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‘True Blood’ devotees are thirsty for more

Article on LA Times by Jessica Gelt

HBO Blk-Its HBO logoThe bomb that shattered the living room left carnage in its wake. The floor is slick with blood, tattered bodies litter the room, entrails dangle from the ceiling and an unrecognizable mass of goo stuck to the wall erratically spurts jets of mauve blood.

“I’m gonna ask everyone to clear the set who is not actually dying on it,” yells Scottie Gissel, a first assistant director for HBO’s hit vampire series “True Blood,” which launches into its second season of sensational Gothic gore and lusty, undead romance next Sunday. (Viewers will see the scene of explosive destruction that Gissel is stage-managing late in the season.)

On this sunny afternoon, the cast and crew work in overdrive on a gloomy, fog-soaked soundstage at the Lot on Santa Monica and Formosa. They labor with the assuredness of a project vindicated. After getting off to a rocky start critically last fall, “True Blood,” based on the books by Charlaine Harris and created by Alan Ball, who created “Six Feet Under” and wrote “American Beauty,” steadily built its audience to emerge as HBO’s most popular show in recent years, with an average of 7.8 million viewers watching each episode by the end of Season 1.

With a fervent fan base, including nearly half a dozen fan-run websites that HBO — in a forward-thinking approach to managing public opinion — actively fosters, “True Blood” is hoping to prove with its sophomore season that even in the “Twilight” age of vampire overkill, it can maintain its success.

Unrest hits undead

“True Blood” takes place in a world where vampires have come out of the coffin , so to speak, aided by the invention of a synthetic blood substitute called Tru Blood that helps keep their primal appetites at bay. Still, prejudice against the undead abounds, with many of the show’s human characters motivated by a hate and fear that is as gruesomely destructive as that of even the most unrepentant bloodsucker.

Season 1 established the main action: “True Blood” is set in the fictional backwater town of Bon Temps, La., where a telepathic good girl named Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) works as a waitress in a raucous bar called Merlotte’s. When a mysterious vampire named Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) comes to town, Sookie falls in love with him. A high body count and muddy graveside sex ensue.

Ball initially read “Dead Until Dark,” the first in Harris’ “Southern Vampire” series, five years ago. By the time “Six Feet Under” was filming its final season he was interested in doing something with the books on television. Sitting on a couch in his bungalow office on the Lot, Ball says the cultural clout of his broodingly dark funeral-parlor drama left critics and the public unsure of what to think of the zany, Saturday matinee movie serial that is “True Blood.”

“When people approach me about ‘Six Feet Under’ they say, ‘Oh my God, that show meant so much to me, I lost my mother last year,’ ” says Ball, putting one shorts-clad knee up on the couch. “With ‘True Blood,’ it’s more like, ‘Dude, I love your show. It rocks!’ ”

Ball tries to ignore the prattle of the Web. (He used to Google himself before realizing, “I could just be enjoying life and I’m trolling the Internet to see what strangers think of me.”) But he says he’s learning more about, and coming to appreciate, the fevered devotion and lively debate among genre fans.

Ladies choice

“One of my assistant directors is from Texas, and during hiatus she was there with some of her girlfriends. One of their husbands came up and said, ‘Thank you for that show, because every Sunday night we all have the best sex we’ve had in years,’ ” Ball says, laughing. “I feel like, although the show appeals to all kinds of people, the real die-hard fans are not teenage boy sci-fi geeks, they’re women.”

Tosha Shelton, Kasandra Rose and Ollie Chong, the women behind the fan site truebloodnet.com (which HBO helps secure interviews for — Rose was even taken on a guided tour of the show’s set), agree, saying they rarely interact with male fans. The trio, who all have master’s degrees and a healthy awareness of the enterprise’s goofiness, met online through an HBO forum but have never met in person; they live, respectively, in Georgia, Michigan and Ontario, Canada. When asked what attracted them most to the show, they giggled over thousands of miles of phone lines.

