TruBlood Pilot: The Horror Genre and The Case of Tara Thorton

Trueblood combines explicit sexual content and gore to engage the audience in an intense, voyeuristic viewing experience. This addict- like pleasure is created through the utilization of suspenseful cliff-hangers, indicative of the horror genre, which is accompanied with the serial narrative structure typically associated with the soap opera genre whose open-ended narratives are intended to hook the audience. Yet despite the show’s innovative spin on the horror genre, Trueblood still relies on the typical pitfalls of television in conveying its narrative structure- namely the use of racial stereotyping as demonstrated through the character of Tara Thorton.

Trueblood, HBO’s widely successful original show, chronicles the adventures of Sookie Stackhouse, the show’s main protagonist, along with her fellow residents of the small parish of Bon Temps, Louisiana during the unprecedented political and social unrest resulting from the Great Revelation whereby vampires have come “out of the coffin.”  Following the creation and subsequent mass marketing of synthetic blood, known as Trueblood, vampires have revealed their existence to mainstream society and are fighting for equal rights amongst humans; as a direct consequence vampires and humans regularly intermix, providing the opening for the show’s narrative where Sookie Stackhouse, a young waitress and telepath, meets vampire, Bill Compton. Sookie’s life, and by extension the lives of everyone residing in Bon Temps, is never the same

A textual analysis of the pilot episode reveals that much of Trueblood’s appeal is enrooted in the show’s provocative spin on the horror genre. Given the unpredictable nature of viewer response, the main goal of any pilot episode is to grab the audience’s attention while simultaneously cementing the parameters of the show’s mythos which will serve as a guideline for viewer expectations (Mittell 236). In the case of Trueblood the difficult task of outlining the show’s narrative structure, creating realism through a medium that is inherently presentational (Mittell), is further complicated by the fact that series is based upon a literary adaptation. Thus, the show’s producers must create something original without entirely discarding the main theme of the books. Through its reliance on the conventions of the horror genre, the opening act of the pilot effectively establishes the show’s mythology, as taken from the novels, while setting the tone of the show’s narrative structure.

Using techniques typical of the horror genre, the five minutes of the pilot provides the viewers with all the necessary information for understanding the narrative of Trueblood and thus warrants a detailed discussion. The opening shot focuses on a young, seemingly inebriated, couple driving down a dark road located within rural America (Trueblood). Holding true to the conventions of the horror genre, the characters shown in the immediate opening sequence are not the main characters of the story. This should be of no surprise to the viewers as audiences who are familiar with the genre recognize the first priority of horror is, obviously, to scare.

To attain this goal, the element of terror must be introduced. This is usually accomplished through an unknown character’s gory, untimely death. Therefore, it is not characters themselves but what happens to them that is important. The couple pulls off the main road and enters a gas station with the sign saying ‘we have Trueblood.’ This sign constitutes the first indicator to the viewer that the world presented in the show is somehow altered from the world as they know it, and that the opening characters most likely will not live to see the second act of the show. The young age of the couple, indicated by the fraternity style clothing of the male and the flirty white dress of the female, along with the dark rural setting also point to the impending disaster.

The conversation between the young couple and Goth-dressed station attendant serves five main functions: 1) The profanity of the actual language used signals the mature content of the show; 2) the dialogue establishes the backwoods of Louisiana to be the setting of the show. The rural setting of Louisiana promotes, within the minds of viewers, both the importance of southern culture and of nature within the context of the show while also adding to the escapist element of the show since the target audience is aimed toward the urban viewer. 3) the dialogue also establishes that vampires exist within the reality as demonstrated by the television which features the vampire spokesperson for civil rights; 4) vampires are known within this reality and mix with humans, which is a concept relatively unique to Trueblood and the books the show is based, and 5) the physical look and dress of the attendant himself points to the fact he, himself is a vampire and is going to attack the couple.

The last point ultimately proves to be excellent use of misdirection, a technique that viewers can expect in the future of the series as the attendant is not the threat toward the couple; the real vampire is actually the camouflage dressed hillbilly in line behind them; the vampire unhappy by the exploitation of his kind, reveals his fangs, threatens the couple, but, in deviation from the horror genre, lets the couple leave alive. The first act ends as the camera lens fades into darkness and transitions into the title screen. Thus, within the first five minutes of the pilot, the techniques of the horror genre are utilized to illustrate the show’s supernatural and darkly wild tone.

