Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Vampires' charm intrigues

OPINION Just when you thought movies and TV had pretty much sucked the life out of the old vampire schtick, along comes True Blood, last night on Prime, and injects a bit of PC tenderness into the old legend.

Now it's pity the hounded, despised minority. Just because they vant to drrrink your blaaarrrrd, "It's not their fault," says the plucky heroine of this ingenious, sparky new series.

Sure, they're not human, so it's a bit off-beam to talk about their human rights. Sure, they're already dead, so it's a bit iffy to talk about their lifestyles.

Yes, they haven't exactly done mankind any favours, with all that blood sucking, leering and B-movie carry on over the centuries. But, hey, they didn't ask to be born undead.

On the contrary, in the world of True Blood, vampires have been "normalised" into society as an underprivileged minority.

Following the invention of a viable synthetic blood, with which vampires can nourish themselves instead of predating upon humans, the vampire race decided to "come out of the coffin" and integrate openly with the Earth's dominant species.

Alas, so far there has been no Rosa Parks-style breakthrough in the vampire equality drive, and in the Louisiana town that's True Blood's setting, the V-word has about the same effect as the N-word used to a few decades ago.

Not only are vampires feared and despised, but the tables have been turned, with vampires being exploited by humans who make a fetish of having sex with them, and by more sicko humans who have a fetish for drinking vampires' blood, in which there is a gruesome trade.

Our heroine, Sookie - played Golden Globe-winningly by Hutt Valley exile Anna Paquin - is not prejudiced against vampires - especially not when a good-looking one comes into the bar where she waits tables.

His name is Bill - which is a bit of disappointment. "I was expecting Antoine, or something," she giggles.

Bill - sultry Stephen Moyer - is chiselled and moody, and makes Dirty Harry seem garrulous - although dispiritingly, he has the pallor we normally associate with the men from Coronation Street. Sookie overlooks this.

Most importantly, she saves him from exsanguination when he is captured by some V-juice traffickers. She finds these baddies siphoning him of blood in the car park, as if nicking the 95 from the tank of a Subaru.

It's a touching scene, but also a disconcerting one, as clearly, Bill is not the only one here with a supernatural riff going on.

Sookie can read people's minds, which is how she knew the couple in the bar were about to drain Bill. And judging from the way she dispatched the baddies - causing a hefty chain to boa-constrict round a guy's neck all by itself - Sookie herself seems to be not entirely human.

"What are you?" Bill keeps asking her."Ah'm a waitress!" she purrs in her Southern drawl.

Yes, but the kind of waitress to whom it would pay to give a stonking big tip, just to be safe.

If last night was any guide to the show's quality, it'll be well worth sticking with the series to find out what Sookie is and why, and how her romance goes with the 170-year- old undead, pasty dreamboat.

There's also the inevitable serial-killing mystery, which claimed its first body last night, and for which Sookie's hunky but thick brother Jason is the prime suspect.

There's the love triangle - or possibly quadrangle - involving Sam, the nice, non-fanged but possibly still supernatural bar owner, who unrequitedly loves Sookie, and Sookie's hilarious best friend Tara, who is quite mortal, but also mortally rude and offensive, and who unrequitedly loves dopey Jason.

Quite as compulsory as a serial- killing plot in such (otherwise original) American shows, is the cute dog. In this case it's a noble-looking collie that suddenly appears whenever Sookie is in trouble.

In short, this is Buffy or Charmed, only the X-rated grown- ups-only version - and much, much cleverer and funnier.

Even this reviewer, who is easily icked-out by exsanguination scenes, and bored to tears with the vampire idyll, has been won over by the ingenuity and subtlety of this show.

It's not just that the dialogue is sassy and the characters are likeably eccentric. All that is bog- standard with quality American programmes these days, and is the least you'd expect.

The brilliant thing about True Blood is its understated ambience. The story arcs and much of the action are seriously florid, yet somehow it's mostly handled insouciantly.

Weird things happen, and the characters are so matter-of-fact about it, you sometimes wonder if you've heard right. They-at cyewwl Ser-th'n accey-ent shirr hey-ulps.

On the downside, the sex scenes are lurid and protracted, and the inevitable ambience of gore takes a bit of getting used to.

Those who blanch at bad language will find this show at the serious end of offending. But for viewers with the stomach, this is one of the freshest shows we're likely to see this year.