ALAN BALL, seeking a break from the stress and high expectations that had accompanied the winding down of the high-profile series he created for HBO, the existential, darkly comic “Six Feet Under,” set in a Pasadena funeral home, was just looking for a light, entertaining diversion three years ago when he started
reading Charlaine Harris’s “Southern Vampire” mysteries.
“It was such a romantic, sexy, scary, hilarious world,” he said of Ms. Harris’s best-selling goth-romance tales about a small-town Louisiana waitress with psychic powers who finds herself caught up in the culture of modern vampires who had “come out the coffin,” as she writes, after the invention of a Japanese synthetic blood product (TruBlood) allows them to survive without having to feast on humans.
Although they still do, of course. The books are full of neck biting and bodice ripping, steamy nights, blood lust and Spanish moss. There are werewolves, shape-shifters and an assortment of undead characters, one of whom may or may not be Elvis.
“I just looked forward to every moment when I could sit down with the books and sort of lose myself in them,” Mr. Ball said. “I think after ‘Six Feet Under,’ which was so much about people wrestling with their own mortality, I was just ready for something that was a little more fun.”
Mr. Ball persuaded HBO to let him adapt the novels into “True Blood,” a much-anticipated series that will begin on Sept. 7, starring Anna Paquin as Sookie Stackhouse, the telepathic waitress, and the British actor Stephen Moyer as Bill Compton, her vampire lover.
Since the end of “Six Feet Under” in 2005 and “The Sopranos” last year, HBO has been struggling to find a series that will match the cachet and ratings those shows generated. “John From Cincinnati,” which began after “The Sopranos” finale, was positioned to fill the void but fizzled. And the recent avalanche of Emmy nominations for AMC’s “Mad Men,” which HBO passed on, has only underscored its the relatively buzzless lineup.
HBO is clearly hoping that “True Blood” will fill that void and has devoted months to an aggressive marketing campaign featuring fake vampire Web sites (like trubeverage.com and bloodcopy.com), billboards and television commercials for the Tru Blood beverage. (“This blood’s for you.”)
HBO executives point to “True Blood” when insisting that their network is about to return to the spotlight. “It delivers on all the reasons why people love a television show,” said Sue Naegle, who took over as president of HBO’s entertainment division in April and has been charged with helping the network regain some of the attention that has recently shifted to its rival Showtime for shows like “Weeds” and “Dexter.” “It’s a world that people will understand and is filled with characters people want to return to week after week.”
The advertising, she said, serves to familiarize viewers with the new show’s premise ahead of time. “True Blood,” like the books, is heavy on sex, violence and supernatural beings, all the bright-red forbidden-love metaphors that served Bram Stoker and Anne Rice so well. And the garishness of it all — the fangs penetrating flesh, the surprisingly graphic sex scenes, the sometimes-gory bloodletting — will surely cause a stir among some critics.
Which Mr. Ball doesn’t mind.
“We did a focus group,” he said, during a recent interview on the Hollywood soundstage where the show’s interior scenes are filmed (location shooting also takes place in Shreveport, La.), “and it was great because the women loved the romance and the relationships, and the men loved the sex an violence. And I thought, well, that’s kind of a cliché, but I’m glad. There’s something in there for everybody.”
But as much as he wants viewers to enjoy the visceral thrill of the show, it’s also clear that Mr. Ball sees “True Blood” as a way to engage larger cultural issues, the notion of how we respond to the presence and aspirations of those whose very existence is regarded by many as a threat.
“I love the fact that these creatures are struggling for assimilation. I can relate to that in certain ways,” said Mr. Ball, who is gay and grew up in Marietta, Ga. His work, including “Six Feet Under” and the screenplay for “American Beauty,” has often dealt with the notion that people are not always what they seem. He said he was intrigued by Ms. Harris’s premise that the humans in “True Blood” are at times more threatening than the vampires.
“Certainly it’s very easy to look at the vampires as metaphors for gays and lesbians” he said, referring to a series subplot that involves a Vampire Rights Amendment and a Christian group that considers the vampires to be agents of Satan and wants them all destroyed. “But it’s very easy to see them as metaphors for all kinds of things. If this story had been done 50 years ago, it would be a metaphor for racial equality. “But I can also look at the vampires and see them as a kind of terrifying shadow organization that is going to do what they want to do, whether they have to break the law or not. And if you get in the way, they’ll just get rid of you. So, it’s a very fluid metaphor.”