A final indicator on the show’s usage of horror lies within the opening credits of Trueblood. The camera fades out of black and unleashes a slew of seemingly random and disturbing illustrations of the backwoods, southern culture combined with sexual indulgence against the backdrop of the title song: “I want to do bad things with you” (Trueblood). As the song title suggests, sexual content is predominant throughout the show and serves to undercut the conservative attitudes of Southern culture. The camera retracts from stylized, somewhat glossy techniques used in the opening sequence and takes on a grittier, naturalist presentation.

Bones are seen through the watery lens of a swamp. A hillbilly sits in a rocking chair on his porch. Dead animals hang from the ceiling in a shed. Children with bloody mouths eat animals that appear to be freshly killed. Men drink beer while a woman dances provocatively on stage. Smoke is exhaled through ruby red lips. A church group performs a live exorcism. Images of blood and death are mixed with sex and religious fervor; this combination is a direct attempt to establish the dangers of the human need for a transcendent experience whether it be through physical pleasure or religious elevation. This theme highlights the attraction toward vampires and toward the show, itself, suggesting that all people are searching to be a part of something greater than their own lives.

Though elements of classic horror are interwoven throughout the entire episode, evaluating Trueblood through the conventions of horror alone provides an incomplete analysis as illustrated through the opening of the second act of the show which substantially differs from the first act. The camera opens on the show’s heroine, Sookie Stackhouse, waitressing at the local restaurant in Bon Temps, Louisiana. The unfolding narrative, which has been restored to a state of equilibrium (Mittell 227), introduces the audience to the isolation which Sookie feels due to her telepathic abilities and how she interacts with her friends, family, and fellow residents in Bon Temps. After a brief scene interruption which introduces Tara, Sookie’s best friend at her job in a depot store, the camera returns to Sookie.

Initially, the narrative follows Sookie at the beginning of the second act, thus illustrating the importance of her role. The camera moves with Sookie’s character, panning over the loud customers at Merlotte’s restaurant. The wide shots of the camera drift over the crowd, landing on no one of importance until Sookie’s character moves closer to the restaurant’s kitchen. Gradually, other characters move to dominate the camera’s gaze, introducing the audience to Arlene, Sookie’s neurotic co-worker, Lafayette the colorful and charismatic chef, along with the restaurant owner, Sam. Character interaction and introduction are thus framed within their relation to Sookie. The dominance of Sookie’s presence on camera is disrupted as the narrative setting cuts away from Merlotte’s, changing scenes to incorporate Sookie’s best friend Tara as she quits her job and comes to Merlotte’s to for a drink. Indeed, it is Merlotte’s restaurant that provides the common space where all the characters gather and interact. When the vampire Bill Compton enters Merlotte’s, he does not interrupt Sookie’s life but the lives of all the residents of Bon Temps; he is an outsider, infringing on their territory. In fact, it is only Sookie’s brother, Jason, who is introduced away from Merlotte’s restaurant. Jason’s character, whose sexual exploits provides much of the show’s adult content, retains the most distance from Sookie; he is the only main character that is absent when Bill arrives on camera which indicative of his tenuous relationship with both his sister and community at large.

The establishments of the common space, intended for the gathering of various characters, and the focus on relationships are all markers of the serial narrative associated with the soap genre (Mittell 240). Trueblood is therefore a fusion of horror and soap genre, relying on the conventions of both to guide viewer expectations. Though, Sookie is the main protagonist and her immediate attraction to Bill serves as the catalyst for the central narrative tension, Trueblood, does indeed, features an ensemble cast. Therefore, the pilot episode presents the audiences with multiple points of view and several intersecting storylines all of which focus on the impact of events throughout the community as a whole (Mittell 241-242). Immediately following Bill’s arrival, there is a murder in Bon Temps which sends the local citizens into a panic. The state of equilibrium is shattered.

