Characters at odds in sixth season of HBO's 'True Blood'

Before talk turns to the current season of HBO's sexy vampire drama True Blood, and the way co-star Kristin Bauer van Straten has turned sarcastic vampiress Pam into a scene-stealing, three-dimensional picture of need and denial over five seasons, there's a question the actor must answer.

Was she really the "man hands" girl on Seinfeld back in 1996?

"I'm very proud of that," said Bauer van Straten, 46, who played a beautiful woman named Gillian with huge, masculine-looking hands on a date with Jerry Seinfeld in the episode titled "The Bizarro Jerry."

"I see Jerry Seinfeld probably once every five years by total chance; I should just walk up to him and say, 'Hi, I don't know if you remember me, but I'm man hands.' . . . He's very, very sweet."

The actor cuts a completely different figure as Pamela Swynford de Beaufort, a ruthless, fashion-forward vampire she once described as a "stylish serial killer with integrity."

Once so negligible to the story that she was hired on a week-to-week basis, Bauer van Straten has seen her Pam become one of the show's central characters, revealing that her tough attitude conceals a burning love for the bloodsucker who turned her into one of the undead, powerful vampire sheriff Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard).

She's also working an edgy, profane role that thankfully undoes years spent playing "nice pretty blond girls" on shows such as L.A. Law, Everybody Loves Raymond and Two and a Half Men. According to Bauer van Straten, the opportunity came thanks to a revolution in television, as more adventurous fare and bigger stars have migrated to the small screen.

"When I started in television 18 years ago, there were television actors and there were movie actors; it was exceedingly rare there would be any crossover," said Bauer van Straten, whose early roles included parts in mid-1990s series such as Columbo, Lois and Clark: The Adventures of Superman and Silk Stalkings. "Now, the studios are owned by huge corporations and we're seeing a focus on the huge superhero movie, which pushes powerful producers and stars to at least expand into TV. The names and talent and freedom we have in TV was what you saw in movies when I started."

True Blood remains one of the best examples of Bauer van Straten's words, a story about vampires, werewolves, faeries and humans bouncing off each other in the fictional Louisiana town of Bon Temps, developed from the novels of Charlaine Harris by Alan Ball, an Oscar-winning writer for the 1999 film American Beauty.

Even though it has been among HBO's most popular series for years, True Blood hasn't gotten nearly the recognition of more critically acclaimed HBO series such as The Sopranos and Sex and the City.

In part, that's because the show has been more creatively uneven than those other programs, filled with love triangles, plot twists and clunky allegories (vampires as oppressed minority; anti-vamp zealots similar to homophobic, conservative Christians, to name two).

It also seems True Blood's own appeal can work against it. Filled with loads of explicit sex involving very attractive actors, the series can be disregarded as a parade of bizarre plot twists and stranger sexual situations — particularly by those already inclined to take so-called "genre" shows less seriously in the first place.

"We've got a few things working against us in that department," said Bauer van Straten. "People with their shirts off, sex, beautiful people, blood . . . I look at some of my castmates and see all the great acting they're doing; everything that any actor does that can get nominated for an Emmy."

As the show's sixth season opens tonight, True Blood finds its primary characters in very different places.

Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), the courtly vampire who once dated the show's half-faerie heroine Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), has consumed the blood of a legendary vampire and emerged as something of a blood-sucking superman, immensely powerful but unsure of how to use his new abilities.

There's a sense the show has thrown together its central love triangle of Sookie, Eric and Bill (along with Joe Manganiello's musclebound werewolf, Alcide) so often that any new romantic combination is mostly exhausted — and exhausting.

That leaves the door open for supporting characters such as Bauer van Straten's Pam to shine. Originally a lover and then close partner to Eric for more than 150 years, she and the sheriff co-own the vampire bar Fangtasia.

As this season starts, the pair are at odds after Pam discovers Eric has a sister he never revealed to her and the show's characters face a threat from Bill they are unsure how to negotiate. Eric is dismissive and angry, which only infuriates Pam more — a great range of emotion for a pair who once had been so close nothing came between them.

"There's so much pressure on them, and they're each trying to solve the problem in their own ways," said Bauer van Straten, who is still filming episodes and isn't quite sure where their relationship ends this season. "Eric, from the viewpoint of an old Viking and also being a man, is not the greatest communicator. I love Eric and I'm upset that he's not trusting me. That's a deep feeling we can all relate to."

Throw in an uncertain, same-sex relationship with Sookie's best friend and newly turned vampire Tara, and you have the makings of a volatile, interesting set of relationships, set against the typical apocalyptic supernatural threats that often loom over Bon Temps.

Once upon a time years ago, True Blood heralded the start of the summer TV season. It was a slower time, when the occasionally interesting cable series punctuated a vast wasteland of network TV reruns and sporting events.

These days, summertime is when TV explodes with content, as an increasing number of cable channels and online sites offer unique video content, forcing broadcast networks to become more aggressive to avoid losing audience permanently.

