looked like he was the one who had drawn the best straw of all. That’s before this week's episode, when his father came back from the dead and sucked all of his powers from him with a single hug. Cold-blooded.

And that is the other big problem with Heroes -- and might be another part of the reason why it has “jumped the shark” for some of its fans. Just as the narrative appears to settle on the ontological realities of its universe, realities that seem otherworldly but organized, the writers have the science-fiction luxury (or laziness) of simply inventing some new and unprecedented thing that completely rewrites their world's macro- and micro-physics in one fell swoop. There's a potential Deus ex Machina in almost ever episode, which can get tiring after a while. I'm still hooked on Heroes myself, and loving this season, but I can see why other viewers might be frustrated.

In Alan Ball’s True Blood, we get the added bonus of not having the allegorical flurries completely displace (and erase) actual discussions/renditions of race-based differences. The allegory doesn’t swallow actuality whole. This is a Louisiana landscape where racial identity and sexual orientation aren’t super-powered out of explicit existence. Ball does some odd things with their inclusion (one part stereotyping-on-steroids, one part deconstructing audiences’ pre-fabbed expectations), but the show forces you to think about fanciful and factual forms of difference and discrimination at one and the same time, which is a powerful way to structure a TV tale about vampires and humans trying to just get along. But then again, it isn’t simply TV. It’s HBO.


Karl said...

happy halloween, indeed! great post. the swedish version of the novel, låt den rätta komma inn, was floating around my house this summer but I never picked it up (a birthday gift to my norwegian boyfriend - he loved it). i'm regretting it now, but I won't have any regrets when it's in theaters! It'll be here in Philly Nov. 14 at the Ritz.

(as a side note: the word verication prompt here to let me post has me write "ROPLIT" which sounds like 'scream a little' in Scandinavian.)

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