Vampire Shows and Gendered Quality Television

August 26, 2010
By | 15 Comments

The forthcoming Flow conference contains a panel on quality TV which begins with the following question: “What makes True Blood ‘quality’ while The Vampire Diaries go unnoticed?” As someone who watches both shows yet finds The Vampire Diaries much more engaging and interesting, I am fascinated by this question–or rather, the facts underlying it. Both shows are based on extremely popular books; both are set in the South (yet fail to properly address the implications of having former Confederate soldiers as main characters as Vampire Politics and In the Shadow of a Metaphor interestingly argue); both center around a love triangle with the human female pursued by two male vampires. The last, indeed, connects the shows emotionally for me to Buffy rather than Twilight: Angel/Buffy/Spike was my first fannish love, and I see similar dynamics and characterizations in both Bill/Sookie/Eric and Stefan/Elena/Damon (with added familial connections between the vamps in two of the three cases). Where Angel, Bill, and Stefan are guilt-ridden and resent their vampire existence to large degrees, Spike, Eric, and Damon are so appealing to many fans because they represent moral ambiguity writ large and end up becoming humanized almost against their will. Plus, they seem to have a lot more fun!

So far, the similarities are striking, and one would expect continuous comparison between the two, and yet their genre, pedigree, and network associations make these shows seem as far apart as The Wire and Gossip Girl. Oddly enough, I gave True Blood (TB) a second chance when Jason Mittell and Louisa Stein praised its politics and narrative complexity during a Flow conference Wire panel two years ago. In contrast, I tried The Vampire Diaries (TVD) again after my online fan friends praised its strong female characters and intricate plotting. Both shows contain complex plots with often unexpected surprises and fast turnarounds. TB follows a variety of plot and character lines to create an expansive set of stories while TVD remains more singularly focused and thus tremendously fast paced. Both shows take more than a couple of sentences to retell a single episode, with ambiguous characters and repeated betrayal as constants.

And yet one is quality TV on HBO, watched by men and women alike, and names such as Alan Ball and Anna Paquin all but guarantee that it be taken seriously as an artistic engagement–even if we may just watch it for the bloodied sexual encounters and the melodrama. The other is firmly defined as teen TV, runs on the CW and its stars are more likely to appear on the cover of the online Portrait magazine than Rolling Stone. Part of this difference in perception between the two programs is clearly gendered: TB’s extreme sexual violence and voyeuristic viewer position invites male viewers even where the initial topic of a female protagonist and her vampire lover might not. Moreover, the amazingly artistic and political trailer promises a depth that I personally feel the show fails to deliver. TVD, on the other hand, is clearly geared toward young girls with its high school protagonist and two male hunks who desire her. The high school setting and teen tropes mark the show as a typical CW show, with its melodramatic aspects foregrounded rather than hidden. Likewise this allows for viewers’ identificatory potential in a way that TB doesn’t: TB instead establishes a more distanced view position that profits from its visual spectacle.

Part of me wants to like TVD simply because it seems more honest in its range, goals, and intended audiences. But I can’t fault a show for its paratexts nor for its reception. So why do I ultimately enjoy and prefer the teen show over its more sexy, adult, quality counterpart. I don’t particularly like Elena better than Sookie (faux Southern accent notwithstanding) nor do I find Somerhalder that much more attractive than Skarsgård. Plots in both are a fast and crazy ride, and while the production values are clearly better in the HBO show, both are sufficiently glossy and visually enjoyable. I do find sexual and racial politics more problematic in TB, but my reasons for liking TVD are actually about themes and characters: I enjoy the teen characters as a way to explore coming of age and adulthood anxieties via supernatural metaphors, and I like the way I can identify with the characters rather than merely observing them on their wild rides. Television certainly doesn’t need to be edifying, but I more often feel like I want to explore the moral dilemmas and interpersonal conflicts in TVD. If I were to pick a worthy successor of Buffy’s Sunnydale, it would be Mystic Falls rather than Bon Temps.