It may be tough news for TV programmers, but it's heaven for experienced actors like Bauer van Straten, who has seen an opportunity to turn a one-note character with no history into a complicated, damaged woman with a past as a turn-of-the-century madam and cynicism born from more than a century walking the earth.

"Up until Season 4, I could throw on whatever I wanted and go to the store. No one cared," said Bauer van Straten, laughing. "After Season 5, I made sure I got a shower and put on something halfway decent. I can really feel that I'm no longer anonymous, which is amazing."

True Blood's sixth season begins tonight at 9 on HBO.

best bites

Dozens of new and returning series are offering fresh episodes throughout the summer. It's a tidal wave of brand-new television that could overwhelm even the most devoted small screen junkies — if you don't have the right guide.

They're not always the best shows — most of those still air in fall, winter and spring. (The TV industry still assumes many people go on vacation or spend time outside in summer, cutting into viewership.)

But they are worthy of consideration at a time when most folks' TV viewing habits have a few open spots. Here are a few of the most interesting.

The Fall

Available now on Netflix: Star and X-Files alum Gillian Anderson is who draws you in, playing a beautiful, detached British policewoman brought to Belfast in Northern lreland to help investigate a murder that has local police stymied. But this British TV series is really built around the slowly unfolding case of a serial killer who stalks and fetishizes young brunet women, executing his crimes so carefully it takes the expert eye of Anderson's character to realize what's really going on. The material here is too explicit and kinky for any U.S. TV outlet other than premium cable, complete with lots of f-words, nudity and painfully explicit murder scenes. What really captivates here, beyond Anderson's spot-on accent (imagine, an American playing a Brit for a change!), is the intricate portrait of a family man and serial killer, along with the dysfunctional police department struggling to catch him.

Wilfred

Returns at 10 p.m. Thursday on FX: As one of the weirdest comedies on TV, this story, featuring Lord of the Rings star Elijah Wood as a guy who sees his dog as a talking 6-foot guy in a costume, may be the most bizarre second act for a major movie star in Hollywood history. The show's third season finds Wood's character finally considering seriously that seeing a talking dog might be a sign of mental illness — duh! — only to learn that his canine pal, Jason Gann, right, has a clone living in luxury with The Office alum Angela Kinsey. Told you it was weird.

Copper

Returns at 10 p.m. June 23 on BBC America: Created by Tom Fontana (HBO's OZ, Homicide: Life on the Street), this series excels in showing the rough, hardscrabble reality of life in New York's Five Points area just after the Civil War — a time when police officers were so corrupt, inept or callous, they could be virtually useless. But one "copper," a detective who taps a young black doctor to help use science in solving crimes, stands a cut above. In this season, character actor Donal Logue, left, takes a break from roles on Sons of Anarchy and Vikings to play Gen. Brendan Donovan, a former Union soldier and public official whose ties to the corrupt Tammany Hall city government are sure to become a problem.

Under the Dome

Debuts at 10 p.m. June 24 on CBS (WTSP-Ch. 10): The first hour of this 13-episode miniseries, based on Stephen King's sprawling novel of the same name, spends so much time setting up its story, it's tough to know if the narrative is really going anywhere. As in the book, the small Maine town of Chester's Mill is cut off from the rest of the world by a strange barrier; sound, water and objects can't pass through it, but light can — allowing folks on both sides to see what happens when a small town is cut off from the outside world. Breaking Bad's Dean Norris, above left, plays what initially seems a tamer version of the book's villain, town selectman "Big Jim" Rennie. The biggest problem in adapting King's work to TV and film is that so much of the suspense comes from how the author renders what characters are thinking. And this miniseries' first hour shows signs of stumbling over that same pitfall.

Dexter

Returns at 9 p.m. June 30 on Showtime: In the final season of Showtime's signature serial killer drama, an obvious question looms. How do you wrap up the story of a serial killer who has cheated death and capture so many times? A clue may lie in the manner of his latest escape: Michael C. Hall's forensic technician Dexter Morgan avoided capture last season when his sister killed her boss, Capt. Maria LaGuerta, a police official who had deduced his secret. How she breaks down after that act — and how it impacts Dexter's secrets — may be the key to the final season's story line.

Ray Donovan

Debuts at 10 p.m. June 30 on Showtime: Liev Schreiber (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), left, is magnetic as towering, pragmatic Hollywood fixer Ray Donovan, a guy who makes dead groupies disappear from sports stars' hotel bedrooms and ensures film moguls' mistresses aren't cheating on them. But his biggest fix may have involved his murderous father Mickey, played by a note-perfect Jon Voight, who emerges from jail after Ray set him up for a 20-year sentence. Capable of cold-blooded murder in an instant, with a taste for voluptuous black women, drugs and criminal action, Mick threatens to upset his son's precarious life, already filled with a wife, two brothers and kids all capable of staggeringly bad personal choices.

Characters at odds in sixth season of HBO's 'True Blood' 06/12/13 [Last modified: Thursday, June 13, 2013 8:29am]

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