'True Blood' Returns, Wackier Than Ever

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The vampires of True Blood are about to meet their fiercest foes yet: their own fans. Yes, the dawning of the True Blood backlash is upon us. The show has had it too good for too long. The starving sharks were circling Ugly Betty by halfway through its second-season premiere. The same can be said for Lost and Desperate Housewives. Glee didn't even make it through its first season before the dissenting voices had grown from a modest murmur to a howling mob. So how is it, then, that True Blood is going into its third season (which premieres this Sunday) having largely avoided critical and fan pushback? Its pedigree should take some of the credit, what with being a creation of Alan Ball and having premiered on HBO while it still retained much of its Soprano 'n' McNulty cache. But I'd postulate that True Blood has stayed ahead of its critics by remaining in motion at all times, and being as willfully bizarre and, if you'll allow, batty as anything on the dial.

The story doesn't slow down for a moment. Consider that the star-crossed love affair between telepathic mortal Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and brooding vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) has been hurtling with nary a "three days later" jump of which to speak. Not even 24's breathless pace compares with True Blood, which doesn't even bother to let its narrative breathe between seasons. Each episode builds to a cliffhanger—many of which involve a shrieking Sookie—which bleeds right into the next episode. Even after publicly swearing off the second season, I watched it all the way through, mostly because of Michelle Forbes's feral, game-for-anything performance as big, bad Maryann, but also because it's just so darn frantic. Beyond that, True Blood is absolutely the weirdest popular show out now, and possibly the weirdest popular show ever. By that, I don't mean that it's a genre show; Buffy and Angel stayed relatively grounded. True Blood vibrates at a level of inspired wackiness so high that its consistency is hard to determine. Intellectually, I know that I'm suffering from tonal whiplash multiple times per episode, but it doesn't feel that way. Why? Because there's so much WTF distracting me from such pronouncements.

The show hasn't always been this way. When True Blood premiered, it was still building its world. Back then, it was a far more laid-back but still ambitious show: simultaneously a love story between a girl and a bloodsucker, a killer-on-the-loose whodunit, and a delightfully unsubtle allegory for gay rights. But it ramped up the crazy in a hurry in season two, thanks in part to some fugue-state orgies wherein townspeople cut off their fingers for a laugh. That kind of crazy is what people now tune into True Blood for, and more of the same can be expected from season three—which are out there, if perhaps not quite as fever-dream freaky as season two. (The line "I'm in no mood for lesbian weirdness tonight" ranks among the most mundane in Sunday's premiere.) But on the heels of a boffo second season, more of the same won't be enough to stave off the cries of "it's not as good as it used to be" that all ambitious, successful television shows are subjected to at some point. The audience is going to split down the middle, between those who still love it like they always have and those who have grown weary. It's all part of the weathering process of television shows, wherein the best ones emerge stronger and more consistent. But the getting there won't be pleasant. Fans, prepare for a bloodbath.