Smile Politely

True Blood vs. Mad Men: Sunday Night Smackdown!

Hello TeeVee Watchers. Long time no talk. It’s August. It’s back to school (sing this Billy Madison song to yourself) and back to massive amounts of TV-watching for me. I am feeling positively overjoyed about at least one of those things. Hint: it’s watching Billy Madison on TV and not living it in real life … though now that I think of it, it would be pretty spectacular if we had an actual real life Billy Madison at the high school this school year.

In particular, Watchers, I am positively overjoyed with the state of Sunday night TV right now, and I must report something that will be controversial to those of you who love TV like I do: this past Sunday night, I was actually torn between the ultimate powerhouse that is Mad Men and the up-and-comer that is True Blood. This is not to say that I was torn over what to watch in real time and what to demand On-Demand, since, blessedly, the two shows are shown back-to-back on HBO and AMC (it will be the best two hours on TV for the next few weeks, mark my words). And this is not to say that I consider the two shows to even exist in comparable universes: Mad Men is, you know, up there with The Sopranos and The Wire, and True Blood is, well, silly. But this past Sunday night, I was actually torn over what to be more excited about: the new episode of this superb second season of True Blood or the third season premiere of Mad Men. It was seriously like warring factions in my soul.

Now, Watchers, if you haven’t watched Mad Men yet, you should listen to me and everyone else who’s told you to do it. We’re all right. You’ll feel enriched. More on the new season of Mad Men momentarily.

I first want to forcefully tell you that, though I previously claimed HBO’s True Blood was “not a great show,” it’s, um, kind of become a great show, and it’s now worth your time, blood, and money. The second season of the vampire show (starring Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer as human and vampire lovers Sookie and Bill) has proven that creator Alan Ball and his writers have set out to make more than a vampire show. And while I previously proclaimed my love for the trashy sex aspects of the show, it has become so much more than that between us! It has become an excellent nighttime soap opera — and one does not need to know Charlaine Harris‘ novels (on which the show is based) to love these supernatural characters, the idiosyncratic Southern setting, and/or the trashy sex. The show, in fact, has departed from Harris’ books in keeping alive Lafayette, the beloved gay Vampire-Blood-Dealing cook, after he was abducted by vampires at the end of last season. He was killed off in the book.

Harris presented Ball and his writers with a tremendous set of characters and storylines to choose from, but the actors and HBO’s production values have brought the story to a new level. I have subsequently been obsessed with the show every Sunday night this summer. This season features Mary Ann (the excellent Michelle Forbes), some kind of fairy hellbent on creating black-eyed supernatural orgies with the good townfolk of Bon Temps, Louisiana (I told you, trashy), and more of the marvelously ditzy Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten is so so so good), Sookie’s poor dumb brother who gets sucked into the Fellowship of the Sun, a righteous and violent anti-vampire church. Additionally, characters like Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) and his extremely old maker (vampire slang for the vampire that made you a vampire with whom you share a sacred bond) Godric have vied for my attention, too. Great trashy TV on a Sunday night – who could ask for anything more?

Ask and ye shall receive, dear Watchers, because Mad Men is back for a third season and though I know I don’t need to preach to the choir, there are still some people who haven’t watched! Let me just say: Don Draper, 1960s Manhattan advertising executives that crafted the way we think about virtually everything, the lies people tell each other, the bonds people have with each other and, yes, trashy sex. I feel the need to reserve my judgment on Sunday night’s third season premiere for a later TeeVee column, because Mad Men is just that kind of show — you want to spend time with it. The previous two seasons have revealed that the slick and polished Don Draper isn’t what he claims or wants to be. Moreover, he, like all of us, doesn’t really know what he should be claiming or wanting to be. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful art, and, in my opinion, it has proved itself unimpeachable. I really loved Sunday night’s premiere (and my friend Tanya pointed out that AMC was showing Goodfellas immediately before the premiere — we agreed: perfect lead-in). I could settle back in with these characters anywhere, and the historical time span on the show is actually one of its biggest characters.It’s unimaginable to me the way Americans must’ve felt about being Americans in the early 1960s, but Mad Men attempts to paint an intricate and full-hearted picture of it, for sure.

In short, there’s really no battle between the two shows, just the battle that exists in my soul, I guess, between two great hours of TV. Watchers, Sunday nights will be good to you if you let them. Though when Sunday Night Football starts on NBC in a few weeks, we’ll really have some hard choices to make. Hopefully, something will give. True Blood is winding its sophomore season down just in time for the second season of Eastbound and Down. Oh, boys and girls, I’m happy to be back!

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