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15 Responses to “ Vampire Shows and Gendered Quality Television ”

  1. Jason Mittell on August 26, 2010 at 8:40 AM

    I must admit I’ve repressed any public declarations of True Blood‘s quality! I watched season 1, and was mostly entertained by its willingness to try anything and had some faith in Allen Ball post 6FU. But I gave up early in s2 when it seemed like the show was avoiding deepening its characters or world, and choosing to embrace a “more is more” aesthetic. I do think that, at least amongst TV critics, TB is not seen as typical “HBO quality,” but rather in line with its more lurid side – more Real Sex than Deadwood. And it’s a good reminder that even though HBO made its reputation on quality TV, it’s always made its money on softcore titillation.

    • Kristina Busse on August 26, 2010 at 9:05 AM

      Yes, your and Louisa’s comments were certainly early in Season one, when the opening credits were promising more… I like your point about HBO’s “other” side, because it seems to go along with Alan’s post yesterday: I’m a firm believer in shows that include sex and violence when the narrative requires it, but there’s a difference between that and “softcore titillation” for its own sake. I fear TB isn’t all that sure most of the time on which side it stands 🙂

  2. Anne Helen Petersen on August 26, 2010 at 9:20 AM

    I do think there’s an element of camp that separates the two — TVD is *so* sincere (and, as you know, I love it, but it’s a pretty straight-up melodrama), while True Blood is extremely over the top, whether in its portrayal of love, hedonism, sex, or violence. It’s also flat-out funny — and while some of the overt political satire/allegory falls flat, some of it, such as the portrayal of the Christian Right last season, is spot on. I’m not saying that True Blood is necessarily a better or more quality show — but it does offer more points of access.

    • Kristina Busse on August 26, 2010 at 10:28 AM

      Hmm…that’s a good point, except…I didn’t actually think the Christian Right satire last season did work that well (and I don’t even know what to do with the Nazi werewolves or the genteel plantation homes cum vampire royalty or the storm trooper vampire police). I feel it throws out these tropes (and yes, they do offer more access points) but then often fails to think them through.

      I think that’s the center of my complaint: it tries to be more and–to me–as a result end up failing worse?

    • Deborah Kaplan on August 30, 2010 at 10:28 PM

      I’m fascinated that you phrase it that way, because I find the exact opposite. I stopped watching True Blood because I thought it took itself incredibly seriously in a way that made it unwatchable for me, and yet I find great joy in TVD mostly because I see it having so much fun wallowing in its ridiculousness (the scene with Damon reading Twilight was the clip that hooked me in).

      Interesting that we both see humor and parody as the entry point, but we see it in the opposite shows.

  3. amanda klein on August 26, 2010 at 11:10 AM

    This is such a great question, Kristina! In many ways TRUE BLOOD seems to defy its “quality TV” label with its soft core pornography and graphic (did Tara just smash a vampire’s head with a mace?) violence. Too much sex and too much violence are often what places films in the category of “trash.” But with TV, those shows which address sex (SEX IN THE CITY, THE L WORD) and violence (THE WIRE, DEADWOOD, THE SOPRANOS, DEXTER) in explicit detail are often given the label “quality TV.” These shows are “daring,” or “honest.”

    I think the difference between TRUE BLOOD and those other shows boils down to a certain self consciousness. I often get the feeling that Alan Ball is winking at me before he offers a particularly gruesome death scene or a great shot of Eric’s butt. He seems to be saying “Here’s your sex! Here’s your violence!”

    But what separates TRUE BLOOD from a poorly made slasher film or sex comedy are its wonderful characters. I agree with you that sometimes the show gets confused with its politics, but its characters are so rich and multi-layered. Each season we find out more about all of them. In particular, I am loving this season’s depiction of Jason Stackhouse, who is discovering that he’s more than just a good-looking goofball. And Eric has gone from being the heavy to someone with a deep history of pain and betrayal, and whose love for his “child” Pam far exceeds the blood ties experienced by the humans on the show.

    So I watch for the sex and violence, but I stay for the characters.

