Pilot Watch: True Blood – “Strange Love”

HBO’s True Blood was a fun show. Sure, it was a hot mess at times, but damn what fun. Cory and I started watching it just before the 2nd season started at the recommendation of Cory’s grad school mentor, since Cory was in the process of writing a vampire play.

We watched. We got hooked. We stayed with it til the bloody end. For awhile, we even wrote for truebloodnet.com, a pretty big fan site. We did not read the books. Well, I think I read the first one. Wasn’t really interesting enough for me to keep going.

 

The cast of True Blood at San Diego Comic-Con, 2012
The cast of True Blood at San Diego Comic-Con, 2012

This is the first summer without it, and in honor, we decided to start rewatching the series. Oh, that first episode was a doozy.

First of all, the cold open was pretty genius. It did a great job of getting the tone, the location, and the current social state of vampires and humans across without feeling too expositiony (my favorite pilot word!), even though that’s exactly what it was. The randy, drunk teens stumble into a mini mart just to ask about Tru Blood. The man behind the counter is an aging goth – black clothes, long, black, stringy hair, covered in tattoos – your typical vampire type. He himself plays with the notion, using an Eastern-European accent, taunting the kids, then potentially hooking them up with V, all while a cable news show blares in the background with Nan Flannigan lobbying for vampire rights. Until a redneck in a camo baseball cap comes up with a pack of Tru Blood in hand. The scene plays well on the vampire stereotypes, probably playing on the audience a little bit, too.

From there, we’re inserted into Bon Temps and meticulously introduced to the major players: horn-dog hottie Jason, forever defensive Tara,  and puppyish Sam (get it?). We meet most of the side-characters-to-become-main-players here, too, like Arlene, Hoyt, of course Lafayette. Impressively, most of these characters, with the exception of Hoyt, are well-defined and well-performed right off the bat. Nelsan Ellis is fucking brilliant in his portrayal of Lafayette, a character I miss desperately. Knowing how the series plays out, many of these guys become like their characters on steroids – overstuffed with history and storylines, unable to fully connect them all together in a real way. In fact, watching this episode made me even angrier at how the whole thing played out. More on that later.

And of course, there are our stars – Sookie Stackhouse, a mere mind-reader, and Bill Compton, gentlemanly vampire of ages past.

In this first episode, Sookie makes her virginal attributes crystal clear, chastising the crew at Merlotte’s for their foul language and inappropriate gestures. She just as loudly has no qualms against vampire Bill hanging around, despite everyone’s immediate hatred-slash-fear. Bill plays mysterious and dresses like a zombie. Sookie comes to Bill’s rescue, when a trailer-trash couple try to drain him.

****RANT****

—– So, later in the series, this is all explained as an elaborate set-up to get Sookie to drink Bill’s blood, or something like that. Watching it again, it’s all too obvious that the creative team was just trying to shoehorn that plot point in there later. This wasn’t like a LOST thing, that was planned out years in advance by the crew, whether it was in the books or not. It was portrayed genuinely on all accounts, and the set-up aspect cheapens the whole thing. It feels like that moment in Frozen, when Hans falls out of the boat, and looks on adoringly after Ana walked away. How does that make any sense if his plan was totally different? ——

****END RANT****

The episode ends with Sookie being nearly beaten to death by the trailer-trash duo.

As a pilot, this is actually really good. They leave just enough clues about Sam’s true self and manage to show Tara’s disastrous home life. Yes, some of the dialogue is clunky – a trait that follows the show until the very end. But it’s saved by the actors, who are fully invested in the small town and small lives their characters lead. The additional plot involving the death of a girl Jason just spent a kinky night with is a nice little early breadcrumb for the villain to come.

This episode made me remember why I fell for the show in the first place, and again, only made infuriated me knowing how it all unfolded.

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Why I Didn’t Care About No New Footage and Other Comic-Con Thoughts

This was my 5th year at San Diego Comic-Con. And as each year comes, I think to myself, “Maybe this will be the year that I’ll get cynical. Maybe this time, I’ll see what others complain about.” But…

I am still head-over-heels in love with Comic-Con. And it just keeps getting better.

