HBO's vampire dramedy "True Blood" returns Sunday night for a second season of gore and guts and breasts and buttocks. The action may take place in the South, but the show itself is truly set in a place called Premium Cable.
Creator Alan Ball ("Six Feet Under") continues his more or less faithful, though highly elaborated and extended, adaptations of Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse novelsCharlaine Harris', which tell the story of a telepathic waitress, her undead beau and various other libidinous friends and monsters in the Louisiana swamp town of Bon Temps. (Cajun French for "Sunnydale," in a way.) The special conceit here, which is a good one, is that the recent invention of synthetic blood -- marketed as a kind of nonalcoholic beer for the blood-addicted, in one of the many metaphors that flit around this tale -- has allowed vampires to "come out of the coffin" and join mainstream society.
Just as the first season covered the territory of the first Sookie book, "Dead by Dark," the second follows the lines of its sequel, "Living Dead in Dallas," though with even more additions and alterations. Whereas Harris' novels are all written from Sookie's point of view, the series spreads its attention among several characters, and the material has been twisted and inflated to feature them. There are a lot of characters, and they need things to do.
These changes are controversial among Harris fans -- as is Anna Paquin's wide-eyed performance as Sookie -- but they are, as television, generally for the better. Indeed, the fleshed-out secondary characters have better material than do Sookie and her vampire Bill (Stephen Moyer), who labor under the burden of replaying for the umpteenth time the forbidden love between the living and the dead, the light and the dark. Beneath it all, he is just another one of those good-bad-but-not-evil boys whom good girls have been bringing home since even before the leather jacket was invented, or the Shangri-Las formed, or Buffy met Angel.
I was not particularly a fan of the first season, which seemed to me unfocused and ponderous, and not so much frightening as graphically unpleasant. And though there was textual authority for the copious nudity and the heavy breathing, there is something tiresomely inevitable about the way HBO sells sex.
But the first four episodes of Season 2 strike me as an improvement. Some of it is just a matter of tone. Ball had dressed Harris' talky genre novels -- a mix of horror, mystery and Harlequin romance -- in some worn old threads, the country folk being a shade too gooberish and the vampires subscribing to a whole goth-metal-S&M-biker thing that made it seem as if they were taking their style cues from humans who take their style cues from vampire movies.
Still, many series take themselves too seriously out of the box. I took it as a good sign that scary senior vampire Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) first appears this season in the middle of having his hair cellophaned. And I accept as a welcome bit of irony that Bill himself says at one point (I paraphrase possibly), "I'm a vampire, I'm supposed to be tortured."
Ball's most notable addition to Harris' cast is Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll), the teenage girl Bill turned into a vampire under duress at the end of last season, and who, having come to live with him, has brought out his inner Brian Keith, much to the good. (At the same time, she's the only vampire whose pain you feel.)
Jessica also gives Paquin a new playmate and new attitudes to play, her best friend (the excellent Rutina Wesley) and her lovelorn, shape-shifting boss (Sam Trammell) being occupied elsewhere with mysterious strangers played by Michelle Forbes and Ashley Jones.
Meanwhile, Sookie's lunkheaded hunk-of-beefcake brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten), who last year was getting high on vampire blood, is off in another sector altogether, having been seduced into the anti-vampire Fellowship of the Sun, a rather too obvious riff on the Christian right. (Survivors of the '60s know, however, that it is indeed a short step from acidhead to Jesus freak.) Kwanten seems to be playing his reformed character as a young George W. Bush.
And drug-dealing, sex-selling gay cook Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) is chained up in Eric's basement, but at least he isn't dead, as he is from Page 5 of "Living Dead in Dallas" -- a smart move too, as Ellis is one of the best things about this often frustrating but not unlikable show.
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)