Cultural Commentator

Why ‘True Blood”s Awful Special Effects Work in Its Favor

Cultural Commentator

Why ‘True Blood”s Awful Special Effects Work in Its Favor

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I am still watching True Blood. Are you still watching True Blood? “I’m sorry, me too” I would say if you told me you were still watching True Blood, as if we both suffered from a mild but persistent medical condition. The show has become an absolute mess (as, in fairness, many shows do in their sixth season), with characters splintering off into disconnected and frequently unresolved story arcs and the plot shifting into a permanent crisis mode that no one really seems to acknowledge — the world has been on the verse of extinction for three seasons and yet everyone still occasionally shows up for work.

What truly marked the show’s descent into terminal corniness are the SPARKLY PASTEL ORBS OF LIGHT. See, originally True Blood was mostly about vampires, and worked within a color palette of black, white, and red, with occasional dusty earth tones for the daytime scenes in Louisiana. Tasteful, striking, respectable colors, the kind of look you might find in a fall/winter collection for a mid-priced consumer brand. But then we found out Sookie was a fairy, or part-fairy, or whatever, and the way the show chose to interpret her being a fairy and having fairy powers was by having her shoot SPARKLY PASTEL ORBS at people. At first this only happened a few times, but then the fairy thing became a major element of the show, and so last season we had a whole fairy nightclub with spindly Burning Man people wearing bedazzled pastel leotards and generally looking like Ned Flanders’ idea of a burlesque show. It’s only possible to think this is quality television if you have the aesthetic tastes of a small-time pot dealer in a sleepy coastal town.

This is generally a problem with TV shows with fantasy elements set in the present day. They simply don’t have the time or money to be thoughtful about their use of special effects (apparently), and so what we get feels like a collection of post-production presets: human faces morphing into demon faces, moving so fast someone becomes a blur, or those damned orbs: you see ’em in Grimm, and you see ’em in True Blood, and you’ve seen ’em in Charmed, and they all kinda look the same. Fantasy powers can serve as deeply layered metaphors for the human condition when depicted in prose, but once you have to visualize ’em, they always seem to look like things people who went to liberal arts college regret wearing as a teenager. As a result, the visuals on these shows are resolutely disreputable. Even the most well-regarded show in the genre, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, gets far more laughs than praise for its monsters and magic, with its value coming solely from the writing and performances. That meant a lot back in the late ’90s, but to be a quality TV show in 2013, you have to have both great dialogue and visual composition.

Which is why, in a weird way, what those sparkly orbs represent is freedom. As soon as one single solitary glittering energy bolus shows up, it’s so tasteless, so tacky, that the show essentially drops out of the quality arms race, and so no longer has to worry about whatever expectations the audience might have for a “good” TV show. It’s no accident that Twin Peaks, which essentially kick-started the golden age of TV, is a modern fantasy show, far more like True Blood than Mad Men. (Buffy and The X-Files, too.)

Of course, just because the show has this opportunity for creativity doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good. But even when it’s bad, there’s a chance for inventiveness there that feels far more vital than yet another crime drama — even if the special effects look like they were designed by someone who’d been trapped inside a Spencer Gifts for the past decade.