HBO’s ‘True Blood’: Love Bites

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The New York Sun

If you’re going to make a television show about vampires, it had better be very scary or a hell of a lot of fun. “True Blood,” the new HBO series helmed by Alan Ball, who created HBO’s “Six Feet Under” and won an Oscar for his screenplay to “American Beauty,” certainly has its chilling moments, but its primary goal is unabashed entertainment, and in that it succeeds fabulously. If you want to see vampires treated in a self-consciously “arty” fashion, there’s always “New Amsterdam” on Fox. Good luck keeping your eyes open.

Unafraid to be over the top, but avoiding the utterly cartoonish, “True Blood,” which makes its premiere Sunday at 9 p.m., strikes a perfect balance between reality and fantasy, and treats the South (Mr. Ball was born in Atlanta, and the series is set in Louisiana) as a kind of moss-covered, sex- and snake-infested Wal-Mart in which a cold-eyed Hollywood screenwriter can stock up on useful cultural clichés by the cartload. If a show as consistently amusing as this one is the result, I’m all for it.

Unlike “Six Feet Under,” which was Mr. Ball’s own creation, “True Blood” is based on the “Sookie Stackhouse” novels by Charlaine Harris. Sookie, a telepathic but otherwise “normal” waitress at the funky but down-home Merlotte’s Bar and Grill, is played with a terrific mix of spunk and vulnerability by Anna Paquin, while Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), the 173-year-old Civil War-era vampire with whom she falls in love, is a broodily handsome type who certainly looks young for his age (not a touch of gray in his three-day stubble), though he is of course unusually pale.

As a result of her psychic powers, Sookie can overhear everyone’s thoughts, sometimes to the point where it becomes a nightmarish din. Bill’s thoughts are on a nonhuman frequency, however, rendering them inaudible to her, which does lend a new twist to the “strong, silent” type. It also makes him unusually relaxing company from Sookie’s viewpoint, at least as long as he doesn’t bare his fangs.

The series takes place in a version of present-day America in which vampires have “come out of the coffin” (one of the program’s cute variations on contemporary vernacular) due to the invention of a Japanese synthetic-blood drink (TruBlood), which permits vampires to get their sanguinary fix without feasting on human necks — or so the vampires claim. Thus, they are now an organized minority seeking full civil rights; one of the first things we see on the program is a cool, blond spokeswoman for the “American Vampire League” arguing the group’s case on “Real Life With Bill Maher.” If Mr. Maher seems skeptical, the Bible Belt is up in arms. (“God Hates Fangs” reads a popular roadside sign.) “We should never have given them the vote and legitimized their unholy existence,” a preacher thunders on another talk show. “The American people know they are the creatures of the devil!”

Judging by the behavior of some of the vampires on display, the preacher may have a point. Nonetheless, “True Blood,” which features two terrific black characters — the outspoken Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley), Sookie’s fellow waitress and best friend, and Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis), a gay black cook so “out” he’s never in — is clearly having fun with the notion of differences and how we react and relate to those who are culturally, ethnically, sexually, or, in the case of vampires, biologically, alien to us.

Playing the thoroughly non-alien role — at least to those on-screen — is Jason (Ryan Kwanten), Sookie’s all-American, dumb-as-dirt, sex-crazed brother, who has developed an interest in vampire eroticism that at times seems coded as gay, at times not. Improbably, Jason is the unrequited love interest of Tara, who rarely misses an opportunity to bring up the South’s history of slavery and doesn’t seem the sort to pine after a 21st-century good old boy. Yet it works. There are also subtle hints that Jason may simply be the sibling-surrogate for the person Tara is truly in love with — namely Sookie. In this and a dozen other ways, Mr. Ball complicates matters and keeps us thoroughly entertained.

What he knows, of course, is that “otherness” makes for good drama. But the primary otherness here belongs to the South, even if Mr. Ball hails from the region himself. As America’s urban hubs are increasingly filled by rich, exfoliated manicure addicts who work in media and finance or are too well-off to need jobs at all, the Deep South becomes an even more exotic location than it would be normally.

From the word go, “True Blood” is awash in sex, violence, murder, the chirping of cicadas, and great music, not to mention the lure of the forbidden provided by the emergence of vampires as a thrillingly sinister new element in America’s “gorgeous mosaic.” Drinking vampire blood, or draining it from them to sell on the black market (as a couple tries to do to Bill in the opening episode), has made “V” (as it’s known) the new drug of choice. A mere drop of it provides humans with heightened senses, an immensely increased libido, and even otherworldly powers. People sexually drawn to vampires are known as “fang-bangers,” and the fact that a powerful religious morality still prevails only adds to the push-pull excitement of the outlaw behavior on which the program feeds.

“True Blood” avoids obvious vampire movie clichés and instead concentrates on character and filling out the drama with a cast that never feels anything but exactly right. Whether it’s Sam Trammell as Sookie’s lovelorn boss or Lois Smith as her eccentric grandmother, everyone and everything in the show flows effortlessly from scene to scene. After some notable hiccups, such as last year’s murky flop “John From Cincinnati,” and mixed bags, such as “Tell Me You Love Me,” it looks as if HBO has gotten itself back on track and down in the groove. Will there be a more enjoyable series this fall? I doubt it.

The New York Sun

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