They say you must learn the rules before you can break them. Alan Ball served his time writing Six Feet Under, a dry TV drama about how life is a long, slow rehearsal for death, and American Beauty, an achingly earnest film about middle-class angst. You’d expect his vampire drama to be pained, drained and pretentious.
It’s not. True Blood is a lusty wade through our darkest desires; a salty mess where the supernatural mingles with explicit sex and violent death in the sultry Deep South; the sort of shamefully addictive titillation that’s just what you need on Friday nights in summer.
We’re in Bon Temps, Louisiana, a no-horse town where the hicks have just got even more gossipy and fearful: having hidden for centuries, vampires are now “out of the coffin” and coexisting with mortals, thanks to the invention of synthetic blood that means they don’t have to bite humans. They still do bite humans so this bit doesn’t make sense, but programmes that make sense can contain dull moments, and True Blood avoids dull moments.
Anna Paquin is Sookie, a virginal barmaid who’s also telepathic. (Hell, why not?) Sookie’s life revolves around: her brother Jason, a demented hussy who’s defined by his sexual conquests but has a deflating fear of vampires; her snappy best friend Tara, who’s in love with Jason; and Sookie’s apparently innocuous boss Sam, who’s in love with Sookie. Before long, everyone’s slept with, longed for or lusted after everyone else. Or killed them.
Sookie’s life changes when dishy vampire Bill (Brit actor Stephen Moyer, whose perfect vampire look and imperfect accent suggest he got the part by simply sending in a photo) starts wooing her in a glowering, Heathcliffy way. Whereas other vampires are insatiable sex machines – adventurous humans sleep with them for the ultimate thrill, their bars are wild goth/fetish joints, and their blood is sold by drug dealers as a sort of unpleasantly strong Viagra – Bill is a quiet, principled, “yes, ma’am” sort of guy, who fought in the Civil War.
Their swoony romance, with Bill generally saving Sookie from the sweaty, screaming peril she’s in at the end of most episodes, is the most sensible element of True Blood. It doesn’t hang together at all – although the vampires’ outsider status leads to some vague stuff about discrimination, we don’t linger on it – but it’s got a wicked, weird, David Lynch sense of humour, and every episode has something to leave your jaw agape. Drink it in.