DAVE DAVIES, host:
If there were a stock market for pop culture obsessions with monsters it might go something like this: vampires have been solid earners for years now. Zombies were a hot startup in 2010. Werewolves are on the rise. And witches threaten to be the next big thing.
Our TV critic David Bianculli uses the new DVD release and imminent return of HBO's "True Blood" to examine our obsessions with things that go bump in the night.
DAVID BIANCULLI: HBO Video has just released Season 3 of "True Blood" -12 episodes bringing us up to speed on Sookie Stackhouse, the psychic southern waitress; on Bill Compton and Eric Northman, the two vampires in love with her; and on all the other far-from-normal residents of and around this particular bayou town. And in a few weeks, on June 26th, HBO launches Season 4 of "True Blood," which doubles down on its paranormal plot lines.
When we left off, Sookie, played by Anna Paquin, had felt used and betrayed by both her vampire lovers, and discovered that her own psychic gifts - as well as some more recent ones - were due to a formerly unknown lineage. She's part human and, as it turns out, part fairy. Her loyal vampire boyfriend, Bill Compton, doesn't love her any less - but another vampire, Russell, the sinister vampire king of Mississippi, warns Sookie that there might be a reason for that. Russell explains this as Sookie has him chained and captured - and just after he's almost burned to death from exposure to the sun.
Denis O'Hare, as Russell the king, gives one of my famous performances in "True Blood." He seems to purr and snarl all at once. And in this scene, he's saying all this to Anna Paquin's Sookie while looking like a charred hotdog that was left out on the grill way too long.
(Soundbite of TV show "True Blood")
Mr. DENIS O'HARE (Actor): (as Russell Edgington) Miss Stackhouse, I'd like to propose a deal.
Ms. ANNA PAQUIN (Actor): (as Sookie Stackhouse) Oh, this ought to be good.
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) I will give you my word that I will not harm you or anyone you love.
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) Steppin' around the fact that your word's worth about as much as tits on a turtle, what else?
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) One million dollars.
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) Five.
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) Two.
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) Seven.
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) Okay. Five.
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) What else?
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) I will kill Eric Northman and Bill Compton, both. Or neither. Or just one of your choosing.
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) Both.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) And your house in Mississippi, I like that house.
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) Done.
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) What do I have to do in return?
(Soundbite of growl)
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) Release me.
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) No.
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) It may not be me but some day some vampire is going to rip you open to get at the essence inside of you. There is no way around that.
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) Shut up.
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) You don't know what it is to drink your blood. It is paradise. Arcadia. Nirvana. You don't even know what your blood is capable of. I am surprised that your Mr. Compton has showed such restraint. He is either a true gentleman or very, very smart.
Ms. PAQUIN: (as Sookie Stackhouse) Smart, why?
Mr. HARE: (as Russell Edgington) By showing such a degree of control he's able to make the experience last that much longer. That's basic tantra, where others won't be able to stop themselves. They'll drain you dry, which is a shame, really.
BIANCULLI: It makes perfect sense that "True Blood" is returning on HBO - and being released on DVD - during the summer. Based on the novels by Charlaine Harris, and adapted for TV by "Six Feet Under" creator Alan Ball, "True Blood" is the TV equivalent of the perfect summer beach book. It's funny, it's sexy, it's imaginative, it's outrageous - and, like Sookie's human-fairy blood, it's addictive. It also passes my basic test for any great ensemble TV series: Its characters are so well-written, and so well-acted, that I can spend time with any of them without missing the others.
In Season 3 on the DVD set, "True Blood" introduces plenty of new characters, in addition to O'Hare's Vampire King. There are fairies, shape-shifters, werewolves - and, in season four, we'll get heavily into the world of witches. It's a smart move - because even though vampires are among the hottest things in pop culture right now, even monsters are vulnerable to the fickleness of public taste.
Both "True Blood" and the "Twilight" movie series began in 2008, and both have invested heavily in werewolves as well as vampires. But in this new decade of television, vampires are in danger of being temporarily overrun. Last year on AMC, a zombie series based on a graphic novel, "The Walking Dead," came out of nowhere and set viewership records for that network - almost three times the audience for AMC's "Mad Men." MTV has a new series based on an old Michael J. Fox movie, "Teen Wolf." And this fall, the CW network - which already has injected werewolves into its series "The Vampire Diaries" - hedges its bets by presenting "Secret Circle," about a coven of young witches.
My bet, though, is that vampires - more than werewolves, zombies or witches - will prove to be the most durable media monsters of all. It's been almost 90 years since the first memorable movie vampire, "Nosferatu," hit the big screen - and exactly 80 years since Bela Lugosi played "Dracula."
Those guys were monsters, though - creepy bloodsuckers, not the stuff of swoony romance novels. All that changed in the 1950s, when Christopher Lee embodied a more seductive brand of bloodsucker in a series of Hammer Studios horror films. And it was codified in the 1960s, on television, when a daytime soap opera called "Dark Shadows" presented the central vampire, for the first time, as a misunderstood, haunted victim. That's the model that's been followed, for the most part, ever since - from Frank Langella's matinee-idol "Dracula" to all of the present-day vampires on "Twilight," "True Blood" and elsewhere.
So zombies may be popular now, and werewolves and witches may be on the rise - but for a safe, long-term investment in pop culture's fascination with the paranormal, I say take your money and let it ride on vampires. They're undead in more ways than one - every generation, they always seem to earn a brand new life.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.