Since 2008, summer has meant more than just beach parties, sunburns, disappointing blockbuster movies, and daily opportunities to watch female pedestrians rocking short skirts and meager tops. For the past three years, Sunday nights from June through September have been dedicated to horny vampires, gleeful bloodshed, and soft-core erotica for the horror sect—we’re talking about HBO’s pleasurable hit show True Blood, of course.
Based on author Charlaine Harris’ series of novels dubbed The Southern Vampire Mysteries, the most perverse, and, yes, sexiest, show on TV returns for a fourth season this Sunday night, and fans’ expectations are sky-high. Last year, True Blood increased its grown-up appeal in ways that were unabashedly cheap (shirtless men, who turn into werewolves, for the ladies), shockingly gruesome (head-twisting sex), and thematically intelligent (a new political edge added to the bloodsucker mythology, via actor Denis O’Hare’s dynamic “King of Mississippi” character).
Late last month, True Blood: The Complete Third Season arrived on DVD and Blu-ray, affording viewers both faithful and new to familiarize themselves with all of the sordidness, which should come in handy, since creator Alan Ball promises that Season Four will take the sex, gore, and fascinating characters even further over the edge.
Ball, who previously won an Academy Award for writing American Beauty and created HBO’s beloved Six Feet Under (the show that brought us Dexter’s great Michael C. Hall), took some time out of his hectic schedule, leading up this weekend’s True Blood season debut, to chat with Complex about how DVDs have changed the television experience, why it’s important to use sex for psychological character development, what’s in store for Season Four, and the rap’s world love for star Anna Paquin.
Complex: Revisiting True Blood’s third season through the DVD set, it struck me that the show really expanded itself last year, taking most of the action outside of Bon Temps and into Mississippi and Arkansas. The two previous seasons kept things inside Bon Temps for the most part. Why was it important for the show to widen its scope last season?
Alan Ball: Well, that was based on the books. In the books, Sookie does go to Mississippi to look for Bill, who was missing. So we just sort of used that as a jumping-off point. We didn’t really sit down and say to one another, “Oh, let’s see what’s going on outside of Louisiana.” We look at the books. The show had already established the vampire world in Louisiana, and we needed to open things up a little, but that’s how it plays out in Charlaine’s books, so the timing worked itself out nicely.
Did you see the new locations as an opportunity to increase the show’s scope, in any ways?
Yeah, it’s great, because the books are all narrated by Sookie, so the books are basically Sookie’s story. It’s not really anybody else’s story, so if they don’t exist in the room with Sookie, then they’re not in the story at that time, at all. So, that allows us to be really true to the books, but at the same time to be really creative, in terms of developing everybody else’s story.
We try to give every other character a compelling story that we can also weave into the material from the books. If we’re not true specifically to the plot of the books, we still try to remain very true to the spirit of the books.
In doing so, the show introduced a huge amount of new characters last season. Is it difficult to establish stories for the new characters without lessening the arcs of the show’s primary ones, fan favorites like Sookie (Anna Paquin), Bill (Stephen Moyer), and Eric (Alexander Skarsgard), for example?
It is difficult, but I do believe that that’s part of what makes the show so much fun for the audience. There’s such a crazy, big cast of characters, and I think that there’s somebody in that mix for everybody to identify with, but it is hard. We only have 60 minutes per episode, and we’re servicing about 20 different characters. [Laughs.]
Charlaine Harris has the luxury of developing as many characters as she wants throughout as many pages as she can fill up, whereas you only get twelve 60-minute episodes per season to do the same thing. How jealous are you of her?
[Laughs.] That must be pretty nice, yeah. It’s daunting for us, sure, but you don’t think about it. It’s challenging, and that’s what our job is—that’s what we try to do.
We were in the writers' room, and I said, '[Bill] should literally break [Lorena's] neck.' But for her that's just really good sex.
Oh, of course. I think all of the characters are so much fun—I would love to spend more time with all of them. And that’s one of the reasons why I like the additional content in the DVD, because you do get to spend a little more time with certain characters outside of the context of the show itself.
For me, this show is really my first time working in something that’s so “genre.” I’m learning all kinds of geeky genre terms, like “the canon.” [Laughs.] And we’re always adding to the show’s canon. It’s very interesting, and it is daunting, but that’s just sort of the nature of what the show has evolved into. That’s what it comes with.
A few of the new characters in Season Three were received incredibly well, namely Russell Edgington (Denis O’Hare) and Alcide (Joe Manganiello). As you and your staff are writing episodes, does a character’s involvement increase at all based on the actor’s performance, in ways that you might not have foreseen entering the season?
Absolutely. With last season specifically, we knew, going in, that Russell was going to be our big villain, and we just basically said, “Who would be a great actor for this?” We all knew Dennis already, and we knew that he’s a brilliant actor, so I just called him and gauged his interest, and thankfully he was all for it. So once you have an actor of that caliber on board, and you have a character who’s 3,000 years old or whatever, you can just really start to relax and have fun. We knew that Russell would really stand out, so it was clear that we needed to devote as much attention to the character as possible.
Alcide is a really beloved character in the books; that was a very difficult character to cast. And, again, the goal was to keep his own story alive, where it’s not just about being a possible love interest for Sookie. And we get more into that during this new season, making him a developed character in his own light. Sometimes, some of the characters in the books—especially due to the fact that they don’t really exist unless they’re in Sookie’s story—tend to come across as just a hot guy waiting in the wings, or something to that effect. But that’s not very interesting when you put that up on screen, so we try to find ways to give them all their own stuff and give the actors something to play.