Fangs for the Memories: Shades of Buffy in Ball’s True Blood

frey 3 Fangs for the Memories: Shades of Buffy in Balls True BloodWhen people talk about HBO’s new drama True Blood (airing Sunday, Sept. 7, at 9 p.m.), they’ll inevitably refer to it as “Alan Ball’s vampire show.” That’s accurate, of course. Mr. Ball, creator of the late, lamented funeral-parlor drama Six Feet Under, has indeed made his new series, based on a series of novels by Charlaine Harris, about vampires: living among us like refugees, trying to fit in. There’s blood and fangs and graves and everything that comes with the undead; there are people in their thrall and others—many, many others—who would prefer they climb back into their coffins. But to boil True Blood down to that single element is to miss the best thing about the show: It’s a love story, and a Shakespearean one at that.

Our Juliet is Sookie Stackhouse (a grown-up, blond and enchanting Anna Paquin), a Louisianian waitress with a talent for telepathy. (Yes, there aren’t just vampires here, but also a chick who can read minds.) She moves through the world hearing thought after random thought of each person she encounters, from the male customers who fantasize about her rack as she serves them fries, to the boss who’s in love with her, to a co-worker who worries she’s pregnant. It’s a lot of noise. Her power has made it impossible for her to have a relationship—she can hear every lewd idea, and she is after all a Southern lady—and has also made her behavior erratic enough that everyone in town thinks she’s a nut.

Bill Compton, our Romeo, is a 173-year-old vampire who wanders into Sookie’s restaurant one night. Played by the dreamy British actor Stephen Moyer, Bill is broody, intense, sultry; he’s still wearing his Civil War-era clothes, and sticks out like the new punk kid in high school, all pale and shaggy-haired and stylish. Sookie goes wild.

A genuine oddball, she is thrilled that her town has its first vampire. (There’s a cute subplot that involves her asking Bill to speak to her grandmother’s Descendants of the Glorious Dead club. He obliges.) And when she enthusiastically approaches Bill’s table to take his order, she also realizes that for the first time in her life, she can’t hear anyone else’s thoughts. Finally: inner peace. Meanwhile, he has found a woman not only unafraid of him but weird enough to accept him. They are instantly bonded in their freakiness and spend a lot of time staring closely at each other. It’s chaste, romantic, electric. And dangerous. When they do kiss, it’s a scene right out of Buffy: When he’s turned on, Bill’s fangs come out, and the kissing has to stop.

There’s still a lot of sex in True Blood—dirty, kinky, violent sex. Everyday women become Fangbangers, hookers for vampires, taking cash in return for a vein and a fuck. (Vampires don’t need to feed on humans thanks to the invention of Tru Blood, a synthetic liquid made by the Japanese, but the real stuff still tastes better.) Humans actually seek out V-juice—vampire blood—to drink themselves; it heightens the senses, makes food taste better, makes sex outrageously good. Mr. Ball has captured the sultry, heated, musky feel of the Deep South as well as anyone else who’s tried recently. (Remember Wild Things? We do!) Though we do wonder if people in that region really are horny all the time in real life.

But he’s taking a risk with this show that we fear is akin to the one David Milch took with John From Cincinnati: going weird, and supernatural, and asking a lot of viewers to do the work of seeing what’s underneath the surface. He’s also crammed True Blood full of X-Men and Mutant X stuff: There’s an American Vampire League advocating for equal treatment under the law, and a Vampire Rights Act in Congress. Sookie’s best friend, Tara, a hyper-smart young black woman (she’s reading Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine while working at the Super Save-A-Bunch), is obsessed with whether Bill’s family owned slaves; the president of the Vampire League argues that at least vamps never detonated nuclear bombs.

We get the politics: Vampires are the new disenfranchised. But we’ve seen that before. What we haven’t seen, in a long time—since the early seasons of Buffy, in fact—is a show about forbidden love. Call us romantic, but star-crossed lovers never get old.

hfrey@observer.com