Fangtastic Voyage: The cast of True Blood lounges in the bayou of Louisiana, where the show is set. The vampire soap's third season begins Sunday.
[Spoiler Alert: This review touches on some details from the upcoming season of True Blood.]
I have a friend who teaches a college course in vampires in literature and pop culture — and he teaches a theory that at first I laughed at but have come to accept.
His idea is that on film, from the silent-screen Nosferatu to the still-creepy Dracula with Bela Lugosi, vampires were depicted as predatory creatures without a conscience, with a thirst for killing as well as for blood. Then, in the 1960s, along came a screen vampire who changed all that, who injected angst into the mix and presented a vampire haunted by his own immortality and appetites.
This new approach, of course, worked well for Frank Langella's swoony vampire in the '80s, and for every undead sex symbol since. On TV, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel wouldn't otherwise exist. Nor would the hunky antihero of TV's Moonlight, or the brooding teens of the cinematic Twilight saga. And who was this pop-culture vampire who changed the undead zeitgeist in the '60s? According to this theory, it was Barnabas Collins, the moody vampire played by Jonathan Frid in Dark Shadows.
I resisted this idea because, to me, Frid, as an actor, was more wooden than any of the stakes used as weapons against him. But True Blood, the HBO vampire series created by Alan Ball, offers the best proof that this theory holds water, if not blood. True Blood doesn't even try it hide its origins, its genre or its intentions. Like Dark Shadows, it's a soap opera, pure and simple. Or, more accurately — it's a soap opera, impure and complicated.
The third season, which begins Sunday, picks up at the same place last year's cliffhanger left off. Bill Compton, the vampire lover of Southern waitress Sookie Stackhouse, has gone missing. Sookie suspects foul play — and in the universe of True Blood, where vampires co-exist with humans openly, and where shape-shifters, demons and other creatures lurk in the shadows — she'd be foolish to think otherwise. So she bravely and boldly stomps into a vampire nightclub called Fangtasia and demands to see the owner — Eric, a powerful vampire who is in charge of vampires in the bayou backwater. He also has a crush on Sookie and isn't shy about revealing it.
John P. Johnson/HBO
Face Time: Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) has an interview with a vampire: Eric (Alexander Skarsgard), who has a thing for True Blood's heroine.
Face Time: Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) has an interview with a vampire: Eric (Alexander Skarsgard), who has a thing for True Blood's heroine. John P. Johnson/HBO
So far, this particular plot could have been pulled from just about any vampire drama. But where True Blood veers into uncharted territory is in its unapologetic hedonism. Sookie finds Eric in the basement of his nightclub alright, and confronts him just as you'd expect. But what's unexpected, and different, is that she finds him having violent sex with a woman who's tied to the wall — a woman who appears both willing and worn out. And when Eric turns his attention to Sookie, he remains naked, throughout the entire scene. Needless to say, this isn't Twilight, which is more about denial and refusal than attraction and giving in. Anna Paquin stars as Sookie; Alexander Skarsgard plays Eric.
"Sookie, meet my new dancer. Yvetta, from Estonia," he says. "Yvetta, meet Sookie — from here."
He turns to Sookie. "So, what brings you to Fangtasia on this balmy night?"
"Bill's been kidnapped, and I think you did it," she says.
"I didn't," he says. "Any other theories?"
"I'm still on this one, thank you very much," she says. "Where were you tonight around 11?"
"Here," he says. "With Yvetta."
"Doing this? For the last six hours?" she says.
"You seem surprised," he says. "Is Bill's stamina not up to snuff?"
There's a lot of stuff going on in this new season, including the introduction of new characters — werewolves, for example, but a very different breed than in the Twilight films. But what's most refreshing, and most impressive, are the takes this season on the established characters. Sookie's brother Jason and their friend Lafayette, who were two of the wildest and least responsible characters in True Blood, emerge this season as two of the more dependable ones. That's partly because other folks have either vanished or regressed — but it's also because these two Southern men have learned from their mistakes. And Stephen Moyer, as Sookie's kidnapped Bill, is as magnetic and mysterious as ever — a far, far cry from Barnabas Collins.
But hey — this is soap opera, just like the books by Charlaine Harris on which True Blood is based. And Alan Ball and company have injected new blood into their show, so to speak, by giving more screen time to some especially entertaining female vampires: Deborah Ann Woll as Jessica, Bill's young vampire-in-training, and Kristin Bauer as Pam, Eric's unflappable manager at Fangtasia. I've seen the first three of this season's new shows, and, once again, I'm hooked. Or maybe, in this case, I'm bitten.
David Bianculli is TV critic for TVWorthWatching.com and teaches television and film at Rowan University in New Jersey.