How 'True Blood' Lost Me

In September, the CW will bow The Vampire Diaries, a series based on L. J. Smith's series of novels. I'm hoping it's good enough to satisfy my vampire jones, because the current reigning champ of vampire television, HBO's True Blood, isn't going to cut it for me anymore. It's not that True Blood is a bad show. In fact, after an occasionally wobbly first season, it has solidified in its second, settling in nicely to its alternately funny, scary, sexy, and unsettling tone. Audiences seem to agree—the premiere of season two was the most-watched show on HBO since The Sopranos finale. I, however, can't join in the Blood lust for one reason: I don't like the way the black characters are portrayed.

I don't like the way True Blood's black characters relate to the white characters or to each other. There are mainly two: Tara (Rutina Wesley), the tough-and-tender sidekick to Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), and her androgynous cousin, Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis). Tara and Lafayette take turns filling the role of the sassy black person who says what the audience would be thinking if the audience's thoughts were quippier. In their downtime, they're sniping at each other or dealing with personal problems. For Tara, it's her abusive mother, a drunk so shambling she routinely drools while speaking, and for Lafayette, it's fallout from his part-time drug dealing and Webcam sex business. Worse yet, neither Tara nor Lafayette seems to exist outside of their relationships to the white characters. They are the racial equivalent of the wise, gay sidekick who has plenty of love advice for his female friend, but no apparent love life of his own.

I know, I know. True Blood's Bon Temps, La., isn't supposed to be an accurate reflection of life for blacks in the South. Or for anybody, for that matter, what with the bloodsuckers, mind-readers, exorcisms, and all-around bad juju going on. But this isn't a conclusion I drew after careful analysis. The show made me uncomfortable from the beginning, and I could never put a finger on why. It hit me this season, when Lafayette is pleading with Eric, a white vampire, to release him from the basement dungeon in which he's shackled. I was reminded of how I felt watching James Harris, the black Wisconsin voter who beseeched John McCain to battle harder against Barack Obama. It's a kind of gut-level disgust that effortlessly bounds over logic.

To some, this will sound like nit-picking, like the death angel of political correctness arriving to ruin everyone else's innocent fun. But the fact is that all of us have an experiential prism through which we view media. We all have our soft spots. For some women, it might be Rock of Love. For some gays, maybe it's Brüno. For some white men, perhaps, White Men Can't Jump. I thought nothing of it when I saw the trailer for the new creepy-kid thriller Orphan, which contained the line, "It must be hard to love an adopted child as much as your own." For adoptive parents and their children, though, those words deprecate their way of life and one of the most important choices they've ever made. They protested, and Warner Brothers pulled the line out of the trailer.

In a way, I admire what those folks did, just because of the effort it required. People can be pretty lazy, so when a group of them come together to enact change, it's an inspiring thing. But it's just not the way to handle these situations. The way to handle it is simply to withdraw. Don't support whatever the offensive product is.

The idea of simply sitting stuff out if it offends you is, of course, not a revolutionary one, but it's one that has gotten a bad reputation over the years. For what seems like forever, "If you don't like it, don't read/listen to/watch it" has been the mantra of defensive artists everywhere. Michael Bay reacted this way upon hearing complaints about Skids and Mudflap, the jive-talking Transformers 2 robots that struck some viewers as offensive riffs on African-American stereotypes. "Listen, you're going to have your naysayers on anything," Bay told the Associated Press. "It's like, is everything going to be melba toast? It takes all forms and shapes and sizes."

I get why responses like Bay's drive people crazy. Such a reaction suggests both that art isn't something that ever has to be explained or justified and that those who would seek such an explanation are unsophisticated, easily rankled rubes. Those are ridiculous notions that make us want to spitefully attack while overshadowing the reason why it's best to simply withdraw—because it just feels good. It's liberating to leave things that offend you for other people to enjoy if they so choose. It requires no energy, and it frees you up to find things that'll bring you joy. Besides, when media affect us in this way, there are two possibilities: the creator either intended that reaction or didn't. Getting in a tizzy rewards the creator in the former scenario and needlessly punishes him in the latter.

I don't think True Blood creator Alan Ball or his writing team have any ill intent, so I'm not going to dwell any further, I'm just going to keep moving. I know plenty of black folks who swear by the show, and I'd never want to rob others of something they like because it gets under my skin. I've invested hours into True Blood, time and energy I'll never get back now that I've decided to abandon the show, but such is life. I'd rather keep moving than stand still and let it suck me dry.