Why is the HBO's True Blood so successful?
A month and a half ago, Bill Carter of the Times charted its amazing rise.
In the three episodes measured so far this … season, “True Blood” has amassed viewer totals that any network, including broadcast networks, would be excited to own.
And today, here's what we heard from Robert Seidman on his TV By The Numbers blog:
[T]his week [True Blood] is up to 5.3 million. Last week [it] scored 4.46 million so the week-over-week growth is almost 20 percent. In two years of the blog, I’ve never seen any show with this sort of momentum.
This is good news for HBO. The last couple of years have been trying. The Chris Albrecht era that launched The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Six Feet Under is long gone (as is Albrecht). Showtime, a competitor, openly refers to HBO as HB-Over. HBO needed proof that it remains a vital force. It needed a hit and now it has one.
This is where an anthropologist perks up. If HBO can create something that flourishes in contemporary culture, it suggests that someone there gets our culture. A hit series is our chance to put an ear to the ground. How does the culture creator explain the hit he's created?
Alan Ball, the show creator, says the "elemental" reason True Blood works is this: "Women love the storytelling and the romance, and men love the sex and violence."
This can't be it. If only because it commits Ball and HBO to a clueless generalization. (I mean, have we not transcended these gender stereotypes? Josh Friedman said it was tough to get emotion and dialogue out of the female writers for The Sarah Connor Chronicles because "they just wanted to blow shit up." Especially, one guesses, stereotypes.)
Ball is more illuminating when he says the vampire literature that inspired him was "exciting and sexy and violent and romantic" and “authentically Southern, not cartoon Southern [with] elements of the Saturday matinee serial…‘Tobacco Road'…big gothic romance, and even social satire.”
This is better. But not perfect. It helps illuminate the form Ball gave True Blood. But not its content. I mean, why vampires? Why did this prove so successful? (We're not the only ones to wonder. When Michael Lombardo, the president of programming for HBO, first heard the proposal for the show, he said, “A vampire show? Really?”)
Fifty years ago, vampires were an embarrassing remainder of the Victorian era. Vampires were wan and overwrought, moody yet completely predictable, always on the verge of camp that was more likely to be funny "ha ha" than funny "Sontag." Vampires were too theatrical to be convincing, drama kings who'd somehow missed the memo on "cool." The full light of modernism drove vampires to their crypts. The rational, routinized world kept them there.
Til now. Now of course they're everywhere. Anne Rice gets a great deal of the credit. Take a bow Stephenie Meyer. Joss Whedon had the brilliant idea of dropping vampires into the sunniest of places (small town California) and the least dreadful of institutions (high school). Vampires now walked the land.
So what's the drill? Er, what's the thrill? I once did an interview with a vampire. And it's worth rehearsing here. I did the interview in Goth bar in Toronto in the 1990s. The "vampire" was in his late teens. He wore a velvet cloak, a ring with a little coffin on it, high Doc Martins (20 hole), black lipstick, eye liner, dyed black hair and a bottle of something red and viscous around his neck. Let's call him Jeff Brinsindun.
When I asked him to describe his appearance, Jeff said he was trying to look like an Edwardian gentlemen, and then he proceeded to call his look both "medieval" and "Victorian." In the course of the interview it became clear he did not know the meaning of the word "sensual." (He seemed to think it means "sensitive.") So the historical markers and even the stylistic adjectives had to be read as approximate. Jeff was proceeding with a certain semiotic latitude, evoking "another time" when men could dress extravagantly and with verve. And wear eye liner.
Jeff wanted to make something very clear for starters. He was not a vampire. And the bottle around his neck? Not blood, ok? Just so we're clear. And Jeff did not drink blood. He did not bite people. He did not expect to live forever. I took the news bravely. Not a vampire. Roger that.
No sooner had Jeff sworn off vampiric attributions, he began to invite them. He told me he thought it was "interesting" that he had never liked the light of day, that he would like to sleep in a coffin, that he wished he owned a Victorian house with velvet curtains. But he was not a vampire, okay? Okay.
The strategy was clear. Jeff was smart enough to see that any explicit claim to being a vampire must meet with ridicule. Better, then, to repudiate the claim up front and then sneak back into it by implication.
