What the agonizing demise of ‘True Blood’ means for the future of TV

True Blood

Will audiences of the future be likely to binge-watch a show that got increasingly terrible? Probably not.

This past Sunday, True Blood finally met its True Death. At the end of an abbreviated seventh season, the once-hot HBO show closed off its run with a final episode (“Thank You”) that, much like the ones immediately preceding it, were pitched as much as fan service as anything. Sookie (Anna Paquin) gets her happy ending and family after finally laying Bill (Stephen Moyer) to a permanent rest. Bon Temps is still a bizarre place (and there’s the matter of Sookie’s fae blood making her an eternal target, which is never particularly explored in the finale), Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) will enjoy an even more affluent afterlife, and it’s happily ever after.

At least, that’s how it played out for the show’s characters, the virtually unmentioned Lafayette notwithstanding. The general reaction to True Blood’s wrap-up has been less positive, even for fans. Word of mouth for the show has already been diminished in recent years, compared to the show’s pop cultural ubiquity in its earlier seasons.

The A.V. Club’s Carrie Raisler observed in her recap of the finale that at this point True Blood feels like a very different show than the sexually charged campfest as which it began: “Will it be remembered as the sort-of sexy, sort-of gory, mostly entertaining monster pastiche it was for the first few seasons? Or will its lasting impression be disgust at the long, slow march it took toward irrelevance in its later seasons? True Blood was never a great show, but at its height it was at least a tremendously relevant show in the television landscape.”

Raisler brings up an interesting question: what happens to a TV show in a time where sites like A.V. Club offer a wealth of television criticism, and where people who’ve never seen an episode of True Blood are still at least tangentially aware of how it’s progressed and ended?

Via social media, television viewing and its dissemination have become events on a much broader scale than they were when a group of friends would discuss a weekly show. The problem this starts to pose is that when you combine this new viewing experience (and also the ability to “binge-watch” shows thanks to Netflix or Hulu) with the alleged Golden Era of TV in which we’re all living, a bad series finale becomes more than a bad resolution to a show people like. It becomes the death knell for a series.

Consider that True Blood is far from the only finale to underwhelm audiences in the past year alone. Last fall, as Breaking Bad was reaching its furious conclusion, Dexter ended its eight-year run on Showtime.

Like True Blood, Dexter was a show which once had considerable cultural cachet, and it was Showtime’s unwillingness to wrap up the show in a timely manner that ultimately proved its undoing. Its series finale, “Remember The Monsters,” is a master class in how not to end your television series, particularly as it undermined the stakes of the entire series. Despite the show’s central question being what would happen to Dexter (Michael C. Hall) when those close to him learned about his side practices, “Monsters” allows him to disappear into seclusion as a lumberjack after abandoning his child and burying his sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter) at sea. Yep.

For both Dexter and True Blood, the hazard isn’t necessarily just that the series finales are bad, though they very much are. It’s that now, audiences are able to know before they even start a series whether or not there will be an eventual return on investment of time.

And that’s a problem, because when so much past and present television is easily accessible, a show that even angered its core viewership is less likely to draw viewers later on; people won’t have the same incentive to play catch-up when audiences have already moved on to other, better shows. To start Dexter knowing that the police force on which he works will never catch him, that his sister will absolve him of all guilt shortly before dying of a blood clot (again, yep), and that the show will ultimately end up being about something different than what it promises will undoubtedly turn off some future viewers.

For a show to do this, to end in a different place than it began, is no longer tolerable in the way it might once have been. When television was destination viewing (how weird is it that we talk about this in the past tense more and more frequently now), the journey of watching the show progress was the point. Now, when so many quality TV shows are available in full with the press of a button, investing untold hours into a known dud becomes a lackluster proposition.

Vulture’s Richard Rys succinctly illustrates this sensation, in his reaction to Dexter’s denouement: “It’s more fueled by outrage than actual rage. It’s the kind of anger you feel after investing so much time into a show that you once loved, only to watch it fizzle out in the most unsatisfying of ways.”

An interesting study in this is the reaction to the end of How I Met Your Mother this past spring. Speaking of shows that end up deceiving their audience in purpose over time, HIMYM ends with the revelation that the Mother (Cristin Milioti) was actually dead the whole time and that Ted (played by Josh Radnor and narrated by Bob Saget) was recounting the story of their courtship to his kids in hindsight, before moving on to reconnect with Robin (Cobie Smulders).

Fans could hardly be faulted for considering this a copout, as it recontextualizes the entire plot of the series as being about a different love story than the one it professed, and ends up being about one that the show spent no shortage of time attempting to downplay as a mere red herring. Like Lost, another highly divisive finale, HIMYM’s ending affects how people understand the whole series.

The problem with messing around with a dedicated audience in this way, beyond the affront to their investment of time and emotion, is that audiences aren’t even watching TV in the traditional form anymore, and that increasingly, shows are understanding the risks of long-form storytelling, and not all creators are going that route. Fargo, American Horror Story, and True Detective have all suggested that television’s next evolution may be into more serialized formats, where the stories are contained and only take up eight, ten, twelve hours of a viewer’s time, good or bad. It’s a far different proposition than one that asks audiences to take a blind leap of faith in an eight-season series, hoping that its end will leave them satisfied.

If this should be TV’s Golden Era, then series like True Blood, Dexter, and HIMYM run the risk of being left behind over time as well. Some shows have benefited from the change in viewing habit and technology; The Wire, for instance, is far more beloved and even discussed at present than it was during its actual five-season airing. But when all television is easily digestible, the shows known for ending in disappointment will scarcely make the top of anyone’s to-do list.

And so True Blood’s bad ending might not just be about the show ending in a way that some fans found unsatisfying. It means that it might not stand the test of time either, and that its less-heralded contemporaries may render it irrelevant in the long run, and not just the short term.

Photo via True Blood/YouTube