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HBO's 'True Blood' tackles new demons in third season

If it feels like you're drowning in vampires on TV and in movies these days, Rutina Wesley suggests you blame one source above most others.

Wesley is the fearless, emotive actor who plays the ever-troubled Tara Thornton on HBO's R-rated vampire drama True Blood. And she suspects the show's September 2008 debut presaged a deluge of bloodsucking reinventions: from the tween heartthrobs in the Twilight movies and the CW's Vampire Diaries to the blood-starved, world-dominating vamps in Ethan Hawke's film Daybreakers and the twitchy suburbanite ghouls of ABC's new summertime drama The Gates.

"I feel like we sort of started it up again, and now there's more love out there than ever before," said Wesley, who beat out another, already-cast woman to play the perpetually angry best friend to Anna Paquin's mind-reading barmaid and vampire lover Sookie Stackhouse.

"True Blood is the adult version of the vampire story, where fantasy meets reality," she said, calling from the set last week during a break in production. "Tara is the truth; she tells it like it is, she sees it like it is. And the humans in the story bring that realness, that sense of rawness. Because if vampires were walking around for real, people would lose their minds."

As True Blood starts its third season tonight, Tara is the one most in danger of losing her mind, driven to the edge by grief over the death of her boyfriend, "Eggs" Benedict Talley. Fans will remember that Eggs pushed Sookie's brother Jason into killing him after the psychic revealed that Eggs had killed several people while under the thrall of a supernatural being called a Maenad.

This was one of the simplest story lines in an explosion of oddball stuff in True Blood's neighborhood of Bon Temps, La. — a steamy bayou town where vampires walk about openly, ostensibly sated by a synthetic blood concoction that gives the series its name.

The flood of action last year — from a militia-style camp of fundamentalist Christians bent on killing vampires to the suicide of a 2,000-year-old bloodsucker — cemented the series as HBO's second most-popular ever, drawing an average 12.4 million viewers per episode last season (just behind the Sopranos, which drew an average of about 13 million at its peak, according to Forbes).

And this season, Sookie and her friends must deal with another undercover supernatural legend:

Werewolves.

As Sookie struggles to find her kidnapped vampire love Bill Compton (played by Paquin's real-life fiance, Stephen Moyer), she meets up with men who can transform themselves into snarling, wild dogs — including a hunky beast-man named Alcide. In True Blood's universe, people are not what they seem.

"This season is about identity; every character is going to struggle with identity," said Wesley. "We're all sort of looking for how we fit into the world, who we are and what we are. Tara, in particular, is very unstable right now. She's a survivor . . . you're going to see her really fight this season and struggle to love herself."

In modern entertainment, vampires have become irresistible metaphors. Twilight presents bloodsucking as an analogue for losing virginity and coming of age in a dangerous world, inspiring boatloads of tween fans in similar straits. ABC's The Gates offers vamps, witches and werewolves all living in the same protected suburban enclave, struggling to bury their feral natures to fit in with unwitting humans.

But True Blood finds fuel in the struggle by a cadre of twisted characters to be authentically themselves in a world where putting on a facade is safer — but ultimately less fulfilling.

"(Creator) Alan Ball has talked about how the show is about the terror of intimacy," said Julie Wilson, who used the pen name Becca Wilcott while writing Truly, Madly, Deadly: The Unofficial True Blood Companion, a book packed with episode guides, analyses and interviews with fans who assume the characters' identities on Twitter.

"It feels like we can't live in an inclusive society until we actually see each other for who we are," added Wilson, who sees many of True Blood's story lines as a metaphor for the outsider's struggle for acceptance, especially regarding gay issues. "For me, the appeal of True Blood is that every person has that one, core attribute that they have to keep putting out there. It's like the coming out process; you don't come out once, you keep coming out, over and over, to the world."

This season, the series explodes with action from the very start. As Sookie begs Bill's vampire rival Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard) to help find her love, Eric resists the human caring she stirs in him, preferring to wear the mask of a brutal enforcer. (Ladies pay heed: There's also a scene where Eric reveals much more physically, interrupted in a certain act by an insistent Sookie.)

Bill finds himself caught between the vampire queen who rules Louisiana and her rival, the king of Mississippi. Shape-shifting bar owner Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammel) tracks down his long-lost family, only to realize perhaps he shouldn't have bothered. And Tara falls for another questionable man, this time a charismatic vampire named Franklin Mott (James Frain), who has more than a passing interest in Bill.

It's an enticing smorgasbord of possibilities for the actors, especially Wesley, who plays a character light-years removed from the Tara Thornton that author Charlaine Harris created for the popular Sookie Stackhouse novels, which inspired True Blood.

In the novels, Tara is a white woman who owns a clothing store. Onscreen, Wesley's Tara is a proud black woman neglected by an alcoholic mother, and her race affects almost every scene she's in (one scene this year features an argument between Tara and a white friend, which goes badly when the white woman plays the race card, then blames her ex-friend for "always making things about race").

Wilson sees Ball's injection of race as another way to expand the show's themes, building a complex, existential meditation on the frailties of humanity. Wesley sees a simpler message: Life is pain and fleeting joy, which makes for great TV drama.

"There's a lot of fans who would like Tara to be happy and have that dress shop," Wesley said. "As an actor, I'm saying it too: 'Can she please have some happiness?' But that's not Alan Ball, and that's not good television."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at blogs. tampabay.com/media.

TV WATCH

True Blood

True Blood returns for its third season at 9 tonight on HBO. Grade: A+. Rating: TV-MA (Mature Audiences)

HBO's 'True Blood' tackles new demons in third season 06/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 11, 2010 6:11pm]
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