Everyone who follows television is tripping out over the stunning success of HBO’s True Blood, and even I, as a fan, am rather stunned. Consider this: when True Blood premiered last year it garnered 1.44 million viewers, leaving industry watchers to once again proclaim that HBO had lost its mojo. Last week’s episode, in advance of the season two finale, received 5.2 million viewers (the season high was the week before at 5.3). It stands to be HBO’s most successful show since The Sopranos and Sex and the City. Plus, name one television show in the past five years that’s seen that kind of growth! (It’s a sign to all networks, cable and network, that not every show that starts weak ends weak).
Why has True Blood been rising so fast? The main reasons are pretty clear: OnDemand viewings in advance of season two (bored summer TV fans like myself needed something to watch) and DVD sales (powered by word of mouth) are the biggest drivers. The ratings had been rising all throughout the first season too, which suggests the show’s narrative strategies — and constant replays — including campy, over-the-top acting, surprise endings, and bloodsport are all drivers.
I’d add another though: schadenfreude. The thematic/ideological appeal of True Blood is watching the South crumble amidst its own morality and ignorance. Remember, HBO viewers are slightly wealthier and more liberal than your average TV viewer, with concentrations in cities and suburbs. True Blood plays up the hick factor with exaggerated accents and its country setting. Sookie, our heroine, is the pure Southern virgin — how many outfits in white can a girl have? — consistently defiled by miscegenation, lawlessness, outsiders and predatory men of the European nature (vampire style in True Blood is pure euro trash; we saw this at the vamp party for Godric in Texas. Many of the vampires actually are Europeans, with strong accents and second languages).
This theme was pretty soft in the first season, focused as it was on Sookie’s relationship with Bill. But the arrival of Maryann, a hedonistic Greek god in the vain of Dionysus, has made this all the more clear. Watching the wholesome Southern town driven to wild sex, drugs, violence and sodomy by a beguiling outsider is eye candy for liberal onlookers. It’s as if those birther/deather, I-don’t-want-Obama-talking-to-my-kids, anti-gay conservatives were suddenly forced, through hypnosis, to do all they decry publicly (and perhaps do privately).
Bon Temps, True Blood‘s central town, is behind the times. The presence of a vampire public relations effort — appearing on shows like Bill Maher and cable news — is a sign that the nation’s most liberal centers have already gotten down with vampires. True Blood doesn’t give us polls, but it’s possible a majority of the country is fine with vampires having equal rights, just as the majority of country, when asked proper questions, wants universal healthcare and is fine with Barack Obama talking to their kids. Bon Temps, Louisiana, we assume, is an island of ignorance, one of those places just a few years behind everywhere else.
Can we see this schadenfreude dynamic in another hot cable television series? I’d posit Mad Men as well.
First: schadenfreude is not the primary appeal of Mad Men. I’ve been clear that the show’s plotting and its patience with its characters are the key drivers: the show is grown-up (and very pretty).
However, it’s becoming ever more clear as the show advances into the sixties that the people we are watching are nowhere near the images most of us have of the early sixties. Says New York Magazine on episode 4, season two:
But to be fair, think of how much is going on that doesn’t even enter the universe of these white people. By this time, George Wallace, promising “segregation forever,” has been elected governor of Alabama, and Bull Connor has turned the fire hoses on protesters. Sylvia Plath has committed suicide (hello, Peggy). Amid race riots and bombings, Martin Luther King Jr. has written his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” Meanwhile, the Sterling Cooper gang is twittering over jai a’lai and Bye Bye Birdie. The show’s taken pains to show that a whole generation didn’t suddenly turn on, tune in, and drop out. Young guys like Pete were conservatives till the end, joining groups like the nascent, Ronald Reagan–supporting Young Americans for Freedom.
The show deftly illustrates changes in the role of women — for example this week’s episode subtly suggested how the young Sally Draper might see her mother, the image-obsessed and domestic Betty, as a relic, and grow up to be quite the force to be reckoned with in the 70s and 80s. And it eludes to racial difference here and there. But the people in the show are quite clearly far away from the riots, Martin Luther King Jr. and any other notions of social progress. The tension in the show is building as these characters stay more and more entrenched in the 1950s while the world presses forward. The question — and drama and intrigue — is: will they and their worlds change? The sad fact is maybe no. There are still worlds like that today, rich conservative worlds where such things as poverty and strife have no place in the conversation. In fact, the writers of Mad Men have to delicately navigate the world of rich Republicans they have cultivated and not thrust liberals in there too quickly or hastily. The appeal of the show is this claustrophobic nature; it’s not the 60s we know, thank God (how boring would that be?!). Its delusions and tragedies — like the red-haired Joan, who missed feminism by a few years — are a result not only of its character’s personal flaws but also of the conservative environments in which they must reside.
The ratings for Mad Men are good, though incomparable to that of other networks, since AMC is mostly a channel of old movies. The lower ratings (lately, around 1.6 million on Sunday) is partially attributable to the show’s intellectual nature. Still, you can bet a large portion of the show’s viewers are the same enlightened liberals, just smarter, looking down at the tattered jewelry box of drama the writers of Mad Men have created and saying, “how sad and old, and yet, how pretty and dramatic.”*
Recently the show has been laying this theme on thick, with references to the decline of the Roman Empire and Eliot (“this is the way the world ends…not with a bang but with a whimper.”) If True Blood is about the death of the South — their decreased electoral power, growing irrelevance in policy debates — Mad Men purports to be a world that has already died — of white men in smoky rooms, with separate bank accounts and city lovers, of women who don’t want to or can’t work. But is that true?
*I’m sure, however, that the show’s commentary on its characters is missed on some, who enjoy it for its drama and stylish veneer.