I love Comic-Con. I love the people. I love the cos-play. I love the long lines and crammed ballrooms. Some people find that surprising, like when they find out I actually love public speaking or theatre and improv. And I get it; I’m an open introvert with social and generalized anxiety. You would think large crowds, tight spaces, and lots of noise would be the last place I would be, since I can’t even make a phone call without breaking into a cold sweat. But the truth is, I’ve always found comfort in crowds. It’s because I can assess and respond in a situation quickly based on others around me. Is that like, a superpower? It should be.

This year, Cory and I actually didn’t know if we would make it until literally 2 days before. But thanks to some inside knowledge and a little luck, we were good to go. But because of the uncertainty, and the whole wedding thing, we did not put in for the hotel lottery. No, instead we decided to rough it and walk from our apartment, which is a little over 1 mile straight up from the convention center. “Up” being the key term there. While a mile walk isn’t bad, at a typical con, we’re each lugging 15-20 lbs worth of stuff. Still, not too bad, right? Except that the way back is uphill. Not steep, but a long, grueling incline that catches up with you. We had to do it, though.

Since we really didn’t know if we were going until the last minute, we didn’t take a lot of time to plan. The one thing we knew we wanted: The Star Wars panel.

Thursday afternoon, after an okay panel on pitching, we decided to check out the line, around 1 pm. And it was massive. For those unfamiliar with the convention center and Hall H, the line weaves in and out of tents alongside the building, then crosses the street and lines the sidewalk all the way around to the back of convention center, where it then goes up the sidewalk along the marina to the Hilton, then back down the gate to the Embarcadero, where it loops up and down the lawn and basketball courts before starting again back on the sidewalk of the marina down toward Seaport Village. It can be literally miles long. When we got in line, it was behind Joe’s Crab Shack on “the island,” or the Embarcardero. All things considered, it was a good spot – soft lawn, shade from the trees, breeze from the bay. Cory and I were kind of at a loss — we weren’t expecting to be in line so early. Luckily, the girl ahead of us and the man behind us offered to watch our things if we left for food or panels. Then, we made friends with the brother and sister nearby. Before we knew it, we were a hearty little group of six, sharing blankets and stories from cons past. We stuck together, taking turns going into the Con, seeing panels, grabbing food, etc. We got our wristbands (the guarantee of entry to a certain point) around 11 pm. One super generous member of our new gang offered to hold our spots for the night. He’s a good guy.

The next morning, after a missed alarm and a mile jog downtown, we found our friends, bought breakfast, and waited. We eventually got into the cavernous Hall H before any panels started, and there, the six of us settled in for a long day to get to ….

The Star Wars Panel —

Yes, it’s true. They didn’t really reveal anything new. They showed some (amazing) behind the scenes footage, and I know it was picked apart on the Internet minutes after its release.

So there seems to be 2 schools of thought here: the panel was either a big fake-out or the greatest experience ever.

As someone who lived it, I’m here to tell you – It was the Greatest. Experience. Ever.

It’s easy to get excited about being the first to see new stuff. And hey, I’ve been there, too. It is great – you feel special. For like, 3 minutes. But it doesn’t take long for the whole world to catch up to where you are. Even this year – they premiered the latest Batman Vs. Superman trailer. I was not there. I WAS, however, on the convention floor, near the DC booth when the stars came over right from Hall H to sign autographs. And they showed the trailer. On a loop.

Now listen, if you’re going to do a panel in one of the big rooms, you gotta bring something. The Game of Thrones panel earlier on Friday was pretty lame-o for several reasons, but mainly because there was literally nothing new to show. Nothing new to talk about. There are no more books. They maybe *just* started filming. They’re still figuring it out. And it was boring.

JJ and Co tantalized us by bringing out a real puppet who walked across the stage. They staggered bringing out the new stars, giving the crowd a chance to ask questions to each group.

They carefully kept Harrison Ford until the very end.

Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Harrison Ford
Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Harrison Ford

And I’ll admit, at this point, I was starting to feel a little disappointed. I had desperately hoped for a truly mind-blowing experience and I just didn’t have it. Even with Harrison. I knew the panel was coming to an end and I wasn’t sure if it was worth it. Until JJ made the big reveal.

