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True Blood: The Complete First Season

Five discs; HBO Home Video; $59.99

By Michael S. Gant

For vampophiles who found Twilight a bit tame, HBO's True Blood (which aired its first season last fall and starts again in mid-June) offers an amped-up take on young love with fangs. Moving the characters out of high school and into their 20s (or 120s) with jobs running a roadhouse allows for more gore and lots more explicit sex. The resulting mix of humor and shock comes nowhere close to the satirical impact of Buffy the Vampire Slayer but is reasonably diverting, if not as compelling as the best HBO shows. The story, based on Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire series of books, is set in a small swampy Louisiana town called Bon Temps, which allows for plenty of over-the-top stereotypes in accents and behaviors, from roadkill and pecan pie to hoodoo healers and pickup trucks.

Anna Paquin plays Sookie Stackhouse, a twentysomething waitress at Merlotte's bar and cafe. Sookie has the power to hear people's thoughts, a mixed blessing at best. When she meets a mysterious stranger, Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), it's a relief that his mind isn't a megawatt broadcasting station. The reason turns out to be a bit troubling: He's a vampire who was turned during the Civil War. Bill is mainstreaming as part of a growing vampire-rights movement, but some of his fellow vamps aren't so integrationist-minded, which means that Sookie finds herself in lots of perilous situations after she falls in love with Bill. Meanwhile, a serial killer (whether vamp or human is the first season's mystery plot point) is knocking off a large proportion of Bon Temps' residents.

The supporting characters offer significant comic support, since Bill is a bit of a stiff (he is undead), and Sookie can be irritatingly perky at times. Sookie's brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten), makes up in sexual alertness for what he lacks in mental acuity; it's a "mimbo" role that Kwanten milks expertly for laughs. Sookie's best friend, Tara (Rutina Wesley), does not suffer fools lightly, even though she carries an inexplicable torch for Jason. Wesley's tart-tongued young black woman ("My mother named me after a plantation; how fucked up is that?") carries the first half of the season, and it's a disappointment when she starts to doubt her own natural superiority. Nelsan Ellis is equally vivid as Tara's cousin, Lafayette, a gay black prostitute and drug dealer. Eric, the scary head vamp in the region (he runs a club called Fangtasia), is played by Alexander Skarsgard, son of actor Stellan Skarsgard. Sookie's boss, Sam (Sam Trammell), has some supernatural secrets of his own.

The show dabbles in some interesting subtexts with its background TV news shows full of talking heads debating the wisdom of allowing vampires to come out in human society and even get married to humans. The parallels to both gay rights and civil rights (magnified because of the Southern setting) carry some thoughtful weight, although the show's messages can be mixed: these vampires, for the most part, really aren't like the rest of us, by a long shot.

Unfortunately, for every amusing foray by Tara and Jason, the show feels compelled to show off its premium-cable cred with near-pornographic sex scenes. The writing can be downright sloppy. The characters' actions and reactions seem to vary from episode to episode without any thought for consistency or coherence. When the serial killer is revealed at the end, it's not a revelation—the villain's motivations are so artificially prepared for that it could have been any one of a half-dozen suspects. The set includes a fake documentary about vampires and cast commentaries.

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