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'True Blood' runs through Alan Ball

The TV series' creator works for a perfect blend of humor, horror and poignancy. It appears to be working.

July 18, 2010|By Gina Piccalo, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Stephen Moyer is baring his fangs like he means it. Over and over and over again. In character as the 173-year-old vampire Bill Compton, the star of HBO's campy drama "True Blood" is hovering midair, poised for a real throw-down.

Fans won't see this scene for several more weeks, so revealing the bizarre and complex events that have led to it would only spoil the fun. In this densely plotted series, which recently garnered its first Emmy nomination in the drama series category, each episode is so revelatory that HBO has built its own wiki to help fans keep up. So far, 11.7 million of them are up to the task, tuning in each week for what show creator Alan Ball calls the " 'I can't believe I'm watching this' moments."

On this massive West Hollywood soundstage, the mood grows tense as Moyer's flying rig repeatedly sends him swaying ever so slightly off his mark. The crew eventually pulls it together. And to his credit, Moyer is believably vicious every time. After all, in the "True Blood" universe, the timing of a "fang bare" can make or break a scene.

Soon, everyone is off to the commissary for lunch, trailing that subtle air of self-satisfaction that comes with working on an Emmy-winning hit HBO show. It's evident in Ball's stride as he meanders around in his red lumberjack shirt, like a burly and beloved maestro. It's there inside Evan Rachel Wood's trailer where the elegant vampire queen Sophie-Anne perfects her undead pallor with a bit of powder, quipping, "It's fun being evil." It also lingers in Moyer's own wry observations over a plate of sausage and peppers. They all seem to know they've pulled off yet another spectacularly weird season.

"We do things that you've never imagined," said Moyer, his fingernails still stained red with fake blood. "I love it. The darker, the odder, the weirder, the better for me."

"True Blood" is the cable network's biggest hit since "The Sopranos." Its success has transformed child star Anna Paquin from a brooding indie darling to the leggy blond telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse, whose on-screen love affair spilled into real life when Paquin and Moyer got engaged. And it has cemented Ball as the creative hero of HBO.

In two years, the show has inspired a sort of grown-up answer to the "Twilight" phenomenon, albeit one with a good sense of humor and buckets' more blood. Its fans might be equally ardent though — a panel devoted to the series at last year's Comic-Con International in San Diego was brimming with hundreds of devoted viewers lining up to query the cast and crew, and this year an even bigger crowd is likely to turn up for a late Friday afternoon session at which Ball, Moyer and a handful of other actors are scheduled to appear.

The show, inspired by Charlaine Harris' bestselling "Southern Vampire Mysteries" novels, came at a precarious moment for HBO. In fall 2008, the cable network had ended two Emmy-winning series, "The Sopranos" and, earlier, Ball's "Six Feet Under," and endured an embarrassing fumble by passing on "Mad Men" for the disappointing "John From Cincinnati."

At the time, Ball was looking for a project with levity after five seasons ensconced in the existential milieu of the Fisher family's funeral home. He stumbled on Harris' novels in a Barnes and Noble in 2005 and devoured all her books. But the series had already been optioned for a film. So he waited a year until it expired and snapped up the rights, convincing Harris that the epic material was best suited to TV.

HBO executives embraced the idea solely "because of the creative vision of Alan Ball," said Michael Lombardo, the network's president of programming. No one predicted this gothic Southern satire populated by goblin ladies, werewolves, vampires, "fang-bangers" and shape-shifters would have such broad appeal. But it ultimately became what Ball likes to call "popcorn for smart people."

"This is not a show that just appeals to younger viewers," said Lombardo. "It appeals to men, women, almost all age groups. It's sexy. It's exciting. And it has the ability to feel dangerous and funny at the same time."

Just last month, HBO announced a fourth season of "True Blood." And as Lombardo eagerly pointed out, there's no dearth of material. If Ball kept pace with Harris' novels, the show could go on for a decade.

For his part, Ball has been circumspect about whether he'll stay after his contract expires next year — he just sold a pilot to HBO based on Charlie Huston's 2009 novel "The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death," and that project certainly will demand his time and attention. Still, he said, "having this much fun in your job is rare. And I know it. I don't know if that's something I would necessarily walk away from."

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