A surprise concert, behind the convention center — right where this whole journey began.

During the panel, Mark Hamill mentioned that everyone seems to have a Star Wars story. I mean, he’s right. I wrote about mine. And that, that was the point of being there. In a line with thousands of other people. Sitting on the lawn for twelve hours. Making friends. Saving spots. Bringing coffee and doughnuts. Sharing anticipation and excitement. This is what Comic-Con, at its best, is about. Yes, there’s swag and celebrities and new teasers. And yes there are comics and toys and art and memorabilia.

But this is about sharing your love of something with others who love it just as much as you do. It takes what could be a very isolated feeling and propels it into a universe of those who feel the same way, turning loneliness into acceptance and a sense of belonging. That’s freaking awesome.

So no, I don’t care there wasn’t any “new” footage or trailers. I had an amazing experience with new friends that will forever bond us together. And I can’t wait until next year.

ATX Television Festival and My Weekend in Heaven

We just got back from Austin, after spending four glorious days surrounded by all things TV. And it was amazing.

The ATX Television Festival is a fairly young, relatively small convention, whose sole focus is television past, present, and future. Sounds pretty magical, right? Cory & I went to the Fest in 2013. It was its second “season,” and highlights included a reunion of the Boy Meets World cast & crew, and an American Dreams celebration/reunion. Like its much older, louder, and intimidating brother San Diego Comic-Con, those celebrity-driven events get most of the attention, such as this year’s Gilmore Girls reunion. More on that later.

But also like Comic-Con, the venues are filled with fascinating panels of industry insiders, covering topics like single cam vs multi cam comedy scripts, pitch tips, and niche vs. mass audiences. The panels are usually well-stocked with high-level executives, producers, and creators, offering truly honest experiences and genuine advice. And when there’s a good moderator and a great mix of personalities, the conversations can be deep and eye-opening — far from any scripted, 15-minute “look at these guys!” panel in Hall H.

The best part is the Fest is still small enough to feel small; the panel rooms aren’t cavernous — you can sit anywhere and still make eye contact with the panelists, many of whom are happy to stick around longer than scheduled to answer more questions.

Another thing is ATX TV Fest uses a Fast Pass system, which has worked well up until this year, I believe. If you purchased a badge, you’re able to register for 3 Fast Passes a few weeks before the event. The Fast Pass essentially guarantees entry into the chosen panel, provided you’re there on time, and gets you prime seating choice, since they clear rooms in between panels. So no camping out! Or in! The reason it didn’t really work well this year was the epic Gilmore Girls reunion. The Fast Pass ticketing site crashed, froze, and caused general frustration and anxiety. I still think the FPs are a good idea, especially judging by the lines of people trying to get into each room. But each year the Fest reconsiders, so I guess we’ll have to see how that all plays out.

Anyway, Cory & I did not go last year, since it was a moving year and we just couldn’t do everything, even though there was a Hey, Dude! reunion. Still kinda bummed I missed that one. This year, only because of our impending nuptials, we agreed we would only go if our pitch made the final round. Spoiler Alert.

Finalists.
Finalists.

We were just happy that this year, the Pitch Competition was on Friday morning. That meant we could enjoy the rest of the weekend. And enjoy we did.

There were a lot of great panels on Friday, including a Girl Meets Boy Meets World discussion. However, after pitching and the following reception (where we briefly spoke with Dan Harmon), we were wiped out, so we did not participate. Instead, we camped out in the Intercontinental Stephen F. Austin hotel bar, figuring out the next move with the pitch and our subsequent projects. It was also a great social outing — fest-goers came up to us all day, congratulating us on our pitch and offering other kind words. We were surprised by how many of them actually thought we were already in the television business, but I guess that’s a good thing?

Saturday was planned out. We had Fast Passes to a panel called Niche vs. Mass Audiences.  The panel included Phil Rosenthal (Everybody Loves Raymond), Bryan Fuller (Hannibal, Pushing Daisies), Kathleen McCaffrey (HBO development), and Noah Hawley (Fargo). They talked about what ratings used to mean, what they mean now, and how networks feel about them. If you’re interested in the business side of TV,  this was a great conversation. Interesting, funny, and honest, it was also great that the panel each had experiences with different networks.

