Essays

Fangs and Fragmentation: Narrative Complexity in True Blood

This essay was written in 2012 for the paper Television Industries and Forms (MDIA 404)

Eric Northman is a vampire, a sheriff, a maker, a progeny, a drug dealer, a Viking and a small business owner. He’s also a supporting character in Alan Ball’s True Blood, home to an array of mythological creatures all with their own elaborate narrative strands. Narratively complex programmes need a database just to keep track of the detail in every episode but it has become popular with high-end serials. In the era of multiple channels furiously competing for a market share narrative complexity has become a method of attracting and engaging the high-income, educated demographic. This essay will explore how the narrative complexity of True Blood perpetuates its network’s reputation of quality, critically acclaimed and original programming that echoes its slogan, “It’s Not TV. It’s HBO.”

HBO’s slogan reflects the context in which this cable network exists. By the late 90s, 75 percent of American homes were wired with cable (Dunleavy 201). This has led to an unprecedented number of channels, giving audiences the power to choose rather than settling for what is available. This “digital era of television” is what Rogers et al have termed “TVIII”, an era of ferocious network competition and fragmentation of the audience (Dunleavy 198). With such a wide variety of channels, the threshold for audience ratings has been reduced. Instead of attracting a mass audience, networks focus on targeting certain demographics through “overt branding” (Dunleavy 215). This ‘boutique audience’ will be enough to sustain the channel, if they are able to be retained (Mittell 31). Narratively complex high-end serials are aimed at an educated, high-income demographic. This demographic is attractive to advertisers and cable networks alike. On network television, programmes like Lost are used to by advertisers who are desperate to be seen by this high-value demographic. However, it is more common in cable networks like HBO, who use shows like True Blood and The Sopranos to propagate its reputation for high-quality and innovative programming.

Cable networks lend themselves well for innovative storytelling as they are always looking to be a cut above the competition. This therefore makes them receptive to “experimentation with high-concept combinations of diverse narrative themes” (Smith 46).  Narrative complexity thrives in this context because it requires more creative freedom and a large budget.  Often HBO programmes have shorter seasons but high production values, with each episode of True Blood reportedly costing between $3 million – $5 million (Klein) . They also have “auteur credentials” and a cinematic visual quality.  All these features combine to validate the reputation of the network and often these shows act as a ‘flagship,’ attracting viewers who will then stay to watch their other programmes.

As with all HBO shows, the opening credits of True Blood are always played in its entirety despite its length. This presents each episode as a cinematic experience. It introduces the story with an award-winning creation by Digital Kitchen which juxtaposes religious iconography with sexual and animal imagery. In addition to enhancing the visual quality, these credits add to the complexity of the narrative by highlighting the underlying allegory in True Blood which is the gay rights movement. The credits frame the narrative before the story begins.  One particularly revealing segment is a shot of a church sign which declares “God Hates Fangs” which is clearly a reference to the Westboro Baptist Church who have become infamous for their anti-gay protests.

In 2011, True Blood won a GLAAD media award after being nominated three years in a row (LA Times). The gay rights movement is a major theme in the first season of True Blood and although it plays a lesser role in later seasons, the politics between religious groups and their perceived evil persists in the background narrative.  This topical narrative strand helps to keep True Blood in the minds of the critics who are impressed by relevant and thought-provoking material. By using the vampire/church dynamic as a metaphor for the ongoing, real world, gay rights issue, True Blood is able to appeal to their educated demographic who are able to comprehend the allegory.

Unlike other complex shows, True Blood does not blend the series and serial model. Each season of True Blood is based on a book from Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries. The seasons are therefore instalments of a longer and more elaborate story. This creates a completely serialised programme designed to be watched in chronological order.  Arguably, the absence of episodic features in its narrative alienates new viewers. However, the subscription based model of HBO creates what is essentially a pre-purchased audience, allowing them to focus on developing a season-long narrative uninterrupted by standalone episodes.

