Sunday bloody Sunday

True Blood
(HBO, Sundays, 8pm)

“Don’t you dare get morally superior with me,” says Amy Burley (Lizzy Caplan doing a fair-to-middling Zooey Deschanel impression) to a fat, gay, TV-addicted vampire she holds prisoner. “I am an organic vegan, and my carbon footprint is miniscule.” Later, she drains a thimbleful of his blood and trips in a semi-hallucinogenic, quasi-orgasmic state.

It’s the year two-thousand-something-or-other, and the world’s vampires find themselves in unfamiliar territory. A Japanese company has created synthetic blood that is real enough to sustain their bodies, and many leave hiding to live among humans — “mainstreaming” — essentially outing the whole race. Others are perfectly content to live as before, huddling in orgiastic nests, preying on those who have a compulsive curiosity about sex and death (basically everyone).

Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) is a waitress at Merlotte’s in Bon Temps, Louisiana, a small, backwoods town that, despite the national hubbub, hasn’t seen a single damn vampire. That is, until Bill Compton comes a-calling. His appearance — coincidental or not — unleashes a torrent of hot vamp sex and cold-blooded murder, with Sookie or her brother Jason usually at the center.

Paquin isn’t great, but there’s enough going on to ignore her mediocrity. As could be expected from a show about outcasts, the heart of True Blood lies at its periphery, among the gallery of freaks that populates the ensemble cast. Ms. Burley for example. And Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis), the gay line cook slash prostitute slash vamp-blood dealer.

Creator Alan Ball, a critically beloved (Six Feet Under, American Beauty) and, more recently, critically ambivalent (Towelhead) storyteller, has always put sex at the center of his work, specifically the push-pull of repression and liberation. Here he trends far, far toward the side of liberation, diminishing the push-pull and making True Blood feel occasionally tensionless. He’s also usually preoccupied with death (Six Feet Under was a five-year odyssey into it). Here he’s obsessed with it.

Taboos, though, whether they be about sex or death or death sex lose their power to bewitch and shock once they’ve been broken. After that it’s just soap opera. It’s the inching toward to the line that makes us consider our moral queasiness with certain behaviors and points of view. True Blood has been compelling for the strangeness of the story, but the more frequently any piece of art breaks and re-breaks cultural prohibitions, the less sexy/scandalous/thought-provoking it gets.

By most accounts, the books True Blood is based on fall into this trap, with author Charlaine Harris blowing her scandal load early in the series and compensating by endlessly trying to one-up herself, adding ever odder fairytale creatures (vampires give way to shape-shifters give way to werewolves give way to were-tigers!) and crushes for Sookie. I’d expect a storyteller like Ball, with proven restraint and nuance in matters like sex and death, to be able to draw more queasy humanity out of these situations. As season one winds down — with the discovery that Merlotte is a shape-shifter, among other less-than-scandalous admissions — that doesn’t seem to be happening. It has some teeth, but True Blood’s bite is hardly vampiric.•


Top Chef The show that seeks a balance between the art-for-art’s-sake-ishness of Project Runway and the foul-mouthed culinary brio of Hell’s Kitchen enters its fifth season. (Bravo, Wednesdays, 9 p.m.)

Heroes One of my favorite new shows of 2006, Heroes got seriously lost in season two. Rumor had it Tim Kring had ordered a return to simplicity, but then last week the network fired two writers for their inability to control the spiraling plotlines. Not good. (NBC, Mondays, 8 p.m.)

Inside the Actors Studio Though it’s hardly appointment viewing, and it’s gotten less relevant in its 14 years on television, James Lipton’s show is still one of the few places actors talk frankly about craft. (Bravo, Check Listings)

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