'True Blood'Three stars
8 p.m., HBO
Vampires will always be popular - there's just something inherently cool about wearing black and sucking blood. The undead are the ultimate in-crowd.
But fang followers may have to start making some painful choices now that vampires have inundated the entertainment industry. Which to watch?
Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are doing what they can to stir up buzz for the second movie in the "Twilight" trilogy. There's talk of a "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" movie remake. And the CW will taunt teens this fall by casting Steve McQueen's grandson in "The Vampire Diaries."
How can blood-suckers set themselves apart?
The second season of HBO's "True Blood" turns up the carnage, the heat and the allegory. If you have a strong stomach and sense of humor, you won't be disappointed.
Last season, we learned that a Japanese corporation has perfected artificial blood. Since vampires no longer have to prey on people's necks - they can get a six-pack of Tru[cq] Blood at the White Hen - they've come "out of the coffin" and are trying to find their place in the South.
Sookie Stackhouse (who has one of the best names in fiction) is part of both worlds. She's a Louisiana bar waitress who can hear other people's thoughts, and is in love with 173-year-old Bill (who has the worst vampire name ever). It's no doubt one of the world's Great Romances -- except they keep getting interrupted by dead bodies.
At the end of last season, Sookie (Anna Paquin) dispatched a serial killer. The good news is that fan favorite Lafayette (Nelsan[cq] Ellis) is not dead. The bad news is that he's chained in a dungeon. Nothing fancy, just a particularly dank basement.
There's more of the mysterious Maryann (Michelle Forbes), who befriends and mentors Sookie's friend Tara (Rutina Wesley). Maryann seems to be something of a paranormal Marianne Williamson, spouting inspirational advice and taking in stray people. Could she be too good to be true? And more important, asks Tara, "Doesn't it seem like she has an endless supply of exotic fruit?"
When Sookie tries to read Maryann's thoughts, they are in some un-identifiable, possibly ancient, language. "Where are you from?" asks Sookie.
"Cape Cod," says Maryann.
There's a lot of fun had with a Joel Osteen-type Texas super-church, which attracts Sookie's nympho brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten). With a murdered girlfriend and a jail stint in his recent past, Jason wants to atone with the Fellowship of the Sun Church, which is virulently anti-vampire. The smooth preacher faces off on a CNN-like show with a representative of the American Vampire League, who is remarkably well-spoken in spite of her fangs.
Lunkheaded but luscious Jason doesn't have a chance with these non-blood-sucking blood-suckers. He thanks the preacher for his book, saying it "really made me . . . um, think?"
Stay tuned at least until the church mixer, when a pop-perfect singer performs her sexy new hit, "Jesus Asked Me Out Today." Her new album's on sale at Walmart!
The writing couldn't be sharper, but for me the series' weak spot is Anna Paquin. Yes, OK, she has an Oscar, but devotees of the Sookie Stackhouse novels say she's nothing like the Sookie they love. I'm not a fan of her awkwardly anxious expressions, or of the faux Southern accent. I was confused about her appeal until Sookie and Bill (Stephen Moyer) had their I-thought-you-were-dead! sex scene. For someone who was a virgin last season, Sookie graduated to soft porn rather quickly.
Like on Alan Ball's earlier series, "Six Feet Under," the smart touches of humor are a much-needed balance for the dark subject matter. Do vampires recycle their plastics? Of course they do. Do they foil their hair? Of course they do. It's a relief to giggle because, believe me -- once you've heard the sound of dismemberment, you don't forget it.