Additionally, there is always one ‘mystery of the season’ which dominates the narrative for twelve episodes. This is the “narrative enigma” that drives each season of True Blood forward (Dunleavy 154). Each new season acts as an opportunity for newcomers to be introduced to the world of True Blood without needing prior knowledge. This closed model that many complex ‘high-end’ serials use is also aided with the introduction of DVDs and internet technologies. HBO offers its subscribers free access to its back catalogue of episodes on the website HBO Go, therefore allowing new viewers to start the story from the beginning, on their own terms.

The episodes of True Blood are delivered as a flexi-narrative meaning, it involves a number of different characters with separate storylines, broken down into narrative bytes and rapid intercutting between scenes (Nelson). In season two there are three main stories: Story A involves protagonist Sookie and her love interests Bill and Eric, attempting to locate a missing sheriff. Story B is Sookie’s brother Jason and his recruitment into an anti-Vampire Christian group known. Story C is the ‘mystery of the season’ which involves Maryann the maenad and her spell on the citizens of Bon Temps.  Using a flexi-narrative is a popular technique in complex high-end serials to retain the interest of the viewers. This prevents their many different plots from staggering and becoming stale.

For example, in its fifty minute slot, True Blood offers approximately 31 scenes, divided between five storylines. One example is in the episode, Nothing but the Blood. In the first scene, Revered Newlin is on the screen debating with Nan Flanagan, the face of the American Vampire League. The scene then cuts to a banquet where Jason meets the Reverend for the first time. The scene then cuts away to Sam visiting Maryann’s house which then transforms into a flashback of Sam as a teenager meeting Maryann. The scene then moves on to Sookie at home, looking forlorn as she packs her deceased grandmother’s belongings.

This technique, popularised by soap operas, helps keep the pace of the story and allows the narrative to “incorporate more subplots and sub-divide these into tantalising narrative bytes” (Dunleavy 152). It reminds the audience of the different narrative strands in the show, all of which are keeping them in suspense, and persuades them to stay seated and keep watching. Although True Blood itself does not have to make allowances for commercial breaks, many complex serials utilise the flexi-narrative in order to cut the show into separable segments (Dunleavy 152).  As a popular show, True Blood also benefits from this technique when it is purchased by international channels for network viewing.

As with most serials, each episode closes in a suspenseful manner to ensure the viewers will keep watching despite never reaching closure. In fact it can be argued that viewers tune in to each episode of shows like True Blood, not with the expectation of story conclusion but for the new revelations it has to offer for each narrative strand (Dunleavy 155). The majority of the story arcs in True Blood end during the season finale, with all the narrative strands converging to become a part of the main narrative.  In the season two episode Timebomb, Stories A and B merge as it is revealed that it is Jason’s group who have kidnapped the missing sheriff. This early conclusion allows for the story to build the suspense on Story C, which develops in the background while Stories A and B are reaching climax. Story C therefore involves all the characters of the show at its conclusion to make a sensational finale designed to be an unmissable event for the audience.

The season finale becomes a spectacular product of all the clues which have been dropped within each individual storyline.  The narrative conclusion then becomes a reward for loyal viewers who are either amazed by the many twists that have led to this ultimate conclusion or thrilled to have accurately predicted how the story will come together. This technique therefore persuades the audience to remain fully engaged with the text throughout the entire season.

Another example of this is in season four with the ‘baby doll’ storyline. In the final episode of season three, an eerie looking doll is shown on camera as the young couple, Hoyt and Jessica, quarrel in the background. In season four this doll, is passed to Arlene, a new mother. This doll causes her to suspect that her child but it is later revealed that the toy is haunted. This story seems detached from the rest of the narrative until episode eight of season four (Spellbound) when the ghost possesses Lafayette, the Merlotte’s chef, leading to the discovery of his previously unknown gift as a medium. This therefore allows Lafayette’s narrative strand to intertwine with the ‘mystery of the season’ in the finale when the deceased Marnie, uses Lafayette’s body to kill another character.

This amalgamation of the separate narrative strands demonstrates the craftsmanship behind the ‘operational aesthetic’ of the narrative (Mittell 36). It encourages viewers to marvel at how seemingly unrelated narrative strands they’ve seen in one season can develop into a major plot point in the next season finale, one year later. This further validates the quality of the programme by displaying the effort that has been exerted in constructing the well planned and detailed show.

