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Entertainment & Arts

TV viewers eat up ‘True Blood’ vampires, ‘Walking Dead’ zombies

Late in the third season of HBO’s sexy hit series “True Blood,” aggrieved vampire king Russell Edgington (played by Denis O’Hare) walks onto the set of a news broadcast and rips the spine out of the unsuspecting anchorman on air. Clutching dripping viscera, he stares into the camera and tells the viewing audience just how dangerous his kind can be. In case anyone hadn’t gotten the message.

Over on AMC, the populace is threatened by an equally terrifying menace: roving masses of zombies. “The Walking Dead” brought the apocalypse to Atlanta and a record-high viewership to the cable outlet, with roughly 6 million people tuning in for the finale of the first season.

The undead, it seems, have us all in their clutches.

“‘The Walking Dead’ is really just a survival story, but it’s more interesting than any other survival story because there’s flesh-eating monsters all over the place and they’re trying to get you,” said writer-producer Robert Kirkman, whose comic book series of the same name was adapted by Frank Darabont into the gory television show.

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Genre-inspired programming has been a television staple since the medium’s infancy, but with “True Blood” and “The Walking Dead,” Oscar-caliber filmmakers are gleefully embracing the best of what fantasy and horror can offer to tell compelling stories — and they’re winning over droves of mainstream viewers, and even some critics, in the process.

“True Blood’s” Alan Ball, who based his show on Charlaine Harris’ bestselling Sookie Stackhouse novels about a telepathic waitress (Anna Paquin), believes that ABC’s confounding drama “Lost” was among the first to really change commonly accepted thinking about the shape and contours a genre program could take.

“Lost” found acceptance — and 10 Emmy Awards — in a way that eluded series like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Battlestar Galactica,” shows with devoted followings that were championed by tastemakers but never managed to break out much beyond cult fandom.

Actors and writers involved with “True Blood” and “The Walking Dead” chalk up this new acceptance to several things, including a general fatigue with the glut of hospital dramas and procedurals. They also point to the rampant instability in the world right now — the apocalypse is the zeitgeist, misguided predictions about the rapture notwithstanding — and that is feeding the desire for escapist stories that help viewers channel their anxieties.

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“A lot of people are pretty overwhelmed and feeling despair with loss of work and the state of the economy and the loss of home value,” said “The Walking Dead’s” Sarah Wayne Callies. “I think in the face of that kind of a thing, which can feel like a personal apocalypse, there’s a real sense of people trying very hard to be the best people they can be even as the world is crumbling down around them.

“The story of a group of people who are in a sort of analogous situation is interesting and yet because of the element of the genre and the fantasy it is far enough removed from our daily lives that we can watch it without being cut to the quick by it in an immediate way,” she added.

“True Blood” star Stephen Moyer says there’s plenty of deep metaphor lurking underneath the eye-candy gloss of his show too, though most people come to the series for other reasons. “Sex, drugs, blood, comedy, suspense,” Moyer said, enumerating the qualities that hook viewers. “One of my favorite quotes is that television is chewing gum for the eyes — ours is like chewing gum with acid in it.”

“There’s a lot of hot people for people to be attracted to and fantasize about,” Ball added. “There’s a fun layer of social commentary, it’s romantic, sexy, it’s violent. It’s a big grab bag of entertainment goodness.”

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Deborah Ann Woll, who plays good Christian girl turned conflicted adolescent vamp Jessica on the series set in the fictional town of Bon Temps, La., doesn’t discount the sex appeal of the “animalistic” creatures on her racy show. But she also points out that some people, herself included, just enjoy being scared.

“Nothing gets under your skin so much as something that scares you,” Woll said. “Things can make you cry, they can make you laugh, but if it really scares you, it got into your core in a way that very few other things can.

“Sometimes what’s really cool about doing genre work, at least for me, if we can scare you and get into your middle with that, then we can talk about something that might be interesting or thought-provoking,” she added. “You can use this genre in a really strong way to get inside people’s minds and try to open them.”

gina.mcintyre@latimes.com


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