Creator Alan Ball insists, not entirely convincingly, that the vampirism in “True Blood” isn’t just a sociopolitical metaphor for homosexuality. Nevertheless, if the popularity of “Twilight” and the Sookie Stackhouse books that inspired this series are any indication, women clearly embrace the romance of guys who suck for more exotic-than-usual reasons, creating otherworldly impediments to true love. So while the show is a trifle hokey, its soapy elements, gothic atmosphere and cliffhanger endings — coupled with Anna Paquin’s knockout performance — do reel viewers in, laying the groundwork for what may be the cultish, undemanding romp HBO needs to inject much-needed life into its lineup.
Ever since “Dark Shadows,” people have sought to perfect the vampire soap, although even a “Shadows” revival failed to find the proper vein. And while Ball — of “Six Feet Under” renown — might seem an unlikely choice to go from chronicling the dead to the undead, he wisely approaches the material with few pretensions.
In the world of novelist Charlaine Harris, vampires have been living invisibly among humans for ages but only felt comfortable emerging from the shadows — essentially, coming out of the coffin — after the Japanese invented synthetic blood (or Tru Blood, packaged in cute containers that look like beer bottles). Still, there’s considerable unease about having bloodsuckers roaming around freely, with humans resisting the push for “vampire rights.”
Having participated in the X-Men movies — which set up mutants as another discriminated-against minority — Paquin is a marketable choice for a genre audience but brings much more than that to the role of Sookie, a Louisiana waitress whose psychic ability has caused her to shun romance.
So to her surprise, when a hunky vampire, Bill (Stephen Moyer of “The Starter Wife”), moves into the bayou town of Bon Temps — taking advantage of vampires’ recent decision to go public and enter the mainstream — she’s instantly drawn to him, as he is to her: Uncomfortable with knowing the inner-most feelings of those around her, she’s blissfully unable to hear Bill’s thoughts. Similarly, he senses immediately that Sookie is “something more than human.”
Prejudice, however, dies hard, and Sookie’s attachment to Bill alarms those closest to her –including her boss Sam (Sam Trammell), man-whore brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten) and fast-talking best friend Tara (Rutina Wesley). Nor are Bill’s vamp buddies exactly warm and cuddly.
The supporting players aren’t nearly as interesting initially as the intense bond between Sookie and Bill, though they do keep the first few installments busy, including some nicely gratuitous sex, adventures in the Viagra-like effects of vampire blood and a tepid murder mystery. Only Sookie’s grandma (Lois Smith) fully accepts Bill, in part because she yearns to enlist the 173-year-old vampire to address her Civil War group. Yet whatever the distractions, Bill and Sookie’s relationship — and the difficulties it poses — remains “Blood’s” beating heart.
Based on the way women in particular have glommed onto the bodice-caressing aspects of such fare (consider the torch a dedicated few are still carrying for CBS’ “Moonlight”), HBO figures to have a cult hit on its hands at the very least — with Moyer representing the kind of brooding figure many would covet, dead or undead. Special effects are sparing but effective, which should boost male appeal, as will Paquin, who manages to be sexy, vulnerable and mysterious all at once.
How deeply the series resonates beyond that will hinge on how the plot advances and weaves in the secondary characters. Either way, the concept seems like a smart against-the-grain move for HBO, which has already done a phenomenal job marketing it.
If nothing else, nobody will confuse Bill from Bon Temps with “John From Cincinnati.” The only question now is whether “True Blood” barely breaks the skin or can tap into a whole new artery.