The multiple storylines of True Blood are aided by a rich back-story of the show. When the protagonists are first introduced to the audience in the pilot (Strange Love), it has already been two years since the existence of vampires became public. There is already a political debate over the rights of vampires and the characters of Bon Temps all have their own prejudices about these creatures.  Additionally, the main vampires in the town of Bon Temps are hundreds and sometimes thousands of years old. There is therefore an information gap between Strange Love and what has happened before True Blood premiered on the television screen.  Hints of these hidden histories often appear as small clues throughout the seasons which the audience may not understand or notice at the time but will become clear in future episodes. It is this type of detail that keeps audiences engaged in complex serials, using the small revelations as pieces of the bigger narrative puzzle.

As with many complex serials, this issue of history is addressed with the use of analepses.  Although analepses are not unique to the complex narrative, they are used a lot more frequently in order to fill in the gaps for the audience and add depth to the characters (Mittell). In the second season, Bill was held hostage by his vampire ‘maker’ for three episodes. In these episodes, Bill has a series of flashbacks which revealed the atrocities he and his maker have committed in the past. These flashbacks show his transition from murderous vampire to the reclusive character the audience knows him to be. This allows for a deeper understanding of the character and is used by high-end serials to strengthen the audience’s emotional attachment in order to keep them watching the show.

In addition, the back-story creates the sense that there is always more to the narrative than the audience currently realises. As previously stated, small clues which form a back-story are often contained in episodes but overlooked by viewers.  An example of this is during Strange Love, when Sookie rescues Bill from vampire drainers. In the scene, Sookie strangles one of the drainers by throwing a chain at his neck which automatically wraps around him.  Until season four, there was no reason to think this event was anything more than an implausible situation attributable to television conventions.  However, when Sookie is later revealed to be a fairy, it is used to explain her telekinetic ability. As Sookie is forced to search her memory for clues, the viewer too becomes disoriented and is encouraged to rewatch past episodes for scenes which foreshadow this revelation. This technique further strengthens the ‘rewatchability’ of True Blood, giving reason to purchase the DVDs or visit HBO Go (Mittell 31). As the narrative progresses and a previously unknown back-story is revealed, viewers are given a new comprehension of previous episodes, making an old story interesting and new again.  

Disorientation is a key narrative complexity technique in season four. Mittell describes this phenomenon as a form of “narrative spectacle” when “the plot makes unforeseen sharp twists that cause the entire scenario to ‘reboot’” (Mittell 36). In the third season finale, Sookie is brought by her fairy godmother to a parallel world where she meets her very young grandfather. It is revealed that he did not die as was stated in season one but in fact had been in this world, where time stands still. When Sookie returns to the human world, it is revealed that one year has passed since she left and her family and friends have all progressed in their lives. Sookie and the audience are therefore forced to reorientate themselves to Bon Temps and the many changes that have occurred since the season finale. In this season, Bill has become the Vampire King of Louisiana and Sookie’s best friend Tara has taken on a new identity as ‘Toni’ a cage-fighter in New Orleans.  The following episodes are then centred on discovering how the other characters have ended up in these new situations.

Mittell explains, “Narratively complex programs invite temporary disorientation and confusion, allowing viewers to build up their comprehension skills through long-term engagement” (Mittell 37). Clearly after three seasons of a consistent narrative, the makers of True Blood felt it was necessary to reboot the formula. The creation of a disorienting season premiere prevents predictability. It surprises the audience by changing the formula unexpectedly which then forces them to renew their engagement with the programme. All the seemingly baffling revelations fosters a desire to know more, therefore encouraging a deeper analysis of the text. Many users then turn to online fan forums in order to read the theories of fellow fans worldwide.

The artistic integration of narrative strands from helps to keep the audience eager for clues of what is yet to come. HBO uses this audience devotion by ensuring the DVD release date of a previous season is always less than a month before the newest season airs. Combined with the availability of HBO Go, it is clear that the network has anticipated each new season will enthuse viewers into revisiting past episodes, to remember minute details they may have forgotten over the hiatus. The narrative complexity of True Blood encourages watching and rewatching of the programme. HBO then harnesses popular technologies such as DVDs and online streaming not only promote cult-like textual analysis of previous episodes but also to reignite interest before the beginning of a new season.