You could see why he was prepared to take the risk. There was clearly something rich and interesting about being a vampire. As Jeff described it, it was not so much a case of giddy dress-up as a great transformational vehicle. Dressed this way, Jeff got to be creatures, feel sensations and entertain scenarios otherwise inaccessible to him as a fast food clerk living in his parent's basement. Kitted out as a vampire, Jeff was more powerful, more jaded, more passionate, more enabled, more dangerous and more…more than he could otherwise have been.
The historical references are a little sloppy, I think, because Jeff (not his real name, but of course I knew you knew that) wanted access to the great sweep of history, to romantic figures of every period, to the powers of drama and darkness wherever they were extant. This is an experiential version of transmedia.
And then there is the real transmedia, those wellsprings of the vampire's tale, the folklore, the comic books, novels old and new, the TV shows, the various movies. This experiential modality is filling in and building out. The more the merrier, as far as Jeff is concerned. What does not strain our credulity makes him stronger. This is a genre that feeds on multivocality and intertexuality. All the noise in the signal turns out to be the stuff of the signal.
A lot has changed since I did this interview, a lot of vampires under the bridge, so to speak. Jeff was an early adopter, a brave experiment, one of the shock troops who made the world ready for vampires to follow. Much less danger of ridicule these days. No, these days, I expect, chicks dig it. Chances are Jeff must these days work hard to distinguish himself from all those poor, tortured, souls moping about out there.
Alan Ball says his vampire narrative is "exciting and sexy and violent and romantic." This is a way of saying it's versatile, that it conjoins things that doesn't always go together. Ball says there is even satire on offer. Which makes this a cultural invention that can do both engagement and disengagement at the same time. There's no cost. There's no trade off. There is, it turns out, nothing Aristotelian about vampires. They can do X and not-X with equal ease. Shape shifters all.
And still don't think this is it. We have to go a little further. And I am tempted by an outlandish notion that would take us much further. I think we are enamored of vampires because they are so much like celebrities. Vampires and celebrities are at once a mythic presence in our lives and, increasingly, a lot like us. We admire their powers, but vampire/celebrities are flawed and often tragic, and perhaps, on second thought, perhaps we are better to keep our distance. Vampires feed on us. They grow large on our admiration. But we feed them only to discover that we remain "little people," that what we give to them, they end up somehow taking from us.
I don't know. It's a bit strained. And I will leave it to my gifted readers to see if they can't supply intellectual triage and save this argument. I mean a robust version of this argument might explain why we care about vampires now. They are perhaps an extension, an exploration of our celebrity culture. Just a thought.
Auerbach, Nina. 1995. Our Vampires, Ourselves. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Carter, Bill. 2009. With a Little "True Blood," HBO is Reviving its Fortunes. The New York Times. July 12, 2009. here.
Jenkins, Henry. 2007. Transmedia Storytelling 101. Confessions of an Aca/Fan. March 22. here.
McCracken, Grant. 2008. Transformations: identity construction in contemporary culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. here.
Seidman, Robert. 2009. True bloody momentum for True Blood: 5.3 million and another record. TV By The Numbers. August 25. here.
Sontag, Susan. 2001. Against Interpretation: And Other Essays. New York: Picador.
Taylor, William C. and Polly LaBarre. 2006. Mavericks at Work. New York: HarperCollins. (For more on the Albrecht years at HBO)
I’m a sensible 42-year-old and I’m loving the wave of teen-vamp-romance. It’s super-cheesy easy-reading, (and viewing in the case of TrueBlood) and I like it for that. But there’s other easy reading around that I don’t find time for. (Sorry too busy with politics and finance reading). I often ponder why I’m having such fun reading about vampires. The first answer was that they are clear metaphors for ‘the other’ and that this is a nice way to look at prejudice. Important work given the global political climate and we still have living memory of the women’s, black and gay rights movements to process and draw learning from. But this has been said before. My latest theory though is that these vampire books force us to contemplate our humanity with tenderness and humility. Like most people I’ve spent most of my life exhaustedly trying to be a super-mum, super-employee, super-slim, forever-young-looking super person. I haven’t succeeded on every front of this battle mainly because I am human, not vampire. I wonder if these books are all about reawakening a sense of appreciation for our humanity with all its ageing, frailty and imperfection.