The blame that is immediately attributed to both Bill and Jason demonstrates the community’s suspicion of outsiders, and the simmering animosity towards Bill provides a mirror toward the larger, background story of vampire existence in mainstream society. The pilot episode ends on a cliff-hanger; the last image given to the viewer is the broken, bloody body of the show’s heroine, resulting from a brutal beating. The conflicts such as the mysterious death of Maudett Pickens, the arrest of Sookie’s brother, the central romantic tension between Sookie and Bill, and the campaign for vampire rights are neither resolved within the first episode nor give any indication to immediate resolution within the next episode. The intended result is to hook the audience, to foster viewer return (Mittell 216).

While Trueblood may offer an innovative twist in the horror genre, the show’s representation of race fails to deviate from the accepted practice of white dominance (Mittell 316-317) and, as demonstrated through the character of Tara Thorton, utilizes stereotyping in its depiction of African Americans. White characters have dominated the screen throughout the history of television, and Trueblood is no exception to this standard as all but two main characters are white: Lafayette Reynolds and his cousin, Tara Thorton. Indeed, the show’s heroine, Sookie Stackhouse, is the epitome of whiteness with her fair skin but tan skin tone and her flowing blonde locks. Therefore as demonstrated by the pilot episode, Trueblood as series offers limited visibility in regards to African American viewer. In evaluating the construct of racial identity within the pilot episode of Trueblood, the viewer must turn to the character of Tara as the pilot does not grant Lafayette enough screen time to provide for an adequate analysis. The character of Tara Thorton serves a direct foil for Sookie.

Tara is black while Sookie is white. Sookie speaks like a lady while Tara’s dialogue frequently utilizes profane hostility. Tara’s opening scene, in which she verbally assaults a customer, a white middle-aged woman, at her depot job, positions her as an angry, rude girl who has no clear conception of tact. She insults the customer, punches her boss, who is also white, and quits her job all under the justification that she “can’t work for assholes.” A viewer can surmise through her relatively unprovoked reaction and her subsequent interaction with characters in the pilot episode that the term asshole is a label which Tara applies to anyone who frustrates her.

This scene however also demonstrates Tara’s complexity. Tara’s reaction to the shocked and appalled expressions of the customer and her boss is to threaten them. “I’m gonna get my baby daddy who just got out of prison to come kick your teeth in,” Tara hisses. At the fear in her boss’s eyes, Tara’s expression widens in shock; she responds: “oh my god, I’m not serious. I don’t have a baby, you pathetic racist.” Her commentary provides a humorous play upon racist sentiments. Through Tara, the show illustrates its awareness of the racial bias which dominates southern culture and plays upon it. This alerts viewers not only toward the social environment of the show but also demonstrates Tara’s quick wit.

Yet, her way of exposing racism is a double edge sword. Her reaction invokes questions of her own racism as it is unclear whether her behavior would have remained the same if her boss and the customer were black. Thus, the character of Tara uses racism to expose racism and the effect of establishing racial equality is downplayed. Yes, Tara is clearly a strong and empowered black female character but she also is hostile and violent while her white victims are meek and quiet. Therefore, whatever racism these two white characters might harbor is largely undercut by Tara’s viciousness; the audience is left feeling more sympathetic for Tara’s boss and the customer, rather than Tara herself. This practice of exposing racism but downplaying its effect is a common television practice, since the 1970s (Mittell 319) which ultimately serves to reinforce the status quo of white dominance while seeming appealing toward the black audience (Mittell 319).

Tara is the stereotypical mad black woman. She lashes out at others without justification; she is untrustworthy of men and relationships, and as indicated through her attempt to stop Sookie from seeing Bill again, she’s also an overbearing- control freak.  However, Tara’s abrasive personality is not without a purpose; it directly contrasts and thus highlights Sookie’s sweet and nurturing persona. Tara’s central purpose within the narrative is to reinforce Sookie’s moral, and by extension racial, superiority; the fact that Tara, other than Sookie, takes up the most significant amount of screen time further supports this opposite effect.

Works Cited

Mittell, Jason. Television and American Culture. Oxford Pres University: New York, 2010.
Trueblood.  Pilot Episode. Dir. Alan Ball Perf. Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer and Regina Wesley. Television, 2009.

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