If you designed a television show specifically for audiences who hate Twilight, you couldn't do better than True Blood. Alan Ball's Southern gothic soap opera is as pulpy and lusty as Twilight is innocent and romantic. They are the Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift of vampire stories. The central divide is that while Twilight is built on the dramatic possibilities of virginal restraint, True Blood, whose slogan is "waiting sucks," wallows in its own excess.
Its first two seasons were a gleeful glut of indelicate sex, sloppy violence, overwrought melodrama, purple prose, leaden metaphors, and supernatural silliness. Pitched at adults who think less is a bore, this maddeningly addictive series, which has become HBO's biggest hit since The Sopranos, provides down and dirty pleasures without guilt. In that spirit, this weekly column will attempt the same by letting you know up front how each episode delivers on its promise of skin and scares, the meat and potatoes of True Blood.
The premiere of Season 3, which aired Sunday night, had a few macabre moments including two dead bodies, one killed in the previous season, and a cliffhanger with the courtly vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) surrounded by threatening wolves. The horror was relatively tame, but the sex was not. Detective Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer) announced something of a mission statement when he gruffly gave us these words to live by: "Conscience off, dick on, and everything's going to be all right." The healthy servings of naked flesh included six breasts, two butts and enough topless men to make you wonder if there is a severe T-shirt shortage down South.
As in the most recent installment of Twilight, werewolves, the stepchild of classic movie monsters, are the major new addition this season. They abduct Bill, who continues his rivalry with the forever deadpan 1,000-year-old Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) for the affections of Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin).
This love triangle provides the current central dynamic, but the pulsating heart of True Blood is not in heterosexual love—this propulsive, typically overstuffed debut reminds us why the show is the most homoerotic on television. The show's original conceit, established in the first season, winked and nudged and sometimes waved its hands around about gay rights. Set in the modern-day South, vampires had recently emerging into the public sphere—or "out of the coffin." Humans were titillated and horrified. A sign for "God hates fangs" appears in the moody opening credit sequence. In the town of Bon Temps, where most of the show takes place, vampires polarize, but gays are virtually normal. Homophobia exists, but it's benign compared to the bigotry facing bloodsuckers. Gays and straights mix with ease. Scenes between rugged straight men always seem on the verge of a make-out session, especially in the new episode.
Detective Bellefleur and his cousin, Terry, agree they should tell each other "I love you" more often. *Minutes later, a Hills Have Eyes-like gang of hairy roughnecks (later we discover they are werewolves) who have abducted Bill Compton to drip blood into one another's mouths. No one gets too upset when one of them jokes, "That's gay." That's because everyone seems a little gay in this show. "I'm in no mood for lesbian weirdness," Sookie says at one point, but you can tell she knows that's exactly what she's going to get.
Homosexuality comes off almost banal, offhanded, of minor consequence. It's a fantasy of a post-gay America—until it becomes just a fantasy of very gay America. No more so than in what will probably be the episode's most talked-about scene: the preposterously erotic dream sequence involving Bill and bar owner Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammel).
They meet in an Arkansas hotel (Sam is looking for his parents, Bill has escaped his abductors), exchange soulful stares and move toward a hot embrace. In a pitch-perfect sendup of soft-core dialogue, Bill asks to use the shower. Then there's talk of towels, and the realization that—well, I'll be! —he doesn't have an extra shirt. Sam generously offers to help, unbuttoning his shirt. Put aside the fact that with two men and one shirt, this is a rather short-term solution to a long-term problem, and pay attention to the classic come-on Bill whispers in response, the kind of truly awful romance novel sweet nothing that makes True Blood such fun. "I hear," he says in his old South whisper, "the water in Arkansas is very hard."
If Tennessee Williams had to write a lurid soap opera for cable television, this is the kind of inspired nonsense he would have come up with. Alan Ball has called the playwright—whose frustrated writer in The Glass Menagerie tells his mother that when he hears her exclaim "rise and shine" in the morning, he thinks how "lucky dead people are"—an inspiration. His influence shows up everywhere from the most repeated dialogue ("May I call on you sometime?") to small details (this episode we learn of a man named Stanley).
Williams, however, never wrote a character like the heroine Sookie, whose goody two-shoes ordinariness is growing into the show's largest liability, her blandly earnest moral decisions interrupting the gleeful bad taste. The writers seem more confident with the oddball characters, pushing the limits of the over-the-top drama into pure camp. What choice do they have? When one waitress in a bar falls in love with a serial killer, it may be tragic. But after the second one, you just have to laugh.
Correction, June 15, 2010: The article originally stated that Detective Bellefleur and Jason Stackhouse agree they should tell each other "I love you" more often. (Return to the corrected sentence.)