TV critic

To much huzzah, “True Blood” is back on HBO on Sunday night, and I’ll probably get fined by the Regional Governing Committee of Undead Television Critics if I don’t write at least a little something.

And let me be honest, when the first few episodes of the show’s fourth season arrived via FedEx the other day, I did my usual dance of the village idiot (“It’s here! It’s here, I tell you!”) and popped that bloodsucker right into the Blu-ray.

But from the very first scene, I had to double-check that I wasn’t accidentally watching another one of those cheapo, made-for-Syfy movies. “True Blood” has lost some of its sheen between last summer and now. The new episodes push the saga in a few initially intriguing directions, but the cast keeps expanding into an overpopulated mishmash of disparate story threads that no longer weave together as a whole.

The season begins with its central heroine, Sookie Stackhouse (the hot/cold Anna Paquin) portaling to her native fairy world — (Oh, wait, did I remember to shoo off all those grumpy fans who don’t want spoilers anywhere near their delicate eyes? Shoo, then. Shoo!) — where other fairy-type people seem to be enjoying an eternal Olive Gardenesque realm while eating glowing orbs of juicy lifefruit. Even Sookie’s deceased grandpa (Gary Cole) is here, having the time of his afterlife.

It seems that, even in paradise, Sookie has a knack for trouble, as she quickly senses that fairy world is an illusion and that the fairies are really beasts that wish to enslave her. The Olive Garden dissipates, revealing a barren wasteland of bad special effects. Sookie and Grandpa attempt to escape through a dimensional canyon leap, landing splat in the cemetery of Bon Temps, La., their vampire-laden home town, where Grandpa quickly shrivels to a crisp. That’s just the first five minutes or so, and that’s all I’m really going to tell you.

For “True Blood” sustains itself mainly on big surprises and myriad twists. These are usually paced about 90 seconds apart, at most, since an episode of the show is typically constructed like a ride at Six Flags. When it’s good, “True Blood” can be a rollicking good scream; but with one loose bolt “True Blood” easily flies off the tracks.

Making her way back to town, Sookie discovers that what felt like a few minutes away has actually been a year and that her friends have all written her off as dead. This fast-forward could have been a promising way to advance and reinvigorate the series. While she’s been away, Sookie’s mishap-prone brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten), has become a sheriff’s deputy; her former paramour Bill (Stephen Moyer) has deposed Queen Sophie-Anne (so long, Evan Rachel Wood) and has been crowned the Vampire King of Louisiana.

But there’s still some bloat and a population-control problem, character-wise. On top of its textured lore about vampires, shape-shifters, werewolves, maenads, cat people and other voodoo who-dos, most of whom are still around and taking up space, “True Blood” is adding witches this season, as Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) and his boyfriend, Jesus (Kevin Alejandro), start dallying with a coven. Characters I care less about (waitresses, extraneous vampires, panther hillbillies on meth) are getting as much or more time as characters I initially adored.

Yet do not take this as a threat of abandonment. The “True Blood” that fans crave is intact and addictive; it’s just more tiresome. Still, if there’s another TV show that can approach its ability to meld melodramatic horror, fun and social metaphor, I haven’t seen it.

True Blood

(one hour) returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.