“OK, should we all say our favorite character together ladies?” asked Rose. Then Chong started counting, “One, two, three,” before the women yelled in unison, “BILL COMPTON!”

Bill: handsome, manly gait, antebellum-era manners and age and a self-tormenting appetite for human blood. As played by Moyer, a charismatic British actor, Bill is an honorable man imbued with an untouchable darkness.

Given that at its very core the vampire genre is about forbidden romance and the thrill and appeal of the unknown, it is little wonder that misunderstood Bill has come to dominate the hearts of fans with, as Moyer blithely puts it, “a healthy feminine side.”

Billsbabe t-shirt

Billsbabe t-shirt

Real chemistry

As he leads an on-set tour of Bill’s cryptic, mossy mansion, Moyer says that he and Paquin were in England when Season 1 first aired, so they never got the chance to watch it.

In the real world, the pair are dating and live together. They kept their romance a secret for 10 months before coming out with it on set; its inception was aided by the fact that during filming for the pilot “HBO very stupidly put us in the same hotel,” says Moyer, adding that he knew “True Blood” was building a fan base but didn’t realize the scope of it until someone sent Paquin a shirt emblazoned with the words, “Bill’s Babes.” *

“She was like, ‘I’m the original Bill’s babe,’ and she would occasionally wear the shirt around the house,” says Moyer.

Clans of character-obsessed viewers aren’t the only windows into the restless soul of eternal vampire love. Chat rooms, forums, podcasts, Twitter feeds created by fanatics masquerading as personalities from the show, Facebook pages, show recaps, detailed factoids and general, shared-interest camaraderie are all part of the parallel universe that breathes life into “True Blood” itself.

Within the world of the show there is plenty to latch onto. “The show is really heavy-duty,” says Rose. “It’s good and evil and confusing the two, and then looking at the important topics of today, like the gay issue, and women being promiscuous or not. It looks at everyday things, but through a very dark lens.”

Riding the zeitgeist

“True Blood” premiered just two months before Barack Obama was elected president and Proposition 8 passed in California, effectively banning gay marriage in the state. Since the show contains plenty of references to outsider groups kept down, it is easy to conclude that it represents one of those moments in history when a piece of pop-culture ephemera taps into something greater than itself.

Maybe, Ball says, adding that some fans were likely drawn to the series as the country was coming out of the Bush era because it was a time that was “about institutionalized demonization of all kinds of groups.” But really, he says, although those deeper topics are definitely present, the show, its fans and its creator are primarily concerned with campy glee.

“I needed fun,” he says. ” ‘Six Feet Under’ was a really gratifying emotional and artistic experience, but it’s hard to spend five years peering into that existential abyss. This one is just fun. It’s so much fun.”

Paquin thinks so too. Walking around the set in a dirt-and-blood-stained white coat and high heels, her shiny blond hair matted and fake glass sticking out of her slender calves, Paquin asks the crew and visitors for hugs and jokes about how fabulous she looks.

“People fear what they don’t understand, and are quick to judge what’s not like themselves,” she says, relaxing between takes as tiny bits of fake ash from the explosion settle on her clothes. “But I don’t think there’s ever been a time when tolerance and acceptance hasn’t been relevant.”

What fans are responding to, says Paquin, is the fact that “True Blood” is an “exciting, big-concept, plot-driven, really high-class soap opera.”

And like in any good soap opera, Moyer knows that no matter how you chew on the show’s politics, it all really comes back to sex. Biting, specifically. His dark eyes glittering with mischief, he says: “There wasn’t a hole there before and there’s a hole there now. It’s sexy. There’s no getting away from it. If you want to scrape away at it, scrape away, but it’s really sexy stuff.”

* The Billsbabe t-shirts and other merchandise are sold in our online shop, The Billsbabe’s Shoppe (www.cafepress.com/billsbabe), a non-profit fan shop with the aim to raise money for the Brentwood Theatre in Essex, UK, of which Stephen Moyer is patron.