    • Anne Helen Petersen on August 26, 2010 at 11:15 AM

      I also think that Ball tests, or at least points to the limits, of our lust for sex and violence. During the “head-360” sex scene, for example, the show flaunted our desire to see graphic sex — but then pushed it to a point that made the majority of its audience very uncomfortable. As you point out above, It’s as if Ball is saying “oh, so you like graphic sex? Well here you go” — and sometimes it takes us more out of our comfort zone than others. While I don’t think that graphic sex and violence are necessarily progressive, I do think that some of the depictions do make us question the previous depictions in which we so mindlessly pleasured.

      • amanda klein on August 26, 2010 at 11:18 AM

        Oh man that scene! There are no words.

      • Kristina Busse on August 26, 2010 at 1:18 PM

        I’m trying to figure out how and where this connects with the conversations I’ve had and seen elsewhere over the recently premiered vid On the Prowl by Sisabet and the couple of year’s old Women’s Work, about the way we want violence (for different categories of we) and how when taking it to the extreme it turns a mirror on our desires and….yes 🙂 [And I am aware that viewer desires and fan remixes and showrunners are different things, but…]

    • Kristina Busse on August 26, 2010 at 1:15 PM

      Oh, I really love where you’ve gone with my admittedly ranty post 🙂 I think your and Annie’s point about daringness and trash are dead on (and dare I say possibly gendered?), and I do see the OTT campiness coming through in TB.

      And you’re right that the characters pull me through. I totally could do without Bill and much of Sookie’s storyline, but the rest? Yes!!!

  4. Louisa Stein on August 26, 2010 at 1:39 PM

    Terrific and thought provoking post, Kristina! I’m just now embarking on The Vampire Diaries, so I can’t speak fully to the comparison beyond the network branding and the perception of the two shows within TV studies… but what I’ve found simultaneously frustrating and fascinating about True Blood is its intent to confound the quality/guilty pleasure divide. My love for the credits of True Blood remains–they’re nuanced, stunning, and only grow more so on each repeated viewing. (My love for the credits might have been behind my enthusiasm way back at Flow!) Following on the credit, the series fails to engage (systematically, at least) with the issues of race and place the credits open up, and yet it undeniably does interesting, boundary pushing things in terms of representations of race, sexuality, and spectacle. But it’s the kind of uneveness I expect from a WB/CW show, not an HBO show. I’ll be curious to see if (based on what you say about TVD being somehow more honest) The Vampire Diaries actually offers a tighter, more cohesive if narratively complex viewing experience.

    To bring this to issues of branding, gender, and genre, I’m struck by True Blood’s foray into sensationalism and eroticism: it’s certainly a different take on HBO’s “it’s not TV, it’s HBO”–but do you think it manages to masculinize what’s arguably has been framed (and continues to be framed) in other contexts (TVD, Buffy, Twilight) as a feminine generic space?

  5. David Nataf on August 26, 2010 at 7:23 PM

    I think the main difference is due to the fact Vampire Diaries is a young show. A lot of people dismissing it have not really tried it yet, and their perceptions arise from the marketing campaign it received: Twilight for TV. In my opinion it is a fairly complex show which hits the ball out of the ball park on three very important factors: Ratings, pacing, and internal consistency. I believe it’s the highest-rated show on the CW guaranteeing its future, meanwhile parts 2 and 3 should allow it to grow. Personally, there are no episodes whichy I regret watching… every episode achieved some milestone in advancing the storyline, which is important.

    I expect The Vampire Diaries to become a major television hit and to receive the associated praise by the start of the third season.

    I also agree with the blog post — Vampire Diaries is probably the most logical successor to Buffy. True Blood captures the “funniness” that Buffy had, but VD captures the other personality components.

    • Kristina Busse on August 30, 2010 at 7:57 PM

      David, yes, all of these! I agree with your pacing and consistency comments especially. Though rather than paced, can we say rollercoaster? 🙂

      Good point about there only being one season yet. Aren’t second seasons traditionally the best? I hope your predictions are correct!

  6. Kristina Busse on August 26, 2010 at 8:16 PM

    I agree on the credits. I think I’d really love the show that goes with them:)

    And yes, you put your finger on the gendering that I’ve tried to address. Where the books are in Sookie’s pov, I feel the show emphasizes exhibitionism and a voyeurism more apt to allow men to watch the show. So, yes, is it the trash turned edginess that makes it an appropriate male show???