Geography being destiny, those preoccupied with the plight of the sanguivorous undead should perk up at the sight True Blood (HBO, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET). Too often have vampires been stranded in drafty castles, set adrift in impersonal cities, or, as on the immortal Buffy, left to wallow in store-brand suburbia. This take on the myth, which owes a few small debts to Anne Rice novels and a few more to hixsploitation films, ushers its monsters into the small-town Dixie of the present day. The setting is Bon Temps, La., and the humidity does the bloodsuckers some good.
The cold open of the first episode, disconnected from the plot, is a pork rind of a preamble indicating the deep-fried thrills ahead. Headlights on blacktop. A gum-snapping sorority girl, tipsy and frisky, handles both the wheel of a 4-x-4 and the manhood of a boyfriend ordered directly from Abercrombie & Fitch. On a lark, they pull in at the Grabb-It-Kwik, tempted by the signage: "we have tru blood." Inside, the TV plays a talk show; Bill Maher is hosting a spokeswoman from the American Vampire League, who nudges the premise into view: Vampires have recently emerged from the shadows and into a wary society, their open presence made somewhat tolerable by the invention of synthetic blood.
There also exists a black market for vampires' own bodily fluids, which apparently pack a buzz combining the effects of Viagra, angel dust, and a handful of club drugs. "I knew this girl who knew this girl who did vamp blood during Greek Week," says the ripe little gum-snapper, "She, like, clawed her own face off." First, the counter jockey gives the couple a fright by putting on a Transylvanian accent and pretending he vants to munch on them. Next, he sees about selling them some black-market "V juice." Then, the fourth person in the store, a good ol' boy in hunting gear, indicates his displeasure with this line of conversation by flashing a mean pair of cuspids. "You ever pretend to be one of us again and I'll kill you. Got it? … Have a nice day now!" The backwoods burlesque, the strong whiff of cheap sex, the hokum fading into horror and back again, the Other—the scene is four minutes of New Southern Gothic.
Anna Paquin stars as a human waitress named Sookie Stackhouse. (Because True Blood has no great sense of restraint, everyone pronounces her given name as "Suckee.") She's a sultry reworking of Bram Stoker's Mina Harker—a virgin waiting to emerge as a minx. An orphan, of course, she has for family but a dim-bulb brother (who devotes his limited intellect to chasing tail) and a spunky grandma (who dodders sweetly in the Hee-Haw manner). Further, Sookie is blessed/cursed to have powers of telepathy—other people's interior monologues are forever crowding her pretty head. True Blood waves away the ridiculousness of this situation with a flutter of its paper fan and yet mines the condition for a few dry jokes. Recounting her personal history to a special new friend, Sookie says deadpan: "I was diagnosed with ADD."
Her interlocutor here is Bill Compton, the stranger who one night glowers into Sookie's section at the local eatin' hole. Finally, some excitement, she flutters: "I've been waitin' for this to happen ever since they came out of the coffin two years ago!" She can't read his thoughts, and, well, it's always attractive to have an air of mystery. Soon the two are rescuing each other from fantastic violence (dispensed by methhead-like hillbillies jonesing for that vamp-blood high). And fantastic violence can lead only one place on a show like this: getting laid. Just as True Blood basks in the sultriness of the fictive South like a Tennessee Williams touring company, it basks in the brutality of sex with the crime-spree shamelessness of a Paul Verhoeven film. Sookie's brother shoulders the burden of this theme. Shoulders it, and addresses it with most other body parts as well. He's caught up in a "rough-sex" subplot featuring erotic scenes that range from the impressively hot to the disturbingly nasty.
Sookie, too, experiences what back in school they used to call the conflation of disease and desire. By the third episode, Bill gets her back to his tastefully appointed nest, where we see his peers, omnisexual and insatiable, lounging around in poses of fashion-ad decadence; and one has picked up a trick infected with what sounds like hep V. But this show is a romance in every sense; it's building tension at a sustainable pace, and the lovers are taking it slow. Cue the chaste scenes of tenderness beneath a light of lunar blue. Watch Bill strain to act like a gentleman: "When may I call on you?" Hear defiant Sookie commit herself to forbidden love: "Who cares what they think?"
True Blood is the work of Alan Ball, famous as the creator of Six Feet Under, the soap opera fatally sunk, week after ponderous week, by the weight of its own pretensions. The new series is just pretentious enough to avoid playing like grindhouse fare, letting its ideas (about race, gender, sexual orientation, what have you) simmer on the artsy-fartsy backburner while blood and lust boil away in the low-culture pot up front. Appetizingly pulpy and yet not at all crass, the series presents a new angle on the phenomenon of shows-so-bad-that-they're-good: It sucks hard and thus plays very well.