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TELEVISION REVIEW

Intoxicating atmosphere keeps 'Blood' flowing

Deborah Ann Woll plays Jessica, a teen vampire in HBO's ''True Blood.'' Deborah Ann Woll plays Jessica, a teen vampire in HBO's ''True Blood.'' (Jaimie Trueblood/Hbo)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / June 12, 2009
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The title sequence of HBO's "True Blood" is among TV's best ever. Created by Digital Kitchen, the same outfit that made the "Six Feet Under" intro, the clip is a breathtaking flash tour of gothic Louisiana - a swamp alligator, rotting cars and carcasses, roadhouse lust, ecstatic prayer, blood. Edited to a tension-and-release rhythm, it's a visual tone poem about sex, death, and rebirth. It's so visceral and hot that, at points, the film itself appears to be burning up. The accompanying song, Jace Everett's raunchy "Bad Things"? Pure perfection.

And "True Blood," back Sunday at 9 p.m. for a second season, is more than equal to this spectacular opener. Alan Ball's series, based on Charlaine Harris's vampire novels, is a transporting look at the paper-thin wall between desire and fear, excitement and terror. Populated by members of the undead, a mind reader, a shape-shifter, and a prickly goddess of hedonism played by the superb Michelle Forbes, the show is really intoxicating, even for viewers who aren't vampire-obsessed. And the season's first four episodes reveal a TV production hitting its peak. OK, here's my big quote: "True Blood" is truly terrific.

What I love about this series is only partly related to its overarching conceit, by which vampires represent gay people coming come out of the "casket" and seeking equality. The symbolism is certainly a plus - it gives the "True Blood" plots a nice nonsupernatural resonance. While Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) continues her love affair with kind vampire Bill (Stephen Moyer) this season, for example, her brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten) joins a church built on the hatred of vampires. The Stackhouses are like a family riven by Proposition 8, except for the whole, you know, fang thing.

But the fun of "True Blood" is in what's on the screen, so steeped in bayou atmosphere, heightened melodrama, and offbeat humor. Sookie remains a compelling plucky heroine, undaunted by the violent strangeness of Bill's nighttime world but still holding fast to her moral center. In an amusing twist this season, she and Bill play surrogate parents to Jessica, the teen vampire Bill created last season, and they bicker about how strict to be with her. Played with tart brattiness by Deborah Ann Woll, Jessica is given an emotional center, too, as she learns firsthand the awkwardness and loneliness of eternal life. In one scene, her fangs emerge involuntarily when she's attracted to a boy, and her giggly embarrassment is delightful.

Bill is still the show's romantic lead, and his struggles of conscience - which is what he shares with Sookie - remain affecting. And Moyer continues to milk his pronunciation of "Sookie" for local flavor, affection, and humor. But this season, Alexander Skarsgard gets more screen time as the cold Eric, a 1,000-year-old vampire who is a "sheriff" and the owner of the vampire nightclub Fangtasia. He is as manipulative as ever, and he and Sookie develop a pronounced antipathy - or is that an attraction? At one point, Eric insults Sookie's humanness by calling her a "breather," in the way a gay person might call a straight person a "breeder."

Also, this season we see more of Forbes's Maryann, who has taken in Tara (Rutina Wesley) for reasons that remain mysterious and suspicious. Maryann is, like most of the "True Blood" characters, dramatic but with bits of caricature around the edges. She's all about empowering women, and she has a mod "Girl From Ipanema" jauntiness about her. But don't cross her. Forbes, who was stellar as Gabriel's Byrne's ex-wife on "In Treatment," is camp fun in this role, twisting her hands up to the sky to invoke good times. Tara is drawn into Maryann's web, in the way humans are drawn toward a vampire who is "glamouring" them. But Maryann, like Sam the shape-shifter, is not a vampire. The show, with its subtext about human diversity, features diverse monsters, too.

I've become enamored of the pacing of "True Blood," which builds to a big climax every week and then, the following week, picks up exactly where it left off. This tempo adds an exclamation point to the end of the episodes, and it pulls the viewer right back into the action. So it should be no surprise that we very quickly learn the identity of the body in the car in the parking lot of Merlotte's Bar and Grill on Sunday. For a show about eternity, "True Blood" conveys an irresistible sense of immediacy.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

TRUE BLOOD Starring: Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, Ryan Kwanten, Sam Trammell, Chris Bauer, Rutina Wesley, Alexander Skarsgard, Michelle Forbes

On: HBO

Time: Sunday night, 9-10

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