‘True Blood’ offers a world where vampires come out of their coffins

Throw the collected works of Anne Rice into a blender, mix in an old Chris Isaak album and a couple of hours of Skinemax, garnish with a tiny Confederate flag and serve it to David Lynch on a Louisiana front porch on a sweltering afternoon.

That’s the feeling you get from “True Blood” (9 p.m. today, HBO), the most remarkable new series to come around in at least a year.

Set in the near future in sleepy Bon Temps, La., “True Blood” envisions a world where vampires have come out of the coffin, so to speak. They’re living among us, out in the open — except for the daylight hours, naturally — thanks to a new synthetic blood, marketed and sold like Red Bull, that gives vampires all they need to survive without any of that nasty human slaughter.

“Six Feet Under” creator Alan Ball uses the series, based on the novels of Charlaine Harris, as a means to address acceptance: It seems vampires have become an organized minority group looking for equal treatment under the Vampire Rights Amendment.

For now, though, the undead are seen as something to be feared (a “God Hates Fangs” sign is prominent), objectified (Hustler claims everyone should have sex with a vampire at least once), hunted (their blood, known as V-juice, acts as a powerful hallucinogen and aphrodisiac) or coveted (a tabloid headline screams “Angelina Adopts Vampire Baby”).

But at its heart, it’s just your typical telepathic-waitress-meets-Southern-gentleman-vampire love story.

Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) has felt like an outsider her whole life, since hearing everyone’s darkest thoughts, whether you want to or not, doesn’t exactly lend itself to intimacy. So when Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), who was born in 1835 and fought for the Confederacy, saunters into Sookie’s section of Merlotte’s Bar and Grill looking like the love child of James Van Der Beek and Bono, she’s fascinated on sight.

His thoughts don’t echo through her head — being dead and all, he doesn’t really have any — and she’s not susceptible to his mind control. They’re a match made in supernatural outcast heaven.

Which makes it even more impressive that as Sookie’s best friend, Las Vegas native Rutina Wesley is able to steal the show with no real superpower other than the ability to make white folks feel uncomfortable.

“Do not snap at me,” she tells a good-ole-boy customer from behind the bar at Merlotte’s. “I have a name, and that name is Tara. And idn’t that funny, black girl bein’ named after a plantation?” He snickers; she turns angry. “Naw, I don’t think it’s funny at all. In fact, it really pisses me off that my mama was either stupid, or just plain mean. Which is why you better be nice if you plan on gettin’ a drink tonight.”

It’s one of several scenes for Wesley — whose resume includes the Las Vegas Academy, Juilliard, London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Broadway’s “The Vertical Hour” and the movie “How She Move” — that explode off the screen. They’re the stuff that Emmy consideration is made of.

“It was something that immediately when I read it, it just sort of spoke to me,” Wesley says of the role. “I just kind of got Tara right off the bat.”

Hers is a deeply layered character. Tara’s flashes of anger mask her vulnerable side, born out of caring for her abusive, alcoholic mother and years of pining away for Sookie’s dim-bulb brother. But then, it’s a deeply layered series as well. Just when you get comfortable with the rhythms of the town’s colorful residents — Bon Temps could hold its own against the likes of Twin Peaks, Wash., or Cicely, Alaska — they start dropping like flies.

“I’m sure that’s at the back of all our minds, like, how long are we gonna make it through this crazy town with these vampires running around,” Wesley says. “But that’s the drama of it. That’s kind of the great part of it. As actors, we don’t necessarily know how far we’re going, so it keeps us on our toes as well. It keeps it fresh.”

Chock-full of vampires, murders and kinky sex — not to mention a flamboyant highway construction worker/short order cook/drug dealer/Internet pornographer named Lafayette — the last thing “True Blood” needs is more help keeping fresh.

It feels like the series HBO has been lacking for years.

“I think,” Wesley says in an understatement, “people are going to eat it up.”

Christopher Lawrence’s Life on the Couch column appears on Sundays. E-mail him at clawrence@reviewjournal.com.

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