THE BEST thing about Alan Ball's new vampire series "True Blood," which premieres on HBO Sunday, is the opening credits. The jittery compilation of unnerving images -- prayer meetings and road kill, ghostly children and swamp scenery -- is creepy, evocative and tantalizing. Unfortunately, it is also utterly unconnected to the show that follows.
For reasons known only to himself, Ball decided to take Charlaine Harris' light, fun series of Southern Vampire Mysteries and turn it into a heavy-handed political fable with vampires, recently rendered "safe" by the creation of the synthetic Tru Blood as stand-ins for the disenfranchised.
At least that's what it looks like he's doing, since early in the first episode, Nan Flanagan, a pretty blond vampire spokeswoman, explains this to Bill Maher with verbiage reminiscent of past civil liberties conversations, most recently those about gay marriage.
As fun as it may seem in these post-Buffy days, it's still dangerous to use vampires as proxy figures for any group other than, say, serial killers, since vampires, by their very nature, desire to suck the living blood out of humans. Even if they are learning to control it.
But vampires are the least of "True Blood's" worries. Borrowing heavily from many genres, "True Blood" aspires to transcend them all but instead quickly deposits the viewer waist-deep in a literal and figurative swamp.
Vampire fantasy, murder mystery, star-crossed love story, political satire, "True Blood" is all and none of the above. Not quite funny, not quite scary, not quite thought-provoking, the show's attempt to question the roots of prejudice is continually undermined by its own stereotyping.
Seriously, isn't it time to stop portraying every small town below the Mason-Dixon line as populated by drunken, racist, testosterone-charged lunkheads? Apparently not. In Bon Temps, the tiny Louisiana town where "True Blood" opens, all the men seem obsessed with booze and sexual assault while their wives quietly devour fried foods and despise them.
We know this because the main character of "True Blood" is Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a telepathic waitress; when she walks through the dining room of her place of employment, she "hears" the mental equivalent of hell on earth. (Is no one in Bon Temps just wondering how they're going to get their kids to stop fighting?)
This hateful babble is offered as one reason Sookie finds herself instantly drawn to the pale stranger who wanders in one night. Not only is Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) Bon Temps' first official vampire, his mind is closed to hers. After years of serving beer to the likes of, say, the trashy couple who kill vampires to harvest their potent "v-blood," a nice, quiet vampire is a definite relief.
Blond and perky, with the signature mix of sass and insecurity of chick-lit heroines, Sookie also comes fully equipped with her sidekick starter pack: Tara (Rutina Wesley), the tough-talkin' African American best friend; Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis), the wisecrackin' gay cook; and Sam (Sam Trammell), the sweet, torch-carrying friend, who is also her boss. They are there to protect her from herself. Despite all she hears, and although her brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten) is the biggest redneck womanizer in town, Sookie still trusts that most people, including the undead, are good at heart.
Paquin strains every acting muscle in her body to make Sookie a Real Girl, but bubbly Southern waif savant -- "that's jest nasty talk" -- does not come naturally to her (or possibly anyone). Her infatuation with Bill is likewise inexplicable -- Moyer is going for a sadder, wiser Heathcliff vibe but winds up just plain mopey, not at all attractive in a vampire.
By contrast, Wesley's Tara is a joy to watch, especially as she grapples with her alcoholic mother, and Ellis' Lafayette is a witty, gritty steel magnolia. It's hard not to wish these two were the leads, though that would mean losing Sookie's beloved Gran, played by the wonderful Lois Smith, who can wring tears from a stone by simply saying the words "iced tea."
Harris' books are mysteries, and a mystery runs through "True Blood." Even as vampires are taking their place in society, someone is murdering the young women of Bon Temps, or at least the young, highly sexually active women. While the standard-issue-stupid Southern sheriff (name of "Bud" and played as straight as humanly possible by William Sanderson) and detective fumble their way through the investigation, Sookie must use her special powers to see who is really responsible, human or vampire.
The social fears that have fueled our fascination with vampires are certainly worth exploring, but it would be nice to have a new take on the whole thing.
From the moment Bram Stoker put pen to paper, vampires have stood for a corrupt ruling class (Count Dracula) and the perils of sexuality (all that sucking).
Stoker was a Victorian, of course, and apparently so is Ball. With all the ills of the world at his fingertips, he still reaches for sex as shorthand for depravity, treating viewers to a variety of nonmissionary sexual positions that often involve bondage. How. Shocking. True to the time-honored code of young-women-who-enjoy-sex-must-die, the gals who engage in same are the first to go.
Much fuss is also made over the sexual prowess of "True Blood's" vampires, which apparently is such that one drop of "v-blood" has the same effect as Viagra, and, of course, women who have sex with vamps are considered trash.
Such references, meant to be provocative echoes of racism, wind up more like cartoonish air horns designed to remind us that this is not just a steamy Southern mystery that happens to involve some kinky sex and vampires. No, no, it's an Important Social Statement about intolerance and the perils of entering the mainstream.
Which manages to take the fun out of just about everything.
When: Sunday, 9 p.m.
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17)
The HBO show is a definite high point for creator Doug Ellin. E2