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True Blood: Delving into the dark side

06/21/2009 11:07 PM | By Jessica Gelt, Los Angeles Times-Washington Post

The bomb that shattered the living room left carnage in its wake. The floor is slick with blood, tattered bodies litter the room, and an unrecognisable goo stuck to the wall spurts mauve blood.

"I'm gonna ask everyone to clear the set who is not actually dying on it," yells Scottie Gissel, a first assistant director for HBO's hit vampire series True Blood, which launched its second season of sensational gore and undead romance.

True Blood is based on the Southern Vampire books by Charlaine Harris. Alan Ball, who created Six Feet Under and wrote American Beauty, brought True Blood to TV in autumn 2008, where it emerged as HBO's most popular show. An average of 7.8 million viewers were watching each episode by the end of Season 1.

With a fervent fan base, including nearly a half-dozen fan-run websites that HBO actively fosters, True Blood is hoping to prove in its sophomore season that even in the Twilight age of vampire overkill, it can maintain its success.

True Blood takes place in a world where vampires have come out of the coffin, so to speak, aided by the invention of a synthetic blood substitute called Tru Blood that keeps their primal appetites at bay.

Still, prejudice against the undead abounds, with many of the show's human characters motivated by a hate and fear that is as destructive as even the most unrepentant bloodsucker.

Season 1 established the main action: True Blood is set in the fictional backwater town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, where a telepathic good girl named Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) works as a waitress in a raucous bar called Merlotte's.

When a mysterious vampire named Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) comes to town, Sookie falls in love with him. A high body count and muddy graveside sex ensue.

Ball initially read Dead Until Dark, the first in Harris' Southern Vampire series, five years ago. By the time Six Feet Under was filming its final season, he was interested in bringing the books to television.

Ball says the cultural clout of his broodingly dark funeral-parlour drama left critics and the public unsure of what to think of the zany, Saturday-matinee movie serial that is True Blood.

"When people approach me about Six Feet Under, they say, 'Oh my God, that show meant so much to me, I lost my mother last year,'" says Ball. "With True Blood, it's more like, 'Dude, I love your show. It rocks!'"

Ball ignores the prattle of the web. But he says he's coming to appreciate the fevered devotion and lively debate among genre fans.

"One of my assistant directors is from Texas, and during hiatus she was there with some of her girlfriends. One of their husbands came up and said, 'Thank you for that show, because every Sunday night we all have the best sex we've had in years,'" Ball says.

"I feel like although the show appeals to all kinds of people, the real die-hard fans are not teenage boy sci-fi geeks, they're women."

Tosha Shelton, Kasandra Rose and Ollie Chong, the women behind the fan site, agree, saying they rarely interact with male fans.

The trio, who all have master's degrees and a healthy awareness of the enterprise's goofiness, met online through an HBO forum, but have never met in person; they live, respectively, in Georgia, Michigan and Ontario, Canada. When asked what attracted them most to the show, they giggled over thousands of miles of phone lines.

"OK, should we all say our favourite character together, ladies?" asked Rose.

Chong started counting, "One, two, three," before the women yelled in unison, "Bill Compton!"

Bill: handsome, manly gait, antebellum-era manners and age, and a self-tormenting appetite for human blood. As played by Moyer, a charismatic British actor, Bill is an honourable man imbued with an untouchable darkness.

Given that at its very core the vampire genre is about forbidden romance and the thrill and appeal of the unknown, it is little wonder that misunderstood Bill has come to dominate the hearts of fans with, as Moyer blithely puts it, "a healthy feminine side".

Moyer says that he and Paquin were in England when Season 1 aired, so they never got the chance to watch it.

In the real world, the pair live together. They kept their romance a secret for 10 months before coming out with it on set; its inception was aided by the fact that during filming for the pilot, "HBO very stupidly put us in the same hotel," says Moyer.

He knew that True Blood was building a fan base but didn't realise the scope of it until someone sent Paquin a shirt emblazoned with the words, "Bill's Babes".

"She was like, 'I'm the original Bill's babe,' and she would occasionally wear the shirt around the house," says Moyer.

Shortly after that, he discovered another group of devotees called Moyerettes.

Clans of character-obsessed viewers aren't the only windows into the restless soul of eternal vampire love. Chat rooms, forums, podcasts, Twitter feeds created by fanatics masquerading as "personalities" from the show, Facebook pages, show recaps, detailed factoids and shared-interest camaraderie are all part of the parallel universe that breathes life into True Blood.

Within the world of the show, there is plenty to latch onto.

"The show is really heavy duty," says Rose. "It's good and evil and confusing the two, and then looking at the important topics of today, like the gay issue, and women being promiscuous or not. It looks at everyday things, but through a very dark lens."

Since the show contains plenty of references to oppressed outsider groups, it is easy to conclude that it represents one of those moments in history when a piece of pop-culture ephemera taps into something greater than itself.

Ball says some fans may have been drawn to the series as the US was coming out of the Bush era because it was a time that was "about institutionalised demonisation of all kinds of groups".

Although those deeper topics are definitely present, he says, the show, its fans and its creator are primarily concerned with campy glee.

"I needed fun," he says. "Six Feet Under was a really gratifying emotional and artistic experience, but it's hard to spend five years peering into that existential abyss. This one is just fun. It's so much fun."

Paquin thinks so too. Walking around the set in a dirt-and-blood-stained white coat and high heels, her shiny blonde hair matted and fake glass sticking out of her legs, Paquin hugs the crew and visitors and jokes about how fabulous she looks.

"People fear what they don't understand, and are quick to judge what's not like themselves," she says. "But I don't think there's ever been a time when tolerance and acceptance hasn't been relevant."

What fans are responding to, says Paquin, is the fact that True Blood is an "exciting, big-concept, plot-driven, really high-class soap opera".

And like any good soap opera, Moyer says, no matter how you chew on the show's politics, it all really comes back to sex. Biting, specifically.

His dark eyes glittering with mischief, Moyer adds: "There wasn't a hole there before and there's a hole there now.

"It's sexy. There's no getting away from it. If you want to scrape away at it, scrape away, but it's really sexy stuff."

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