The Series: 4/5
There are vampires among us. Up to now their commonplace existence has been obscured by mystery and legend, mostly of their own making, but now they've "come out the coffin" and want to be both seen and heard. They also want the same basic legal rights as humans and, with a powerful lobby behind them, those rights appear more than assured. There's still the issue of their drinking blood, but with the invention of the "Tru Blood" synthetic blood beverage (available in all types from A-negative to O-positive), they can abandon their predatory ways and painlessly integrate into mainstream society.
Centuries of habits die hard though. There are some who prefer to feed the old fashioned way and remain separate from the living, though with humanity's growing fascination for their kind, there are more willing participants (offering both blood and sex) than ever before. Vampire fever even comes to the small Louisiana town of Bon Temps, which gets its first undead resident when Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), a town citizen until he was turned in the 1860s, comes back to reclaim his family home. By all appearances he just wants to be part of the town again, but with a decidedly mixed reception by the living residents, it's easier said than done.
Making the town's vampire-human relations more tense is a string of gruesome murders. Though most are quick to blame Bill and his kind, none of the killings bear a vampiric signature. Though a mob bearing torches and pitchforks doesn't seem likely, a confrontation of some sort seems inevitable.
Finally there's Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a waitress at the local watering hole. She's instantly drawn to Bill - at first for the usual, vampire groupie reasons, but then because of something quite remarkable. Sookie can read minds (most of the time uncontrollably), but she hears nothing from Bill's; it's that uncommon silence that gives her both a respite and a sense of normalcy in an otherwise abnormal relationship. Despite warnings from family and friends about getting involved with a vampire, and her own initial misgivings, Bill seems to be true - an undead creature of the night, certainly, but apparently more honest and faithful than some of Bon Temps's living citizens. In fact one of the living appears to be the culprit behind the unsolved murders, each one more personally connected to Sookie than the last.
Though the "True Blood" cover art foreshadows some firm placement of the tongue in cheek, the HBO series (based on a series of "Sookie Stackhouse" novels by Charlaine Harris) also features ample measures of romantic melodrama and the Southern Gothic. Out of context the former may have some viewers rolling their eyes (see Sookie, clad in virgin white, sprinting through the forest into the arms of her vampire beau) but that moment, in all its glorious sap, is completely earned, showing the redemptive power of good plot and character development. The explicit consummation scene that follows also shows the actors' faith in the material, a prime example of the often-speculated-upon, non-gratuitous nudity scenario. Likewise the series' Southern Gothic tones could have seemed overly familiar in relation to the vampire subject (Anne Rice, anyone?), but it turns out most of that flavoring is sprinkled about for the character interaction than the outright horror pieces, giving the show a classic rather than campy quality. The tongue-in-cheek elements tied to the vampire subculture may be the most difficult to warm to for some. "Buffy" and "Angel" fans, however, will find familiar the horror that never takes itself too seriously (but still manages to frighten) as "True Blood" follows in that fine tradition.
Typical of many shows these days, the series features a supporting cast and series of subplots that are often more compelling than the main characters and their central story. This includes Sookie's brittle best friend Tara (Rutina Wesley) looking to resolve her mother issues; Sookie's charming but recklessly self-destructive brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten), who is at once repulsed by and drawn to the vampire culture; and Tara's flamboyant but admirably forthright cousin Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) who provides levity but also a self-assurance that's found in few of the characters besides Bill and Sookie's grandmother (Lois Smith).
Though filled with some near-disparate characters, influences, and plot elements, the overarching murder mystery, acting as a kind of binding agent, keeps them all together. It makes for at once a fully formed and confidently executed series worthy of viewers' time.
"True Blood - The Complete First Season" on Blu-Ray includes all 12 episodes that aired on HBO between September 7, 2008 and November 23, 2008. The second season will begin on June 14, 2009.
Video Quality: 4.5/5
The series is accurately framed at 1.78:1 and presented in 1080p with the AVC codec. Black levels can be inconsistent, at times looking appropriately inky but at others a touch too gray, which in turn affects apparent contrast, making the image look flat. Fine object detail and sharpness are impeccable, however, and are the obvious strengths of the transfer. Visible skin texture - sometimes to a fault - precludes any use of noise reduction; likewise grain structure appears appropriately preserved with no signs of artificial sharpening or edge enhancement. Color, though at times manipulated for effect, also appears nicely saturated and deep.
Audio Quality: 4.5/5
The DTS-HD Master Audio track offers an immersive and enveloping mix that includes an effective blend of atmopheric, environmental and dramatic surround effects with consistently clear and intelligible dialogue. Though perhaps not as surrounds-intense or laden with LFE as a top-shelf theatrical release, it's an impressive mix for a "mere" TV program. Scenes often have the sounds of crickets, wind or other environmental noises giving things a subtle sense of place. In contrast, more dynamic measures are taken to enhance Sookie's mind reading episodes. LFE is infrequent, but deep and clean when it appears, and bass activity in general is deep and rich.
Special Features: 3/5
The special features package offers a thorough supply of background information - if only it were easier to consume! The worst offender is an "enhanced viewing" feature that provides a picture-in-picture presentation of material like Lafayette dishing about the show's characters, biographical narratives on the vampire characters, and animated maps showing the location of various settings. Unfortunately, none of it is accessible through a separate menu interface!
Audio Commentaries: Six audio commentaries that include Creator and Executive Producer Alan Ball, Paquin, Moyer, and other members of the cast and crew. Though the tracks featuring Ball and the lead actors will likely be the first to be sampled, and seem to be reasonably informational, there are likely some good nuggets to be found in the other tracks too.
Enhanced Viewing: Picture-in-picture presentation of a variety of material, the most interesting being the bios of the vampire characters and how they were turned. If only you could get to them independent of watching each episode.
Previews and Recaps: Each episode includes the "Next On" and "Previously On" segments that were attached at the time of broadcast.
The Feature: 4/5
Video Quality: 4.5/5
Audio Quality: 4.5/5
Special Features: 3/5
Overall Score (not an average): 4/5
An effective and well-executed television drama with horror, Southern Gothic and romantic melodrama influences gets a very good technical presentation and a thorough - but poorly accessed - special features package.