Just when you were starting to wonder if HBO was still capable of producing dramas that are both ambitious and fun, along comes the Deep South vampire series True Blood, writer-producer Alan Ball’s follow-up to Six Feet Under. Based on Charlaine Harris’s “Southern Vampire Mysteries”—and conspicuously indebted, like Harris’s fiction, to Anne Rice—Blood is about vampires who “come out” and integrate with mortals, a decision made possible by the invention of synthetic blood. The ensuing culture clash leads to mutual exploitation, political tension, forbidden romance and interspecies violence; all the above are represented in the program’s main setting, Bon Temps, a Louisiana bayou hamlet that’s rattled by the arrival of its first “out” vampire, a studly 173-year-old drifter (Stephen Moyer).
While the series craftily foregrounds its popcorn aspects—sweaty sex, nasty violence, smugly bitchy dialogue—it also strains rather clumsily toward significance. Like the X-Men films (a franchise that coincidentally features True Blood costar Anna Paquin, who, as the sexually repressed telepathic bar waitress Sookie Stackhouse, is the series’s moral and emotional center), it presents its vampire characters as stand-ins for any despised Other whose existence unnerves the boring majority. But even as Ball flogs allegory to the brink of undeath (an opening-credits road sign declares god hates fangs), the collision of mortal and immortal culture proves endlessly intriguing, from the atmospheric details to the comic-book-ish slang (vampires that fake deep love for mortals in order to ensure a dependable food supply are called “fangbangers”). And the blood-feast scenes are at once grotesque, surreal and sexy—so effective that one could say True Blood is at its best when it sucks.