The bomb that shattered the living room left carnage in its wake. The floor is slick with blood, tattered bodies litter the room, entrails dangle from the ceiling and an unrecognizable mass of goo stuck to the wall erratically spurts jets of 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 launches into its second season of sensational Gothic gore and lusty, undead romance next Sunday. (Viewers will see the scene of explosive destruction that Gissel is stage-managing late in the season.)
On this sunny afternoon, the cast and crew work in overdrive on a gloomy, fog-soaked soundstage at the Lot on Santa Monica and Formosa. They labor with the assuredness of a project vindicated. After getting off to a rocky start critically last fall, "True Blood," based on the books by Charlaine Harris and created by Alan Ball, who created "Six Feet Under" and wrote "American Beauty," steadily built its audience to emerge as HBO's most popular show in recent years, with an average of 7.8 million viewers watching each episode by the end of Season 1.
With a fervent fan base, including nearly half a dozen fan-run websites that HBO -- in a forward-thinking approach to managing public opinion -- actively fosters, "True Blood" is hoping to prove with its sophomore season that even in the "Twilight" age of vampire overkill, it can maintain its success.
Unrest hits undead
"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 helps keep 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 gruesomely destructive as that of even the most unrepentant bloodsucker.
Season 1 established the main action: "True Blood" is set in the fictional backwater town of Bon Temps, La., 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 doing something with the books on television. Sitting on a couch in his bungalow office on the Lot, Ball says the cultural clout of his broodingly dark funeral-parlor 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, putting one shorts-clad knee up on the couch. "With 'True Blood,' it's more like, 'Dude, I love your show. It rocks!' "
Ball tries to ignore the prattle of the Web. (He used to Google himself before realizing, "I could just be enjoying life and I'm trolling the Internet to see what strangers think of me.") But he says he's learning more about, and 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, laughing. "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 truebloodnet.com (which HBO helps secure interviews for -- Rose was even taken on a guided tour of the show's set), 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 favorite character together ladies?" asked Rose. Then 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 honorable 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."