Afterward, we headed next door to see the great James L. Brooks (if you don’t know, look him up), who was receiving the ATX TV Fest Award. I was really excited about this one. Thanks to the Fast Passes, we got second row in the theater space. Phil Rosenthal was the “moderator,” and the hour-long event consisted of Brooks discussing his vast television history – how polite and perfect Mary Tyler Moore was during filming, how fucking insane and brilliant Andy Kaufman really was, how funny Tracey Ullman could be — I could’ve listened to him for hours.

When the discussion was over, Rosenthal and Brooks walked off the stage and started to head up the aisle. I pushed forward, trying to time it perfectly. Then,  we were face-to-face. I essentially told him the story about how Chuckles Bites the Dust was the first script I ever read, because my dad (of course) had a framed copy signed my Mary Tyler Moore. He seemed surprised, but grateful, and asked me a few questions about what I do, and I what I hope to do in television. Phil Rosenthal listened intently, too, asking a few questions himself. It was a big moment for me, needless to say.

Framed and autographed by MTM.
Framed and autographed by MTM, the first script I ever saw.

While still on a little bit of a high, we headed over to another panel called Unseasonably, which was supposed to look at what a TV season is today, and how to keep audiences engaged when a series is released all at once, etc. This panel was…. okay. I’m not sure if it was the topic, the moderator, or the panelists (all dudes, but whatever), but nothing really went anywhere. They all just kept saying, “If it’s good, the audience will find it.” And all I could think of was a few dozen cancelled shows who wished this was true.

The Gilmore Girls reunion was Saturday night. We did not get Fast Passes because I would’ve felt guilty. I’m not a die-hard fan; if I went, it was just because it was a big deal, not because I really, really wanted to go. And I knew there were people who really, really wanted to go. The plan was to check out the general line and decide if it was worth it. We did. It was not. The line couldn’t start until 5 pm, and even then the blazing sun and dense humidity made standing outside for hours really unpleasant. Instead, we opted for dinner at the restaurant next door, then moved to the bar upstairs, where we realized we were surrounded by “Gilmore Girl Rejects,” or those who did not make it into the theater. The venue had 1,300 seats, but a few hundred, apparently, did not get in. Throughout the whole process, it’s pretty evident the ATX Fest crew did not anticipate the fandom of GG.

Sunday started with a panel called The Directors (all women – yay). Each panelist had a ton of experience directing in various mediums, but mostly television – Mimi Leder (Deep Impact, The Leftovers), Betty Thomas, Tamra Davis (Billy Madison, Younger), and Daisy von Scherler Mayer (Orange is the New Black). The scene-stealer here was the great Betty Thomas, whose directing credits include The Brady Bunch Movie, John Tucker Must Die, and recently, Grace & Frankie. Overall, they gave great advice on how to get into directing, and how to maintain relationships with writers and creators. Fun note – they agreed that often the most difficult person to work with on a shoot is not an actor, but the cinematographer.

We caught brunch with some new friends, then checked out The Leftovers panel, really just to see Damon Lindelof in person, instead of on a giant screen in the back of Ballroom 20. The panel was good, and they discussed the difficulty in promoting a show that is ultimately grim, with of course a few sly winks at past errors (*Lost*cough*).

That was the end of our experience at ATX TV Fest. It was incredible, to say the least. I really admire the co-founders, Caitlin McFarland and Emily Gipson – they are present at the events, very hands-on, and this is something they clearly put their hearts and souls into.

For me, this Fest is invigorating. It’s so weird to be surrounded by people who speak my language – seasons, ratings, episodes, characters, networks, producers — vocabulary I usually only use at family dinners with Dad and James.  These Fest-goers are all serious fans, no matter their involvement in the industry – which is the best part – network executive, showrunner, writer, critic, viewer – everyone here has the same passion. And that is something special.

Oh, and did I mention it’s in Austin? ‘Cause…. that’s pretty great, too.