With his new HBO show True Blood, Alan Ball leaves the Southern California dead of Six Feet Under for the Deep South undead with the vigor of a writer grateful for the chance to add swampy textures, supernatural spices and infusions of blood to his trademark recipe of romantic dysfunction. The show, based on a series of tart horror mysteries by Southern author Charlaine Harris, stars Anna Paquin as Sookie Stackhouse, a young, blond bar waitress living in a small Louisiana backwater named Bon Temps. Sookie is a telepathic hottie who feels increasingly isolated by her ability to hear the crude and dispiriting internal shit everyone around her thinks, until a brooding, good-looking lone vampire named Bill (Stephen Moyer) walks into her place of work, at which point she knows her life is going to perk up.
Now put HBO itself in Sookie’s shoes. The network has been wilting under a yammering of critical voices repeatedly saying that its zeitgeist hits are in the past, that its new shows don’t attract anybody, and then ... hello, is that a sexy, blood-lust-heavy vampire series eyeing us? No wonder the brass at HBO were attracted to this show. Bite here on the dotted line, please!
There’s the appeal of the minority metaphor, too. In the show’s setup, vampires are a long-entrenched underclass that have come out of the coffin to assert their right to be mainstreamed into society, thanks to a widely sold, Japanese-created synthetic blood beverage (called TruBlood, which is meant to replace a vampire’s thirst for the stuff coursing through humans). It’s a nifty conceit, but Ball, a gay man raised in Georgia with a keen outsider’s wit, treats this clever bit of sociopolitical mytho-lore as a shading rather than a series manifesto. That’s because he understands that the fun of bloodsucker yarns — as opposed to the gothic lugubriousness associated with Anne Rice’s inexplicably popular books — is in how vampirism tantalizingly blurs lines between sex and vice, intimacy and submission, eternal love and insufferably eternal life.
Which is to say, in the patchwork of relationships that make up True Blood, there’s room for all manner of hothouse duets: the sensual, dare-I-get-to-know-you circling between Sookie, played with bodacious spunk by Paquin, and Moyer’s nicely underplayed 173-year-old gentleman caller; the crush Sookie’s protective boss Sam (Sam Trammell) has for his vamp-curious employee; the lifelong yearning that sharp-tongued bartender Tara (Rutina Wesley) has for her best friend Sookie’s dopey horn-dog brother Jason (a sculpted, hilariously twit-eyed Ryan Kwanten); and, because this is pay cable, the sweat-spraying, pile-driving, friendly fuckathons Jason indulges in with just about every other female on the show. The murder of one of his sex partners, though — a local good-time gal known as a “fang-banger” because of her predilection for vampires — puts the fang-intolerant Jason in the law’s sights (and gives the series a season-long mystery to solve).
Bill, meanwhile, who, in an early scene, is saved by Sookie from “drainers” — rogue humans who steal vampires’ blood for its notorious sensory- and libido-enhancing properties (and, naturally, its black-market value) — is eager to settle down in sleepy Bon Temps, and may get the welcome mat if Sookie’s kind grandmother (Lois Smith) can get her Civil War society to accept a real (if not technically “alive”) veteran of that conflict speaking at one of their functions.
It’s easy to like True Blood, because Ball’s episodic smarts are primal, not at a remove, and he approaches supernaturalism by emphasizing the natural over the super. You can enjoy the show for the lurid twists and offbeat humor, or for its casually engrossing aura of humid menace and emotional wariness, or for the many fine performances. Perhaps most importantly, it gives HBO an effortlessly entertaining potboiler about the allure of dangerous attraction after probably a few too many shows drearily dissecting broken relationships. I liked Tell Me You Love Me, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes it’s good for a highbrow network to bare its pointed teeth, lick its lips and flash a hungry, naughty smile. In other words, Show Me You Want Me.
On the other hand, FX wants what HBO had in The Sopranos — a hot, smart crime-family saga — and has plumbed the dingy rebel magnetism of biker subculture to find it. The result is Sons of Anarchy, an unfailingly coarse yet brashly effective series that burrows into the workings of the titular outlaw motorcycle club, a decades-old, close-knit (all-white, with one self-deprecating Jew) brotherhood and arms-running outfit that operates out of — but basically rules — the fictional Central California town of Charming. As the show opens, the Sons take a major hit from a Latino biker gang called the Mayans, who steal their shipment of M4s and Glocks meant for a black gang in Oakland. The Mayans also light up the Sons’ secret arms depot, and in the wreckage lie the bodies of two dead Mexican women who’d been sleeping with a Sons member. This could bring even more ATF and police heat than the gang is used to, and for grizzled president and founding member Clarence “Clay” Morrow (Ron Perlman), it represents a challenge to the club’s existence, which he wants met with murderous force.
But as with any generational mob tale worth two cents, the real change agent turns out to be in the club’s midst. He’s Jackson “Jax” Teller (Charlie Hunnam, his golden-boy looks finally showing wear and tear), club VP and son of another founding member, a young-ish, dirty-blond hunk whose abiding love for his brethren — their mugshots sentimentally adorning the clubhouse’s hallway like family portraits — masks a growing impatience with all the destructive illegalities. While it could be the newborn son he’s just had with his drug-addicted ex-wife (Drea De Matteo, returning to the junkie-moll fold, it seems), or the return to town of an old flame (Maggie Siff, from Mad Men) who escaped the life, what sparks Jax’s awakening conscience is a secret manuscript he uncovers in a storage box, written by his late father, titled “How the Sons of Anarchy Lost Their Way.” And they said reading was dead.
Creator Kurt Sutter hails from FX’s original good-guy gangster series The Shield, so he knows his way around a show that revels in the thrill of being bad while depicting the gnawing pain of the moral gutcheck. But, taking a cue from David Chase’s late juggernaut, he also knows the strength of a ruthless mother figure, hence Katey Sagal as steely-eyed Gemma Teller-Morrow, whose last name signifies her ties to Jax (he’s her son) and Clay (he’s her husband, and Jax’s stepfather), and whose stealth moves in ensuring her son’s ascension — as long as he stays in line and doesn’t dig up the past — indicate who has the firmest grip on the club’s handlebars. Sons of Anarchy has many of the hallmarks of an FX show — male-identified, foul-mouthed and forever skirting the edge of taste — but in Sagal’s character, considering the sexist history of outlaw biker clubs, it’ll be fun watching this Shakespearean power drama play out in the sometimes undeniably silly world of overgrown boys with vroom-vroom toys.
TRUE BLOOD | HBO | Sundays, 9 p.m.
SONS OF ANARCHY | FX | Wednesdays, 10 p.m.
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes