Worth more than a lick

The Baltimore Sun

Sookie Stackhouse is a nice young lady who lives with her grandmother and waits on tables in a rowdy roadhouse in Bon Temps, La. She uses expressions like "my stars" and "goodness gracious," even as some of the cruder male customers try to paw her.

Pert and perky, Sookie (Anna Paquin) is the kind of person who puts her hands over her ears when her co-workers talk about sex. She says she wants a "proper life" with a "nice young man" who she insists must treat her "like a lady."

And then one night, a 173-year-old vampire named Bill (Stephen Moyer) walks into Merlotte's Bar and Grill, and orders a glass of red wine. And wham, bam, before you know it, Sookie's laying out back under a tree with Bill late at night, and he's licking blood off her head. And she's loving every bloody second of it.

My stars, indeed. Welcome to the world of True Blood, Academy Award-winner Alan Ball's steamy, sassy, sometimes nasty, but always thoroughly engaging, new HBO drama.

True Blood will probably prove to be too quirky - and sometimes creepy-weird - to be a mainstream hit.

But by the standards of premium cable, it could be the kind of ratings winner HBO has been searching for in vain since The Sopranos ended in 2006. It is by far the best new drama I've seen lately - and that covers most of the new network fall lineup, including J.J. Abrams' much-buzzed-about Fox series Fringe.

The dramatic excellence of True Blood starts with the opening credits. Great series tend to have great opening credits that serve like the overture of a Broadway musical to sound the major themes of the production to come.

Think of The Sopranos and the way in which Tony's car trip each week took us into and through the harsh, urban, East Coast, Rust belt, New Jersey jungle that the mob boss tried to rule. Or, in a lighter vein, think of the brilliant stroll Mary Richards took through downtown Minneapolis before tossing her hat high in the air at the start of the Mary Tyler Moore Show each week.

It's the same thing with True Blood, which opens with a stunning montage of steamy swamps, bloody road kill, dark bayous, snapping alligators, wicked-looking snakes and human body parts - sometimes, whole human beings. The latter are generally shown writhing in sexual and/or religious ecstasy, wrapping themselves around each other in one neon-lit frame, and being baptized in a body of water full of jumped-up congregants in another. And all the while, a seductive voice is singing, "Before this night is through, I want to do bad things with you."

This is, after all, premium cable, so understand that the sex is graphic. When one somewhat-trashy woman confesses to Sookie's super-trashy brother (Ryan Kwanten) that she occasionally likes her sex a little "rough," what follows is fairly hard-core. Pay attention - and not just for the sex. Someone in the scene in going to die, and the murder is going to stir the pot of mystery and suspense.

The series is based on the popular Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris, and the main premise that viewers have to accept is that Sookie's living in the not-too-distant future (everything looks like today) when, thanks to a new mass-produced synthetic blood called Tru Blood, vampires no longer need to feed on humans. While they have come out of the coffin - at least at night - they are still a generally disparaged minority.

In the skilled hands of Ball (American Beauty and Six Feet Unde r), the conceit allows for both deft social commentary and wry humor. While Sookie proudly refers to Bill as "our first vampire in Bon Temps," another character is scandalized (as in shocked-shocked) by "how many people are having sex with vampires these days - especially down in Shreveport."

Another conceit: Sookie is telepathic in that she can hear what other people are thinking. The only time the voices stop is when she's with Bill.

"You have no idea how peaceful it is after a lifetime of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah," she says of their time together.

With her special power and bouncy good looks, Sookie is sure to remind some viewers of The Cheerleader (Hayden Panettiere) on NBC's Heroes, plus about five years.

But it looks from the first five episodes that there is a lot more to this character who calls herself a lady, but loves having that vampire named Bill licking her blood under the moonlight.

True Blood premieres at 9 tonight on HBO

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