Online fan engagement plays a large part in the popularisation of complex serials. The audience is able to keep up with the complex developments by reading elaborate wikis and recaps about each episode. Mittell states, “[narrative complexity] demands an active and attentive process of comprehension to decode both the complex stories and modes of storytelling offered by contemporary television” (Mittell 32). Comprehension becomes an easy task when the combined minds of fans all over the world are used to compile detailed profiles on sites like Wikia.

However, online engagement also opens complex serials to criticism.  One online blogger claims, “the characters [of True Blood] now resemble walking plot complications rather than real people” (Vaux). The elaborate narrative acrobatics combined with fans’ unflinching attention to detail can lead to accusations of ‘jumping the shark’. While narrative complexity offers networks an intense level of engagement, the audience also becomes fiercely protective of both the characters and the storylines. Online engagement becomes a double edged sword as it helps support fan devotion but also aids in highlighting what can be perceived as inconsistencies in the programme.  

As the narrative becomes more complex, some fans may not receive the plot turns as intended, feeling as if it has become ridiculous rather than creative. The reputation of HBO and other networks become threatened if the narrative becomes perceived as nonsensical rather than ingenious. Complex high-end serial have gained popularity in contemporary television because it is a style that helps perpetuate a reputation for originality and creativeness. A degree of carefulness is therefore necessary to prevent the narrative from taking a ludicrous turn. The creative possibilities of narrative complexity are endless but writers and producers must be careful not to stray too far from what the audience is willing to digest.

Narratively complex high-end serials have become popular in contemporary television because they help to keep networks competitive. These show offers a degree of quality that helps networks stand out from the plethora of channels. Narrative complexity opens television programmes to creative experimentation which is crucial to attracting the targeted demographic of educated, high-income individuals. Shows like True Blood allow high-profile auteurs to perform narrative acrobatics which leave audiences and critics in awe. This not only leads to subscribers for HBO but also increased DVD sales. Narratively complex serials help to perpetuate HBO’s ‘not TV’ reputation by giving the opportunity for creative experimentation. Narrative complexity helps to keep stories engaging over multiple seasons and helps to both attract an audience to the network and, if done correctly, retain them for the long-haul.

Bibliography:

Clifton, Jacob. Trust Me on the Sunscreen. 11 September 2011. 21 April 2012.

Digital Kitchen. “Baptism, Bars, and Bloodlust.” 10 September 2008. Reuters. Press Release. 20 April 2012.

Dunleavy, Trisha. Television Drama: Form, Agency, Innovation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Klein, Jacob. Why True Blood won’t be cancelled anytime soon. 21 February 2012. 20 April 2012.

LA Times. GLAAD awards: Ricky Martin, ‘True Blood,’ Tina Fey win big in New York. 21 March 2011. 19 April 2012.

Mittell, Jason. “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.” The Velvet Light Trap (2006): 29-40.

Nelson, Robin. “Flexi-Narrative from Hill Street to Holby City: Upping the Tempo, Raising The Temperature.” Nelson, Robin. TV Drama in Transition: Forms, Values and Cultural Change. Basingtoke: Macmillan, 1997. 30-49. Book.

“Nothing but the Blood.” True Blood: The Complete Second Season. Writ. Alexander Woo. Dir. Daniel   Minahan. HBO, 2010. DVD.

“Spellbound.” True Blood. HBO. 14 Aug. 2011. Television.

“Strange Love.” True Blood: The Complete First Season. Writ. Alan Ball. Dir. Alan Ball. HBO, 2009. DVD.

“Timebomb.” True Blood: The Complete Second Season. Writ. Alexander Woo. Dir. John Dahl. HBO, 2010. DVD.

Smith, Anthony N. “TV or Not TV? The Sopranos and Contemporary Episode Architecture in US Network and Premium Cable Drama.” Critical Studies in Television (2011): 36 – 51.

Sparks, Lily. True Blood: Ridiculousness Comes to Bon Temps. 22 August 2011. 19 April 2012.

Vaux, Rob. True Blood Mania TV Review. 22 August 2011. 19 April 2012.

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