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postmortem

True Blood Showrunner Brian Buckner on Season 6, the Werewolf Problem, and the Jason-Eric Sex Dream

True Blood viewers had a right to be skeptical going into the HBO series' sixth season. Not only did series creator Alan Ball depart after production had begun, he left behind an array of painted-into-corner plotlines and a scattered storytelling structure. The task of getting True Blood back on track fell to executive producer Brian Buckner, a longtime writer on the show. Despite the behind-the-scenes upheaval, the series saw a major uptick in quality and, more important, coherence. Plotlines once seen as indicative of True Blood's worst instincts (e.g., Andy knocks up a faerie!) suddenly became plotlines indicative of True Blood at its most inspired (Andy grapples with his daughters' deaths). Going into Sunday's finale, the show seemed like it was being steered by capable hands.

But afterwards, the hard-earned, still fragile goodwill the show had accrued over the season seemingly dissipated overnight. Sure, some recappers liked it, but the immediate Internet consensus was that True Blood had just hit rock bottom. So what happened? Was it the very appealing and charismatic Warlow suddenly backhanding Sookie? Was it the jarring time jump? Was it Eric Northman's almost offensively inglorious "death"? What exactly was it that made people reject this finale as somehow not being up to par with Season 2's ostrich egg finale? To find out, Vulture reached out to Buckner to get the first-time showrunner's take on this negative feedback, plus ask about his intentions for season seven. We also used the opportunity to get an official confirmation about that Jason-Eric sex dream we were promised.

Some would argue that it's the job of a showrunner to create a controversial season finale. Nice job!
Yeah. I mean I knew it was controversial, I just didn't think it would be hate-inspiring.

Why do you think the finale fueled so much negativity?
Well, it's testament to Alex Skarsgard. People want those ten or twelve weeks with him in their living room and they may have feared we were taking him away from them.

It was a relief to hear that Eric will be back as a regular next season. Can you also confirm that these infected vampires aren't actually zombies?
Well, they're not zombies in the way that we're used to zombies. They're vampires and they need to eat humans, which all vampires do. But in order to stave off the effects of this mutating virus, they need to eat more, and more often, than the vampires that we've been living with for the last few years. The truth is, the way TV works is everybody wants us to have the answers already, but we haven't even gotten in the [writers'] room for season seven yet. We knew that this was a story that we wanted to tell for next season and the idea that we were going to force vampires and humans into uneasy relationships for their own protection seemed like a really ripe place for us to go and is going to create character combinations that we haven't had before. In terms of what every rule of this mutating virus is, we still have to do that work.

Will the feedback you've received recently influence the story lines of season seven?
I don't think so. Look, the blogosphere ... This, by the way, is my very first time sitting in this chair, watching something like this happen. It is my first rodeo. But I have been making TV for a long time and I don't think that we should let the audience tell us what show to make. Because I think it's the death of television if we give people exactly what they expect to get every week. What's the point? So the idea that we need to release material beforehand and immediately come clean with our audience and promise to not surprise them anymore, I'm not sure that's the TV world that we want to deliver.

Early seasons of any show are usually about the thrill of discovery, whereas later seasons are about deepening the elements already established. Is it fair for viewers to compare a show's sixth season to its first?
Look, I sit in a strange place because it's not my show. I've just been here the whole time. What I'm trying to do is the best version of the show as I see it, because I can't be Alan [Ball]. And I can't be all the other writers that we've lost. So, I'm trying to go back, not necessarily to season one, but to the show that I would want to watch. [The audience] doesn't speak with one voice. It's a lot of voices, not any one person. We start to think, This is what the people think, but there's varying opinions. This person loves Tara, but this person can't stand her. Or this person would've killed off, say, Jessica. And I will admit to reading too much feedback, but I don't want to work on a show without Jessica.

Who would?
I don't think we can let this affect us. The good news is that there are certain stories we're currently locked into and also I have a couple more weeks before I have to go back and start to figure this all out. So the newness of these reactions will have worn off and I can just go back to telling story in an instinctual way. You could drive yourself crazy trying to please everybody. It's impossible.

I pretty openly loved this season, but I did detect a bit of course correction in certain story lines and characters. Would you say that's accurate, and if so, was there a story line in particular that you knew you wanted to change when you came in?
The truth of the matter is, this show had a bunch of incredibly strong voices in the writers' room. And I want to — but I'm not going to — get into the specifics, but what you're seeing is a change in showrunners and a staff of writers who really wanted to help execute what was right for the show. What I think the show has suffered from over the years — and I hinted at this at Comic-Con — is not that our cast is too big; our problem is we've been trying to tell too many stories. And so characters who you'd want to see more of aren't getting a terrific amount of screen time because the stories are so plot-driven and demand so much information, and the changes of location eat up the production budget. I feel like we can learn more about these people in this town and do much more interesting character-driven stories if we reduced the number of separate story lines that we were telling. So if you're seeing a correction, it's essentially that. It means — and this won't come as a surprise to Joe Manganiello — closing off werewolf pack stories.