Are TV vampires related to TV guardian angels (and guardian angels who have guardian angels)? Are they the flip-side of angels?
Kayt / Irene your on to something. The “otherness” , the “reverse world” , the senuality of ” alternative darkness” in a time of ” real darkness”. They are all discussions points I have heard from people ( admittedly mostly women ) of the semingly most unlikley type who have the modern twist on the vampire saga so appealing. Not simple escapism. It’s too complicated and to powerful for just that. I live in Japan and play the game professionaly of trying to interpret trends in Asia. While so many ex-pat Western women I meet are vampire junkies it’s interesting that there has not been a similar trend among their Asian friends.
I wonder if we exist in a time of such great flux and uncertainty that there is a draw towards ideas that by their very nature can only exist outside the context of our rules and thus don’t contribute to the conflict? For sure, there are rules to be a vampire…to be immortal, to be sustained by blood alone, for example. I think it is easier for people to submit to these constructs as they do not violate our world because they are never able to fit it. I am further speculating here, but I wonder if the experience or act of submission takes on a deeper personal significance and value precisely because it occurs in a time of unease, threat and unpredictability.
I don’t think the vampire as a character is like a celebrity, but rather the mystery surrounding a celebrity is similar to the mystery surrounding the myth of vampire stories. Of course we know vampires don’t exist and live like in the movies, but are we really sure? As do celebrities. They’re not really that gorgeous and heroic all the time are they? But are we really sure? I think it is the mix between what you call experiential transmedia and real transmedia that might be part of the success. The story itself doesn’t really stop when you turn of your TV or your computer. Instead the story continues in reality, in comics, and everywhere around.
It might also be a very American thing. TrueBlood is yet to be broadcast over here in the Netherlands and I can’t really say that the Vampire genre has entered contemporary culture….yet…
Sorry Grant, I have to say I feel like the Celebrity link is a bit of a stretch. I believe that, plain and simple, True Blood gets a lot of its mileage from its sex appeal. However, I think it gets this mileage because it is different than the sex appeal that we are so battered with today by celebrities. Its dark and raw, and truly sensual; not plastic, scripted reality tv show romance. Also I don’t know exactly when vampires went out of vogue, perhaps somewhere between when people actually stopped fearing them and now. But is it really a surprise that Vampires disappeared when sexual freedom was at its highest? Is it that odd that a tv show based on sexuality (but put into vampire context) would not have gotten the response it has now in the sex, and rock and roll era of the 1960, 1970s and even 80’s. They had the rolling stones, david bowie etc…young adults now have the Jonas brothers (a little too Disney for some young people)
I believe a large demographic of the people that watch this show are curious, young adults, who are surprised at how much they like some real wild sex appeal. Especially after the drought of real romance and sensuality in today’s celebrity dating, reality show romance, Heidi and Spencer massacre that is sensualtiy and sexuality for young people.
It’s interesting that Grant’s post looks at the mass-culture eruption of vampiric stuff in the media and an early adopter of a vampiric/goth style but leaves out the tremendously vital vampire literature that surged along all through the 1970s and 1980s, often found in the horror section of the bookstore. For example, Ray Garton’s Live Girls and Lot Lizards are very far from the romance-novel teen-girl sensibility now rampant (and equally far from the Southern-fried gothic Anne Rice/True Blood world), but they were pretty influential among hard-core vampire-lit enthusiasts. The sex-and-horror world even sustained a number of short-story anthologies during the 1980s and 1990s that specialized in intense, disturbingly sexual tales.
In my opinion, the key appeal of these stories is the fantasy of losing control and giving up choice. We live in a time when everyone is expected to maintain an identity as the in-control maker of endless rational, responsible choices, and for the most part we like that. But we also like to think about release, or scare ourselves about what would happen if we did release…
How about a political interpretation? Vapires are a perfect metaphore for a parasitic elite (if you believe the elites are parasitic). This explains both the abhorrence and the fascination.