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TERRY GROSS, host:

This Sunday, HBO's vampire series "True Blood" returns with its third season. Our TV critic David Bianculli�says "True Blood" is different from other vampire dramas appearing on screen these days, including the phenomenally popular "Twilight" movies. "True Blood," he says, is not about denial and restraint. It's about giving in.

DAVID BIANCULLI: 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 screen silent�"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 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 - ready? - it was Barnabas Collins, the moody vampire played by Jonathan Frid in TV's daytime gothic soap opera "Dark Shadows."

I resisted this idea because, to me, Jonathan 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 begins Sunday and picks up at the very 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 in charge of things in this bayou backwater. He also has a crush on Sookie and isn't shy about admitting it.

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 all right, 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 a 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.

(Soundbite of TV show, "True Blood")

Mr. ALEXANDER SKARSGARD (Actor): (As Eric) Sookie, meet my new dancer. Yvetta, from Estonia. Yvetta, meet Sookie, from here.

Ms. NATASHA ALAM (Actor): (as Yvetta) (Unintelligible)

Ms. ANNA PAQUIN (Actor): (As Sookie) Hi.

Mr. SKARSGARD: Give me a kiss. So, what brings you to Fangtasia on this balmy summer night?

Ms. PAQUIN: Bill's been kidnapped, and I think you did it.

Mr. SKARSGARD: I didn't. Any other theories?

Ms. PAQUIN: I'm still on this one, thank you very much. Where were you tonight around 11 o'clock?

Mr. SKARSGARD: Here with Yvetta.

Ms. PAQUIN: Doing this? For the last six hours?

Mr. SKARSGARD: You seem surprised. Is Bill's stamina not up to snuff?

Ms. PAQUIN: Tell me where I can find Lorena. If you don't have him, she does.

Mr. SKARSGARD: Solid theory, but given the tenor of your last run-in with Ms. Chrissie(ph), yeah, I think it's better if dealt with her instead.

Ms. PAQUIN: How do I know you will?

Mr. SKARSGARD: Because if Bill was, in fact, kidnapped by human or vampire, I am duty bound as sheriff of the area in which he resides to find him. Even if I do want what is his.

Ms. PAQUIN: Then do it.

Mr. BIANCULLI: There's a lot of stuff going on 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 new 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 wild 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.

GROSS: David Bianculli�is TV critic for TVWorthWatching.com and teaches television and film at Rowan University in New Jersey. You can find links to Fresh Air interviews with the star of "True Blood," Anna Paquin, and the series creator, Alan Ball, on our website freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

I'm Terry Gross.

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