I was having dinner with a few colleagues last week and without any prompting, a couple of us mentioned still being disturbed/scarred/scared by an image from Tobe Hooper's 1979 adaptation of "Salem's Lot." I suspect more than a few comparably aged readers can make that leap pretty quickly, now, to the scene where a kid wakes up, looks out the window and sees his chum, newly vampiric, hovering out the window, nails scratching the pane suggestively, waiting for him. The rest of the movie is pretty poor, but that image characterized the way I've always liked my vampires. I don't need them to be erotic and I'd prefer they not come out into the light (whether they sparkle or not) and I certainly don't need them to be friendly or even guilty and conflicted. I want them lurking in the darkness, ready to kill and eat. 

It's not that I can't appreciate Bram Stoker or Sheridan Le Fanu. I love my vampire fiction. I just can't get hung up on the idea that it would be great to have a love affair with a vampire or even to chastely date one and take him to prom. 

All of that still probably doesn't have much to do with why I so virulently disliked the corn-pone Southern Gothic theatrics of the first season of HBO "True Blood." No, I've actually made my peace with the idea that for a certain segment of the audience, lusting after tortured vampires is something that happens on autopilot. I was more perplexed by the variably (mostly dreadful) Southern accents, the slathered-on artificial atmosphere and a murder mystery plot structure that conveniently forgot the murders in question for weeks at a time.

"True Blood" returns on Sunday (June 14) night and the first four episodes of the new season are more interesting and just plain scarier than anything that happened last year. Or at least that's the way the episodes played to me. Whether actual fans take that as a sign that this season is going to be extra-tremendous, or that the show is veering off course remains to be seen.

[Review for Season Two, including some spoilers, but probably not all that many, after the break...]

"True Blood" picks up immediately where last season left off, including revealing the identity of the body found at the end of the finale. I'm not going to spoil it, but I suspect nearly everybody will be a little disappointed.

So there's another killer at work in Bon Temps and while last season's killer was a mystery until the finale, most viewers will figure they know who's behind the new gory misadventures within an episode or two. Just because you think you know something in the "True Blood" universe doesn't mean it's necessarily so, though.

Sepinwall's been complaining that not only is Anna Paquin's Sookie Stackhouse too dumb to live, a difficult point to argue given some of the things she dove into last season and some of the circumstances she's already forced this season, but that she's also the least interesting part of the show she's supposedly the focus of. 

There's little doubt that Sookie is an annoyingly reactive character and that despite her supposedly special gifts, she isn't motivated by much more than her lust for Stephen Moyer's bloodsucking Bill Compton. Sookie probably steers the action of "True Blood" less than any other series lead on television. In the show's first season, Paquin got to be surprisingly plucky and sexy, but that surprise is gone, as the character alternates between stubborn and hormonal and rarely goes elsewhere. Moyer alternates between tortured and confused. There's definitely chemistry between the actors, not that I give a hang about anything happening off-screen, but this is yet another of those screen couples where the only reason we know that they have devouring passion for each other is that they keep saying that they have a devouring passion for each other. Beyond the sex scenes, Bill and Sookie barely relate at all. 

An effort has been made to spice up their character dynamic by creating one of TV's most unusual blended families, with Bill and Sookie having to play step-parents to Bill's freshly created progeny, willful teenage vampire Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll). This unexpectedly backfires because Woll is so funny and so sexy and so amusingly awkward that the energy falters in her absence. 

Woll isn't the only supporting character upstaging her higher-billed colleagues, which has always been a "True Blood" problem for me. Sam Trammell's Sam Merlotte has always been too meek and beleaguered for me and it's fitting that his shape-changing gift is limited to transforming him into a likable, unremarkable dog. I've also never had any interest in Rutina Wesley's Tara and not just because Wesley's accent and every-line-of-dialogue-sounds-generically-sassy delivery are irksome. 

The producers have also made a strange choice to take Ryan Kwanten's Jason, a hyperactive firecracker for much of last season, and make him into a simpering child. Jason went through a lot this season, but his push into religious fundamentalism with the anti-vampire Fellowship of the Sun still feels abrupt.

That's a lot of emptiness at the heart of a show. Fortunately, in addition to Woll, many of the other supporting characters are beginning to shine. Getting Alexander Skarsgard's Eric out into different environments beyond Fangtasia works for the character, though I can't be sure if the audience is supposed to become convinced that he's much more interesting than Bill. We also get quality time with Eric's lead minions, played by Kristin Bauer and Patrick Gallagher, which will amuse "Glee" fans. "The Wire" veteran Chris Bauer, whose Andy Bellefleur wasn't even an afterthought last season, finally gets some things to do, as this latest mystery pushes him back to booze. 

The performer most likely to break out with fans, other than Woll, is Michelle Forbes, whose Maryann was introduced at the end of Season One. Even trying to explain Maryann's character would probably invite spoilers, but let's just say that she's powerful and enticing and that Forbes shows both of those sides well.

As the season pushes forward, viewers are treated to more and more insight into vampire subcultures, particularly their power structures and history. Also, the departure from Bon Temps for some investigations in Dallas open the story up in intriguing ways. There was only so long that "True Blood" was going to be able to function limiting itself to Bon Temps and a few vampire friendly local hotspots.

It remains my biggest frustration, though, that series creator Alan Ball and company are still struggling with the overall tone of the show. In many scenes, the actors are playing every heightened emotion with the earnestness of soap opera performers. There's no winking at the audience and the campiness and purple prose are totally unselfconscious.

In those scenes, Ball refuses to let vampirism stand as a metaphor for anything other than undead folks who like to suck blood. That lack of subtext becomes troubling when you get a toss-off joke like a magazine cover advocating "Vamp Marriage" and you're forced to remember that the reach of "True Blood" in no way exceeds its grasp. The producers are content with ample nudity, increased gore, a few minor scares and a cliffhanger at the end of every episode.

But then you have Jason and his religious revival at Church Camp and the mockery of religious fundamentalism and hypocrisy goes broad into sloppy satire. That's paralleled by Maryann's increased sway over the residents of Bon Temps and her hedonistic parties, which attract many of our main characters. The second season of "True Blood" seems eager to comment on different types of zealotry, but it lacks the platform to make a coherent argument. Nor, I guess, would any dogmatic criticism of zealotry be embraced by a fanbase that's perhaps the most dedicated (and obsessive) in the business.

That doesn't stop me from being disappointed at how limited the scope of "True Blood" is. I wish it could be more than just breathlessly erotic or thoughtlessly terrifying, a mindless showcase for heaving bosoms, six-pack abs and gallons of fake blood.

More than the first season, though, the second season has elements that will have me interested in where the storytelling will progress. I want to see how Woll's Jessica either matures or, more likely, goes haywire. I want to know more about Maryann and about Eric and about the vampire and supernatural hierarchies. I'm curious to see if there's a payoff for Jason's conversion, or if it's just more lampooning of the uber-faithful. Knowing some of the new characters and actors who will be joining the show late in the season, I'm looking forward to that as well. And just because I don't love (or even like) the show as much as some of y'all do, doesn't mean I won't keep watching and waiting for something to strike me in that primal way I was impacted by the vampire boy at the window in "Salem's Lot." 

It could still happen.

"True Blood" returns on Sunday, June 14 on HBO.

 

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