Thank you.
If there's a story with the werewolves, it shouldn't just be that they're sexy together. We know we want to use Alcide on the show, but I'm not sure that when you cut away from the vampire story to what's happening in the pack ... Is that really the story that we think our audience wants to see or that we even want to write? So it's sort of like that. I wouldn't call it a correction, I would just say the premise of the series in the first place was: If vampires really exist, what would their relationship with the humans look like? And so that's where we're going. This show is at its most interesting when it's asking those questions and it's not about hunting down a big bad and being completely plot-driven.

How dare you deny us a Jason-Eric sex dream? Or should we expect that in season seven?
I think you can reasonably expect it. With our show there is an appetite — Alan from the get-go called it "popcorn for smart people." And popcorn is addictive: You keep eating it and expect there to be another piece of popcorn right away. My favorite shows on TV make you wait for things. So the idea that I failed to deliver on a promise when I only made one episode after that promise ... You know, sometimes things are better when we wait for them. I would love to get our audience conditioned to the idea that this might be a show that delays gratifications sometimes. Because of course we know people want to see that dream. The setup wasn't written lightly. And believe me, there were HBO executives who were saying, "You have to give us the dream!" And we will. Of course we will. But that doesn't mean it has to come in the very next episode.

It seemed like a strange choice to not let Sookie kill Warlow. And what about Chekhov's Fireball?
It's hard. To me, Jason's story this season was he wanted to hunt down Warlow, so you're taking agency away from Jason if you let Sookie be the one to do it. Now, we tried to strengthen Sookie in many ways this season but probably the girl-power version of the story was she should've been the one to take him out. But if she did, there was only one way she could do it and we're not yet prepared to take away Sookie's telepathy. So that's what using the fireball would do. And that's sort of what it came down to.

Why did you decide to make Terry's funeral so prominent this season?
We haven't killed off a lot of our significant characters. What I promised Todd Lowe when I took the job in February was my mission statement is to make life matter again. And that Terry's death will not be in vain and we're going to take the time to mourn him. You know that Auden poem in Four Weddings in a Funeral?

"Stop All the Clocks"?
Yeah. This town was going to stop and say goodbye to somebody. And the fact that Terry was maybe not a top-tier, but a more middle-tier character, sort of served our story better. Which is, every life matters. But the funeral was as much about the celebration of Bon Temps as it was about saying goodbye to Terry. And it was by design to help Sookie understand that she couldn't become Warlow's faerie vampire bride. But in terms of the funeral's significance, we had committed to killing Terry off and I didn't want it to be insignificant, because I don't want the show to be porn and snuff. It was really important to say, if we're going to kill somebody, then let's honor it the way a small town would.

And reestablish the value of human life.
Yes, so that going forward when we kill somebody or if we tease that somebody might be gone, we need our audience to believe us.

This show took a lot of care to make Warlow a sympathetic, plausible romantic option for Sookie, so it was slightly upsetting when he turned into a cretin suddenly. How do you surprise an audience without making them feel betrayed?
I certainly read a lot of that criticism. He was a character who told us that he fought against his darker instincts constantly. It wasn't as if his turn was inorganic or completely unmotivated. He was always a complicated character. Do I think we were perfect in our execution with Warlow? Maybe not. I think I may have missed the mark in terms of peoples' investment in him. I didn't realize we'd actually done as good a job as we apparently did in making people love him? I think I may have always assumed that people would maintain their distrust in Warlow. The thing we were really trying to pay attention to — and I think this may be how we got there, if it was a mistake — was that he had to be compelling enough for Sookie to fall for him. Because she's the character that we worry about screwing up the most. So we were coming at it from the point of view of, Will we hate Sookie for falling for this? So his case had to be compelling. Now, could we have started his turn a little earlier? Maybe? But then we would've been ahead of Sookie and she would've seemed stupid. So it's tough. It's a balancing act, admittedly.

What single moment or element of this season would you say you're proudest of?
I love Bill going after the Governor. It was actually not something that was planned from the beginning of the season, the decision for Bill to take out the Governor and for Sarah to rise up as the Big Bad. So the scene where Sarah sits with Burrell's head and promises to finish his work? That's pretty great in my mind. And I'm not sure that everybody loved it, but Jason's decision to turn Sarah loose, I also thought that the two actors were just stunning there.

I mentioned it in my recap, but that scene was arresting and sophisticated in a way that True Blood maybe isn't very often. Should we expect more of that kind of thoughtfulness when it comes to politics and religion going forward?
I think our No. 1 mandate is to entertain, and if we start to politicize too much I think we will hurt ourselves. The show started out as "popcorn for smart people" — that was Alan's mission statement, and I would love it to still be for smart people. Of course I want it to be smarter. Because all these television shows that people are watching is because they're smart, and I would love to see my work on that list. But we have set up an expectation that we are going to devour story and give a ton of "WTF moments," as Alan would call them, and we still have to do that too.

Photo: HBO