When "True Blood" premiered in September, I expected it to unfold as a highly thought-out and orderly metaphor of minority struggles in America. In Alan Ball's TV adaptation of Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse novels, vampires come "out of the coffin," churches declaim "God Hates Fangs," and still the undead and their nightclubs have a hip cachet.
As the tiny Louisiana town of Bon Temps was initially scandalized by the love affair between the human Sookie (Anna Paquin) and Bill (Stephen Moyer), a gentlemanly creature of the night, it was hard not to fit the lovers into our history of enmity toward interracial romance. With Sookie and Bill fighting off bigotry, I thought of the more passive heroine of "Society's Child,"' Janis Ian's 1960s pop hit about racism. "True Blood" looked like it was going to be a fabulous - but limited - conceit.
But the neo-gothic series, which will finish its first season on Sunday night at 9, has turned out to be so much more than a canny metaphor. Yes, the parallels between vampires and American cultural outsiders remain strong, and Ball and his writers aren't afraid to use them to comic and dramatic effect. The clips of vampires defending their rights on TV are amusingly droll sendups of real-life talking-headed venom. And Bill's mistreatment by Bon Temps has been both touching and, as it undoes the sensitive vampire and his beloved waitress, tragic. Sookie and Bill belong together.
Still, on top of the occult trope, which reaches beyond vampirism to include Sookie's mind-reading and her boss Sam's shape-shifting, "True Blood" has become a compelling genre mystery about a serial killer in Bon Temps, who's murdering women close to Sookie and her brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten). As the season has sped by, we've seen a number of characters cycle in and out of possibly being the killer, in the same way we've seen characters who may or may not be "The Skinner" on "Dexter." At the end of last week's "True Blood," we were given a major clue - a face on a fax machine - but I'm thinking the finale may bring on yet another twist. The show is, after all, wonderfully twisted, with every episode ending in a burst of unforeseen action.
And on top of that great unfolding mystery, "True Blood" - like most good TV shows - has become the intricate story of its particular characters, a collection of vivid and unexpectedly sympathetic people. Ball did the same thing on "Six Feet Under," as the funeral-home drama quickly grew into the saga of the specific members of the Fisher family. I can't say "True Blood" has the same psychological complexity as "Six Feet Under." But "True Blood" is very far from flat - always a danger when writers are working with phantasmagoria. Even the most peripheral characters - for example Alexander Skarsgard's Eric, owner of the Fangtasia nightclub - are memorable.
Sookie has become, like Buffy on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," a heroic, but appealingly flawed, defender of the vulnerable. With her giant white teeth, her gaping diastema, and her plucky Southern mash-up of an accent, Paquin has done a superb job of making Sookie into a comic figure. But she also brings dramatic heft to this small-town girl who refuses to play dumb when it comes to the men whose minds she can read, who stands up for misfits and bans shame from her life. I remember thinking, when Paquin came to the stage to accept the 1993 best supporting actress Oscar for "The Piano," that the frightened little girl was doomed to a career in the shadows of that intense movie. Fortunately, I was wrong.
Paquin's chemistry with Moyer has grown rich, as Moyer has had the chance to make Bill into more than the mysterious cipher he was early on. Sometimes, Bill is the familiar, tragique vampire we've seen in so many Anne Rice novels and on "Dark Shadows" - but he's also more than a cliché, with his oddly mannered boyishness and hurt eyes. Sookie's friend Tara (Rutina Wesley), too, has managed to be more emotionally layered than the angry-black-woman stereotype she portrayed in the first few episodes.
But Kwanten, as Sookie's man-slut of a brother, Jason, deserves the biggest shout-out. He has been like a live electric wire on the show. At first, he seemed doomed to portray self-parody, with Jason as the classic big little boy. But, while he is still funny as he makes Jason's dull thinking process crystal clear, Kwanten has also given us a guy who has been unexpectedly baptized in self-awareness.
The networks tried to deliver a decent fall, and they came up with a pair of likable new dramas in "The Mentalist" and "Life on Mars." But my fall favorite this year is from HBO, which picked up some post-"Sopranos" mojo with "True Blood." The show is a fantastic supernatural fantasia.