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Five ways ‘True Blood’ showed real teeth in its seven seasons

Anna Paquin in HBO's "True Blood"
Anna Paquin in HBO's "True Blood"
HBO

True Blood” finished its run on HBO yesterday, August 25, and if its finale was a letdown, well, so was the entire last season. Arguably, the once stellar horror series hadn’t had the same bite the last couple of years. There were too many characters, too much silliness, and not enough scares. Still, it was a show that made horror both a critical and ratings success on television. And it paved the way for “The Walking Dead” and “American Horror Story” to follow. In fact, “True Blood” did five extraordinary things that should be remembered in the series’ final analysis.

1.) Vampires were dimensionalized as never before

The vampires shown on “True Blood” were multi-dimensional characters. Some were good, some bad. Some old, others were young’uns. These vamps proved that those with fangs could be straight, campy, city slicker or bumpkin. And they had rich, lengthy backstories and depth, which made them seem more human than ever before.

On “True Blood”, vampires were people, not monsters, not too different from you and me. And they were never mere antagonists, even when they were being bad. Both lead male vamps, Bill and Eric, for example, were incredibly complicated men. Sometimes selfish, more often generous, and played with nuance by Stephen Moyer and Alexander Skarsgard, respectively. Overall, the show did a marvelous job of turning the too often one-dimensional archetype into something truly multifaceted and fascinating.

2.) The South did rise again…from the dead

Few shows tread south of the Mason Dixon, but “True Blood” did. And it did it wholeheartedly. Show creator Alan Ball adapted Charlaine Harris’ “Southern Vampire Mysteries” and gave it more southern flavor than a rural church picnic. “True Blood” embraced its Louisiana setting and all of the region’s language, customs and quirkiness. Even its Emmy-nominated credit sequence was chock full of dried possum skins, river baptisms, and juke joint trysting. “True Blood” was always true blue to its red state culture.

3.) The horror truly pushed the envelope of violence

You expect horror to have violence, but “True Blood” let the river run red with blood. Shows like “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead” couldn’t be as gory as they are now if “True Blood” hadn’t set such a stage for it. Never before had so many deaths occurred on a weekly basis. Necks were cut to ribbons. Bodies blew apart. And everyone got soaked in crimson. The show was never one for the squeamish, but here, even vampire tears were filled with plasma. Sometimes all that violence was so over-the-top it became hilarious. But more often than not, it was disturbing as hell. Just like good horror should be.

4.) The show had a ton of strong female characters

Few of the edgier dramas on TV, even premium channels like HBO and Showtime, were as dominated by strong female characters. And they weren’t lawyers, doctors or businesswomen who are usually shown wielding such power on TV. Here, the strongest character was Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a hash-house waitress. Vampire Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten) was an equal to Eric, and she quickly became one of the show’s most important players and a fan favorite. And the show had vivid, strong supporting characters in Tara (Rutina Wesley), Arlene (Carrie Preston), and ingénue Jessica (the invaluable Deborah Ann Woll).

Even the key villains during the first three of the seven seasons were women – Michelle Forbes, Anna Camp and Fiona Shaw. In fact, the only real bimbo on the show was a ‘himbo’ – Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten). The show’s only real dumb blond was that hunk, and he was a hilarious riff on all the sex object stereotypes that went before him.

5.) The show was a metaphor for civil rights

Horror films are often metaphors for all kind of social issues. Everything from the threat of communism (“The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in 1956) to the rampant spread of sexually transmitted disease (“Rabid” in 1977) has been portrayed in the genre. And “True Blood” was all that and more. It unabashedly made the case for civil rights at every turn.

The governing idea of the show was always the struggle of vampires acclimating into normal human society. The advent of a synthetic blood (‘the Tru Blood’) rendered their need to feast on humans obsolete, but that didn’t put the kibosh on fear, resentment or trepidation on either side. The vampire struggle was a metaphor writ large about fighting discrimination based upon race, sex and sexual orientation. Ultimately, the show was a ringing endorsement of tolerance for every soul from every walk of life. Even the, ahem, undead.

It’s a shame that last night’s final episode opted for such a hasty conclusion to its Yakuza storyline. Bill’s long goodbye with Sookie was too talky and corny. And the big marriage of Jessica and Hoyt felt far too traditional for a show that so often played as a hedonistic fever dream. Sadly, the entire last season felt like one long, cast reunion as well, and it’s unfortunate that the show went out with such brazen sentimentality. This show was never better than when it fought all those traditional kinds of story points. It was best when it skewered such clichés.

Nonetheless, “True Blood” was once a revolutionary show, as well as appointment television on a Sunday night. It was a shocking, outrageous and hugely entertaining dramedy during its first five seasons. The show did amazing things for the horror genre, HBO’s roster, and the way we think and talk about sex, race and politics. It wanted to do ‘bad things with you’ as its theme song went. And for the most part, it did. And it felt ridiculously good.