By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2010; E01
At the rate we're going, you'll soon be able to get your PhD in vampire semiotics. What metaphors and meanings don't the immortal bloodsuckers offer? What themes can't they represent? And why are they everywhere now?
Some 35 years after Anne Rice introduced the idea of the chaste vampire with the tortured soul, the mythical creatures have been brought back from Halloween-aisle exile to practice a curious form of abstinence. America's teenage girls swoon for a surplus of far-too-pretty vampires who are barely up to the task; these baby Dracs go to high school in the light of day and text love poems more than they actually feed. Today's vampires are too anguished to enjoy a sang-wich.
Which is only one of the reasons Alan Ball's "True Blood," the ridiculously melodramatic HBO series about vampires in the dirty, muggy South, is such a complete and total turn-on. "True Blood" is whatever "Twilight" isn't -- violent, scary, funny, screamingly gross, obscene, sexy and yet subliminally ethical. Based on the novels of Charlaine Harris, "True Blood" is built by and for the culture wars, offering comment on racial, ethnic, sexual, religious and class divisions. It's all just a sendup of modern America.
With its relentless forward momentum and rapidly detonated subplots, "True Blood" is everything grown-ups want from their cable box and everything people without cable desire in a remedial Netflix catch-up. It's also every sordid thing moral guardians fear most, which should be endorsement enough.
In its first two seasons, "True Blood" spun enough concurrent storylines to seroconvert a legion of rabid fans who devour each gory installment. But in its third season, which begins Sunday night, "True Blood" seems dangerously close to peaking, as it introduces nearly a dozen new characters into a saga that is already too engorged.
A lot of these new characters are werewolves. What law demands that all vampire franchises must recruit other iconic monsters to the saga? If it's not witches (a la "True Blood's" detour last summer into the "maenad" orgy-mama storyline; boy, did she get tiresome), then it's werewolves. It's "Groovie Ghoulies" syndrome, I guess -- and I'll gladly share my Count Chocula with anybody who gets that reference.
"True Blood" is set mainly in a fictional Louisiana town called Bon Temps, where Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a toothsome waitress at Merlotte's roadhouse, first met the morally upstanding vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) two seasons ago. A Civil War veteran, the immortal Bill returned to his home town after the "great revelation," in which America's vampires came out of the coffin (so to speak) and revealed their existence to the rest of us. (They were able to do this thanks to a new beverage, Tru Blood, sort of like the Diet Coke of blood substitutes, that meant they could live without feeding on humans.) Bill hoped to start a normal -- if nocturnal -- life in Bon Temps. He and Sookie fell in love.
Turns out, a fake-blood beverage isn't nearly as much fun as slurping the real thing; thus, "True Blood" knows it must offer at least one vicious neck-gnawing per hour. It also giddily obeys some old vampire lore, especially the one about hiding from the sun, but also the quaintly helpful protocol that vampires cannot come into your house unless you formally invite them in.
Since Season 1, the show has largely abandoned its obvious gay-rights metaphor ("God Hates Fangs," reads a sign in the opening theme) in favor of the much more interesting battles among factions and territorial kingdoms of vampires -- going from Miss Manners-style social dilemmas to full-on politics. The second season ended with Bill proposing marriage to Sookie; she went to the bathroom to get over her shock and decided to tell him yes; when she came out, Bill had been kidnapped.
By werewolves. Who, it turns out, are merely werewolf servants who report to someone else. (And that's all I'm saying here, except to indicate that this season finds Bill committing the kinds of mortal sins we'd not expect him to.)
Sookie asks her local vampire sheriff, Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard), to help her find Bill. "True Blood" now completely belongs to Skarsgard's beguilingly strong performance; although Paquin and Moyer are still the stars of the show, the camera loves Skarsgard more than anyone. So long, Bill Compton -- I've learned from teenage girls how to switch vampire allegiances, and I'm Team Eric now.
To be honest, I want most to be on Team Pam. Played scrumptiously wicked by Kristin Bauer van Straten, Pam is Eric's deputy vampire -- heavy on the vamp. She has all of the new episodes' best lines, such as when a newbie vampire asks her how to stop sucking the blood of one's victim just in time to avoid killing him: "I think about crying children with soggy diapers," Pam deadpans. "Also, maggots."
That's the sort of writing that makes "True Blood" such impurely profane fun.
This season's new characters -- a vampire king of Mississippi and his trophy boyfriend; a werewolf named Coot who is hired to protect Sookie; a new vampire named Franklin -- make me wish that "True Blood's" writers would pink-slip most of the original ensemble, including just about everyone who works at Merlotte's. The show grinds to a halt whenever it turns its attention back to Sookie's brother (Ryan Kwanten), best friend (Rutina Wesley) and boss (Sam Trammell), who've each been sucked dry, character-wise.
But sprawl it must. "True Blood" is a soap opera at its core, which is why it is so overpopulated with sexy characters. It imagines a fantasy American red state, both living and undead, where more people are hot than not.
Vampires stir up something tricky to decipher as far as explaining their current popularity. (It means we're all just waiting to be bitten by the right thing? We're so terribly lonely and afraid of death?) "True Blood" and other popular franchises lend vampires an erotic superpower, the same prowess Bram Stoker and Bela Lugosi conjured, only without the capes, the blousy shirts and the Hot Topic goth accessories. Vampire social mores and manners have been rewritten; blood is willingly exchanged between monster and victim, no big whoop. It's a little like finding out that middle-schoolers don't think oral sex is really sex.
In "True Blood" vampires extract a little bit of you, and dispense mind-blowing orgasms in return; their own blood functions as a drug, which addicts buy on the black market.
But enough about sex. This season tantalizingly indicates that the vampire world is undergoing a power struggle. It turns out these restless creatures have their own politics. Who isn't looking for a new party to join these days?
True Blood (one hour) returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.