The only thing sharper and sexier than the fangs on True Blood is the writing, and if you've stayed away from Alan Ball's unabashedly Southern-fried gothic drama thus far, allow it to tempt and glamour you with the following description: "Conscience off, dick on, and everything's gonna be all right." Such is the promise not only of Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer), a comically inept local detective, but of the show itself. It takes less than 10 minutes for "Bad Blood," season three's premiere episode, to prove just how good the show is, hurtling out of the lurch of last season's maenad madness and into this year's Nazi werewolves, Mississippi vampire kings, and shape-shifting white trash. If these are stereotypes, they're ones that don't yet know what bit them.
True Blood thrives on cliffhanger endings and sharply swerving storylines, so it's hard to talk about plot without taking away some of the thrill. At the same time, after three years, the core characters are just as enjoyable, to say nothing of their savage bon mots, so perhaps a little indulgence would be just fine. And no worries—though it's the most boring storyline of what has become an excellent ensemble show, there are no spoilers regarding what's become of Bill (Stephen Moyer), save that his telepathic human lover, Sookie (Anna Paquin), is determined to find him, with or without the help of the third leg in their triangle, vampire sheriff Eric (Alexander Skarsgård). Suffice to say, the show is at its best when it's getting busy (sexually, or otherwise), and Sookie, our gateway character, is thankfully over her head throughout most of the first three episodes.
Yes, it's safe to know the show knows what works and what doesn't by now, and they're only pulling out the best bits from Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse novels, and reinventing the rest, which is why fan favorite Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) is still around, juggling his two legal jobs and his bourgeoning career as a vampire-blood drug dealer. That's also why Sookie's best friend, Tara (Rutina Wesley), is once again getting depressed: With those big wide eyes of hers and that often-quivering chin, she's a perfect victim—and on a show like this, the more flaws the merrier. The writers have even found a use for sad-sack bar owner Sam (Sam Trammel), who is tracking down his real family, hoping to learn more about his shape-shifting abilities. As a romantic foil, he can't really hold a candle to the more aggressive vampires, but as a lost puppy just asking to be abused by the vicious wolves? Start sharpening those teeth, boys.
Things have also gotten much better on the comic front, thanks to the terrific growth of Ryan Kwanten, who plays Sookie's irrepressible brother, Jason. He's gone from simply being a clumsy sex addict who keeps stumbling in with the wrong crowd to a man trying to take responsibility for his life. Last season, he attempted to find redemption (only to get sucked into an anti-vampire church); now, after accidentally shooting Eggs at the end of season two, he's having an even harder time trying to figure out how to set things right. Pairing him with Andy, who has become a local hero after taking credit for Jason's shooting (Andy's a cop, so for him, it was legal), helps to bring out his pathos; having him room together with the naïve Hoyt (Jim Parrack) is an even better move, one which makes Jason still seem like the well-off hero. And let's not forget the young vampire Hoyt's still got a crush on, Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll), who, like any other sex-crazed teenager, keeps getting herself into more and more trouble.
Where True Blood runs into problems, though, is in the way it's inflating the cast even more. Last season, it tried to introduce the Queen of Louisiana (Evan Rachel Wood), and while she may be important to the books (or the series) down the road, so far she's simply been a Yahtzee-playing annoyance, and long-term storytelling isn't the show's strong point. The King of Mississippi (Denis O'Hare) faces the same fate in the first few episodes of the season, as do one-note cohorts like Talbot (Theo Alexander) and Coot (Grant Bowler). As much as one hopes that they'll grow as much as the intensely terse lesbian Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten), who started simply as Eric's sidekick, one hopes that the camera will just linger a little longer on her: You can't have too much of a good thing, but you can have too many good things. It's true that many of these new people may simply be the necessary fodder that a blood-crazy show like True Blood needs to keep its real assets alive, but sometimes the episodes feel bogged down with the promise of what's to come more than with the immediacy of what's happening.
That said, the show's still a visceral and visual delight (watch for a neck-twisting sex scene), and one that's filled with colorful and wholly original characters (look out for Alfre Woodard's first appearance). The pacing helps too: With so much going on, it's only a matter of time before the camera cuts to something even more fascinating, something that, given the subject matter, is often shockingly good. True Blood lives up to another one of its character's promises: "I can protect you. Or have passionate primal sex with you. How about both?" Both it is.