The end of True Blood may have been divisive (to say the least), but there’s no denying that its characters found their way into the hearts of many viewers. For the seven seasons that the show was on HBO, fans couldn’t get enough of the characters from Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries novel series that creator Alan Ball had brought to life.
Now, NBC is trying to replicate that magic with a new adaptation of another series by Harris.
Midnight, Texas is an ensemble show, following a group of inhabitants (both supernatural and not) living in the titular town. Their world is rocked when an outside force threatens to destroy everything they hold dear. They must band together, despite their differences, to protect their town.
At the ATX Television Festival, I was lucky enough to sit down and speak with show writer/creator Monica Owusu-Breen and cast members Arielle Kebbel (“Olivia”) and Peter Mensah (“Lem”) in a roundtable interview.
Of course, since True Blood was such a popular, landmark series for so many years, everyone involved is well aware that the new show will draw comparisons to the older series — and that was understandably more than a bit nerve-wracking.
“My agent sent me a book and said, ‘Look at this! Does this intrigue you?’ And I read two chapters, and I’m like, ‘It does intrigue me. A lot,’” Owusu-Breen said. “I knew True Blood. So I was a little scared at first, you know — big shoes to fill.”
But at the end of the day, the worlds of the two Harris novels could not be more different at their hearts.
“Midnight was so special, and so singular, and such a very different place, that it felt like it was in a similar universe [to True Blood] but so different and had such different stories to tell. So for me, it was the best of all worlds, because Charlaine [Harris] writes my favorite genres — romance and supernatural and westerns,” the writer-creator continued.
Similarly, Mensah pointed to the “different community” as a distinction between the two shows, and how Midnight, Texas manages to rise above the supernatural tropes it uses.
“I do think that this is a very different community. The levels of relationship [in Midnight, Texas] are multi-layered, and the stories aren’t just about their relationships. It’s essentially about what happens to the community and how their relationships are tested by external stuff as much as their inter-relationships,” Mensah said. “So I think you see a much more multilayered character development. Because the stories are far more demanding than the sort of basic attractions and power struggles.”
Interestingly, Kebbel and Mensah both had their own direct experiences with True Blood as well — both actors appeared on the show in minor roles! In fact, both of their characters died (which isn’t too shocking, given the HBO series’ enormous body count over its many seasons).
But it wasn’t their performances in True Blood that drew Owusu-Breen to want to cast them. In fact, Mensah could not have been more different from the book description of Lem, the vampire character he plays. In the novel, Lem is albino.
For Owusu-Breen, it was more important to match the heart of the character than the original physical appearance.
“I wanted to keep the spirit of Lem, who is wise and compassionate and smart and doesn’t sweat anything, because he’s been around for hundreds of years. And he’s kind of got a dark sense of humor I really liked. So for me, there were a couple of things that were important with Lem,” she said.
“We had really open casting. We really did. I wanted to find the spirit. Because sometimes I think if you get limited by the physical appearance, you actually don’t get the actor that brings the role to life as much. So for me, it was important to get their heart.”
Another distinction from True Blood? The amount of gratuitous sex and violence is way down, given that Midnight, Texas is appearing on NBC and not a premium cable channel.
“We go as far to the line as we can. In the pilot, we did as much as we could. What I loved about Charlaine’s characters is that even though they’re supernatural, they’re really human,” Owusu-Breen said. “They love making love, and they love hanging out at a restaurant and talking to their friends. And they drink. And they take pills when they get headaches. And they’re human in as much as supernatural beings can be human.”
That doesn’t mean that sex isn’t important to the story. It’s actually quite the opposite.
“For me, it was important that these characters have sex. But the show’s not about that, because I do feel like True Blood was about sex,” Owusu-Breen said. “Sex is part of the human condition, the fabric of what makes us people.”
The show has a variety of romantic relationships, but the one between Lem and Olivia is among the most “intimate.”
“In the end, it’s just the relationship, there’s no focus on the sex, there’s no focus on the differences. It’s just sort of the relationship and then you get on with it,” Mensah said. “And that’s the genius of this, I think — it becomes real because the description of the relationship doesn’t define the relationship.”
Kebbel drew an unexpected comparison to another NBC series — Friends.
She noted that, watching the sitcom, her favorite couple and the one she most related to changed multiple times within a given episode. In the same way, she could relate to some aspect of nearly every Midnight, Texas pairing.
“There’d be times where I would totally understand what Sarah’s and François’ characters were going through, or Parisa and Dylan’s characters were going through,” she said. “I was so proud to see Joe and Chuy’s relationship.”
“I love that about our show. I feel like, supernatural or not, this is about love stories, this is about feeling, this is about family and connection, and I feel like everybody will be able to relate to what these people are going through,” Kebbel continued. “And that’s really important, especially right now, with what we’re going through in our world. Feelings are everything! Compassion. Love.”
It’s not just the relationships of a romantic sort that build the fabric of Midnight, Texas and its strongly character driven drama.
“There’s something to be said for having a vested interest in protecting your community and not judging other people. And Fiji and Olivia are extraordinarily different. And they don’t live by the same code. But Fiji loves Olivia as a friend, and Olivia loves Fiji as a friend,” Owusu-Breen said. “The idea that you can be so different without being judgmental. There was a kindness in those books that I just really appreciated and it felt aspirational and joyful and it wasn’t just sad.”
For Kebbel, that uplifting message gave her pride to be part of the project.
“These characters have to put aside their differences because there’s a greater purpose and to learn to work together and actually appreciate each others’ differences and call upon each others’ differences when push comes to shove to beat this outside force that’s trying to beat them down — it’s incredibly important. And I loved that message. Time and time again, whether we understood each other or not, we became the light facing the dark. That makes me proud to be a part of the show,” Kebbel said.
As much as the show is a supernatural drama, Owusu-Breen also feels that it’s a family drama, and a human drama. But at the end of the day, Midnight, Texas is still a genre show with the benefits and drawbacks accorded to the form.
Kebbel cited the long working hours as the downside of the genre. “It’s really long hours to tell such a complex show where you have vampires and regular humans all on one show, it makes for some really long days.”
Mensah also mentioned the difficulties of balancing playing a supernatural character who still needs to be relatable to the viewers.
“There are issues with playing the supernatural. Because it’s a fine line to go — you want to be relatable, but you need to actually also definitely be something unnatural,” he said. “And then transform all of that and create a community that has all these diverse aspects, which is great theoretically to have. But to make it come to life — it can work really well, or it can fall flat.”
One of the highlights of the season will be seeing the unique way that the show can use genre devices to tell Olivia’s “dark” history.
“Genre lets you Trojan horse a lot of interesting issues into things that, on its face, you might have a harder time convincing a network to tell. Like Olivia’s story, had it not had the tropes around it, would almost be unbearably painful to tell,” Owusu-Breen said.
Kebbel agreed and became visibly emotional when discussing her character’s past trauma.
“As the season goes on, you guys will learn about Olivia’s backstory, or if you’ve read the books, you know — even though it’s something that she never escapes, it’s what makes her who she is, but you don’t see her drag that drama into every moment,” she explained.
“And to me, what’s so powerful and important to share about that is that is the everyday hero that makes up America. Because, unfortunately, that has happened to children, and unfortunately it’s still happening. And they move on because they have to. Not because they want to. And that’s her story, and I really hope we get to share more of that because it is incredibly important to me.”
Midnight, Texas will premiere on NBC on Monday, July 24th at 10/9c.
Be sure to check out all of our coverage of the ATX Television Festival right here (there is still more to come).
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