'True Blood': Our Vampire Neighbors Come Out Of The Coffin and Into Your House, By Kurt Loder

Anna Paquin in 'True Blood'Walking down the street a couple weeks ago I passed a poster promoting something called the “Vampire Rights Amendment.” Maybe you did, too. It didn’t register at first -- living in New York, one grows accustomed to all sorts of civic grievance. The next time I encountered one of these posters, though, I went home and looked up the VRA online, and was, first of all, surprised to find it online, and then to discover that it was part of an elaborate, under-the-radar ad campaign for an upcoming cable series called “True Blood.” Okay, I was roped in.

I’ve since acquired the first two episodes of the show, and a considerable amount of obscure information related thereto. “True Blood” is drawn from the eight “Southern Vampire Mysteries” written by Mississippi novelist Charlaine Harris, who among other things, I gather, is a former weightlifter. I mean no disrespect. These books are apparently very popular; naturally I haven’t heard of them before this. They chronicle the unusual adventures of a telepathic Louisiana barmaid (already it’s getting good) named Sookie Stackhouse, whose backwoodsy hometown of Bon Temps is apparently infested with werewolves, witches, shape-shifters and, of course, vampires. In fact, the sheriff is a vampire. In fact, Sookie dates a vampire. Sex abuse and serial killing also crop up, but let’s stick with the supernaturals.

It was Alan Ball, the man who created “Six Feet Under” (and won an Oscar for scripting the 1999 “American Beauty”) who decided that Harris’ stories had the makings of cool TV. HBO agreed, and has scheduled “True Blood” for a September 7th kickoff. Ball is writing some of the episodes and switching off on directorial duties with Michael Lehmann, best-known for directing the beloved “Heathers.” Sounds good. Anna Paquin, gone blonde for the occasion, plays Sookie Stackhouse as a live wire whose love life is short-circuited by her mind-reading abilities, over which she has little control. But she finds peace and unexpected heat with a much older man named Bill Compton, who’s actually been dead since the Civil War. Bill, played by Stephen Moyer (“Quills”), has an insinuating, sleepy-eyed charm that makes him the most sultry vampire in the annals of the undead. Now that the Vampire Rights Amendment appears to be headed for ratification, Bill has come out of the closet (or “out of the coffin,” as the show cutely puts it) and is fixing up his ancestral mansion outside of Bon Temps with an eye toward moving back in. What makes this feasible is a new synthetic blood developed in Japan and now sold here under the name “Tru Blood.” (You can buy it in six packs.) Tru Blood allows the vampire community to slake its unholy thirst without recourse to the traditional and famously messy human containers. So vampires are now agitating for change, making a compelling argument that they’re just like the rest of us. Apart from being, you know, dead.

Sookie meets Bill in the first installment of the HBO series, and they have an immediate chemistry. And Paquin and Moyer are colorfully supported by Rutina Wesley (“How She Move”), as Sookie’s prickly best friend, Tara; Sam Trammell as Sam Merlotte, the mellow-beard owner of the bar where Sookie works (he has a secret!); and Ryan Kwanten as Sookie’s alarmingly sex-centric brother, Jason. (“True Blood” is not a show that backs away from wild-eyed nude scenes.)

As is the case with most series just getting off the ground, this one starts out a little unsteadily, meandering in spots and sometimes a bit loose in its narrative focus. (On the other hand, any show whose soundtrack takes off with a blast of CC Adcock, the great Louisiana swamp-rock guitarist, gets multiple props in my book.) In a way, “True Blood” is reminiscent of “Firefly,” the Joss Wheedon cult classic that was trashed by the inept scheduling of the network that aired it, and thus forced to find its substantial audience on DVD. (“Tru Blood” shares some of “Firefly”’s bright visual design, and its inclination toward unemphatic revelation.) One hopes that HBO will stand by this series until it finds its feet, because the books on which the show is based offer a rich lode of twisty surprises to explore – and Paquin and Moyer are a weirdly believable item. Support your local vampires.