After long months punctuated with little teases from HBO, True Blood launched its third season Monday night and showed just why it is an addictive water cooler show. The show is an unabashed soap, but a soap with strong writing, many strong actors and just enough of a social conscience peeking through the fun to give it some heft. Not that Ball leads with the social conscience. Instead, he takes delight in raising all kinds of stakes (heh), including the one asking his actors to be comfortable with nudity. Very comfortable—and his audience is not complaining, especially since this season's involves more Skarsgard and fewer citizens of Bon Temps.
Season three picks up almost exactly where season two left off, which means the writers have some 'splaining to do in regard to some of the actors' haircuts (Hoyt and Eric seem to have run to the salon for a quick look update), but also means we can easily pick up with the regular characters. In some cases, that's all to the good, and in others, it raises a few red flags. And the first red flag for me is Tara (Rutina Wesley).
In season one, I liked Tara very much. I liked her sass and take no prisoners attitude. She made me laugh, even though she clearly had a trunkful of issues, starting with her alcoholic mother. But by the end of season two, I was very tired of Tara. It's difficult to look forward to a character you spend an inordinate amount of time wishing you could tell to wake up and smell the coffee, especially when the character goes from sassy to whiney. It's not that the writers have failed to set Tara up for feeling badly, but I've lost sympathy for her. And I didn't care for Eggs and therefore am not devastated at his death, so I will have limited patience watching Tara scream at her friends and make stupid decisions. With any luck, her story line will take a left turn and we get something resembling season one Tara back. Right now, I'm hoping Lafayette (Nelson Ellis) gets a lot more screen time for his own story, rather than Tara's.
Lafayette is one of the best arguments for Ball following his own muse rather than strictly following Charlaine Harris's books (Jessica is the other). Ellis makes him an addictive delight and I was happiest with his story when he oversteps himself and calls Pam "hooker." Lafayette plus vampires is a winning combination and I hope we see a lot of him as the V investigation unfolds.
That investigation is the most successful of all the various story set ups. For one thing, it showcases Kristin Bauer van Straten's promotion to series regular and the actress proves that in her case, more screen time is a good thing. Pam's brand of sexy sarcasm plays well with every character with whom she comes into contact, most especially her maker, Eric. Their relationship is difficult to pin down as they bicker, tease and spar, but still show they care about each other. Pam's frustration with Eric is a new note in the show, but one that fits the situation as she realizes her maker may be losing control of a very dangerous game.
The V trafficking scandal brings back the Queen of Louisiana (Evan Rachel Wood) and the Magister (Zeljko Ivanek). Ivanek, always a compelling actor, is excellent as the urbane but chilling top dog in the North American vampire hierarchy. Season three seems poised to give us a good look into vampire politics and they lean more to the earthy than the fey. The Magister is unamused at the idea of a vampire deciding to push vampire blood on the black market, either unaware or unconcerned with the big picture issues of turning vampires into desirable commodities to humans. Queen Sophie-Anne is much more focused on her bank account and seems to believe she can snow the Magister with little effort.
This time around, Wood has trimmed the worst excesses of her performance as Sophie-Anne, which makes her much more effective as the Queen. I did not find her jarring, but I still felt that her delivery of her lines was so unconvincing that the Magister would have to be an idiot not to know exactly who was behind the V trade. Perhaps that was deliberate, so I am withholding judgment on Wood's performance for a while. At the moment, though, I still have no idea how this vampire could ever have gotten the position of Queen.
I had no such issues with Alexander Skarsgard's performance as Eric. Skarsgard is the strongest actor on True Blood and he is able to find and play many different levels in anything Ball throws his way. In his first scene, he is all sexy confidence as he flirts in the buff with Sookie while absorbing her news that Bill has been kidnapped. We soon realise he was in fact taken aback and very upset at the news, partly because he had his own designs on Bill and partly because Eric cares very much about his position as sheriff and feels the conflict of interest he has in regard to Bill's safety. The actor really takes control of the screen in the scene with the Magister and Sophie-Anne, during which we watch Eric weigh his options on how to approach the Magister while subtly letting Sophie-Anne know how upset he is at the turn of events. Sophie-Anne is a lot less subtle in her reaction, as she literally grabs Eric's balls to make her point. Eric, however, reacts with a snarl, and the scene is set for some very complicated power plays as the vampires try to escape the Magister's tightening noose.
Bill has his own need to escape, as he has been kidnapped by what appear to be V-addicted werewolves. We still don't know who's pulling the strings, but Bill has plenty to deal with as it is, and fortunately, we see a much more badass Bill than at any time last season. In season two , Ball pulled Bill's fangs as he tried to label Bill as the good vampire and Eric as the bad one. These kinds of labels do not make for compelling drama and Skarsgard got the better deal as Stephen Moyer tried to make lovelorn Bill compelling. Separating Bill from Sookie has already improved the story for both characters, as they each decide to take control and do something about the kidnapping. Anna Paquin is a strong actress and it is more than time we saw a strong Sookie. And it was beyond delightful to see Moyer and Sam Trammell playing with Sam's attraction to Bill, with Bill actually getting away with the line, "I hear the water is very hard in Arkansas." Ah, True Blood, how I have missed you.
Bill's kidnapping does more than allow Bill to kick some butt and deliver kick-ass lines. It also allows Sookie and Sheriff Bud Dearborn to have a disturbing conversation on who is allowed to claim personhood. The episode is such a hoot of a good time it comes as a shock to hear the sheriff refuse to look for Bill because he isn't a person. Sookie's heartfelt response that she cares as much for Bill as Bud does for his family is a reminder that labels do much more than name. They also include or exclude and the price of exclusion is huge. As usual, this kind of social commentary is subtly done and doesn't derail the fun while giving the show some depth.
Jessica's story line continues this dual exploration. The excellent Deborah Ann Woll beautifully portrays the angst and awkwardness of the teenage years as Jessica tries to handle heartbreak and hunger on her own. Our little baby vamp manages to make killing her supper both funny and full of pathos, no small feat.
I'm less sure that Ryan Kwanten is going to manage as well in his story line. Full disclosure: I didn't care for Kwanten's Jason Stackhouse in the first season. He had a dramatic part and I wasn't pulled in as he tried to evade a murder charge of which he was innocent, though I do admit to laughing out loud at the poor guy's, uh, engorged, reaction to an overdose of V. In season two, Ball brought out the comedic side of Jason and I grew very fond of the character. He was a hoot. Now I'm just a little concerned Jason is heading for another dramatic turn, and as another murder suspect, no less. Jason works best as the slightly dim but earnest font of homespun and addled wisdom whose dick always seems to be out of control. And "Bad Blood" offered us a good deal of that Jason, seasoned with a good dose of the always perfect Chris Bauer's Andy. I'm just a little wary of where that story thread may lead.
I found Sam Merlotte's part of the story to be just the opposite. I'm sure it will go to very interesting places, but the most exciting thing to happen this episode was the sex dream with Bill. Sam Trammell has already shown himself to be capable of pulling off both comedic and dramatic storylines—he was the best thing about season two's finale—but "Bad Blood" didn't get very far with his season three set up.
And that brings up my final red flag for season three. There are several new hires this season and the promos have made most of them look very intriguing. With an already large cast and only an hour to tell the story, the writers will have to work hard to service all these characters. There will be little room for dead wood, so we'd better see Sam's quest pick up steam quickly and Tara get some of her sass back. I have faith and am counting down the days to next Sunday.