‘True Blood’ HBO’s next great tribe

Aug. 05, 2008 | 5:58 p.m.
HBO's 'True Blood' stars Stephen Moyer and Anna Paquin

Snap Judgment: “True Blood” (HBO, airs Sept. 7)

As a genre, vampire tales are pretty long in the tooth — the “modern” idea of undead bloodsuckers dates back to the 1700s and before that practically every civilization under the sun had moonlight marauders who drank from the soft neck of humanity. But, hey, when you have a great premise, why not take one more bite?

I took a long plane flight east yesterday and made two important discoveries. One, is that US Airways now charges for coffee. (Dinging people for carry-on bags, maybe I can understand that, but for coffee?) The second revelation was “True Blood,” the new HBO series that premieres on Sept. 7.

I got an advance copy of the first two episodes from HBO and the show is simply fantastic. It’s the handiwork of Alan Ball, the Oscar-winning writer of “American Beauty” and the creator of “Six Feet Under,” and he will be asked a thousand times between now and the first episode whether he considers himself in competition with “Twilight,” the big vampire romance film on the dark horizon.

I have a suggested answer: “The Sopranos” came on the air a few months before “Analyze This” hit theaters in 1999 and a lot of people assumed that the little HBO show would suffer by going against a big film that, at first glance, seemed way too close for comfort, plot-wise. Hmmm. How’d that turn out?

This show, like every great HBO series, tracks a complicated tribe beset by the world around it, be it a Jersey mafia family, Utah polygamists, a quartet of single women in Manhattan or Depression-era carnies in a Dust Bowl war of good vs. evil.

This time the tribe members are vampires and the people who love them, all living in the not-too-distant future. Instead of villagers with torches, this time around the hordes at the castle gate are from Jerry Springer’s America where groupies (“fangbangers”) covet vampires for their sexual prowess and cruel-eyed poachers try to catch them, drain their blood and sell it as the ultimate vitality drink.

Anna Paquin stars in HBO's 'True Blood'Vampires have a fascinating jumble of roles here: They are pariahs, junkies and predators, but mostly they seem like disaffected rock stars, tired of the hunger they see in the eyes of “fans” and their own joyless need to feed their own appetites. What’s that line by U2? “You’re a vampire or a victim, it depends on who’s around…”

One of the main vampires seems so old when surrounded by the cloying, needy humans that I flashed on an image of Keith Richards stranded at a college keg party, too weary to talk but too thirsty to leave.

Ball, who was born in Georgia, goes back to the Deep South here by setting the show in Louisiana. The land with such a long history of mosquitoes and bigotry seems perfect for the morality play Ball has in mind.The gothic history of New Orleans is major color on his canvas, but “True Blood” is very much of the moment. Katrina and Blackwater are dropped into the dialogue, as is one especially delicious sight gag: A tabloid newspaper with the headline “Angelina adopts vampire baby.”

I don’t want to say too much more about the setup, but in essence the creation of an artificial blood-drink (“True Blood,” hence the title) has allowed vampires to go semi-public or, as one character puts it, “come out of the coffin.”

They hit the talk-show circuit and argue that they are the victims of bigotry. The star is Anna Paquin (right) (“The X-Men,” “The Piano”) who portrays a young woman who is not a vampire but is accustomed to feeling the hunger of others — she’s a telepath and hears every leering thought of every Bubba who walks into the Bayou bar where she works. The only “silent” person she meets is a vampire named…Bill. (One of her many great lines: “Bill? I thought it might be Antoine or Basil or, like, Langford maybe, but Bill? Vampire Bill?”)

I could go and on about the show but I don’t want to give away too much. The Times has me in Toronto today to interview Trent Reznor of the Nine Inch Nails, a fellow who knows quite a bit about the color black, vampire people and the city of New Orleans. I’m going to hand him my copy of “True Blood,” perhaps we can get a guest review from him as the show comes closer.

– Geoff Boucher

Photos: Top, “True Blood” stars Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer. Right, Paquin. John P. Johnson/HBO

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