HBO's hit guilty pleasure True Blood remained sprightly enough in its second season to sate its following, while exploring a neo-religious vampire-hating cult, Grecian mythology in the modern era, Eric's Norse roots, and egregious back-and-forth between doe-eyed Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and her thick-voiced beau Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer). However, it veered from the equilibrium of thrills and trashiness that made its premiere season a runaway success, transfixed more with the soap-opera monster lurking amid Bon Temps while, in the process, losing focus on its darker intrigues for heavier blood-tinged melodrama and overtly-mythological whims. In short, some of its distinctiveness dissipated in lieu of easier gasps and swooning; thankfully, creator Alan Ball and his crew caught wind of the show's overblown misdirects and, instead of just nudging in the right direction, aggressively sink their teeth into exploring its identity -- and the identities of its population. Doing so breathes new life into True Blood, groping it back into place with a fiendishly gratifying mix of harlequin soap and idiosyncratic horror.
The show picks up immediately after last season's cliffhanger, with a frazzled, sharp-dressed Sookie wondering where Bill disappeared to while she contemplated his marriage proposal in a restaurant bathroom -- following what appears to be a struggle at their table, potentially a kidnapping. The crux to a large portion of this season comes in Sookie's hunt for her vampire lover, flocking to area sheriff Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgård) to aid in turning him up, while in tandem we catch glimpses of where Bill's being taken to by silver-packing hooligans that plucked him from his chair. As Sookie searches for her beau, Tara's (Rutina Wesley) struggling with the mental instability caused by her time with the mischievous Dionysus-following maenad Maryann, along with her recently-murdered boyfriend Eggs, while newly-fanged vampiress Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) tries to figure out what to do with a body she's drained on her master Bill's doorstep. And then there's Sam (Sam Trammell), the shape-shifting owner of Merlotte's bar, who discovers an urge to find his birth parents to see if they share the same "curse".
Although the preceding two runs of True Blood rushed along at a brisk pace, the third season kicks it up a notch with few lapses in time occurring off-screen, thrusting the pulpy fang-banging along with an addictive momentum. One of this arc's paramount assets comes in separating Sookie and Bill for a prolonged period of time, allowing the sour taste left after Bill's egregious, raspy "Sookie" whispers to fade into the romanticized rush generated in seeking him out (the writers even poke fun at the meme with a cutely-delivered line between Sookie and her brother, Jason). In fact, forcing Sookie to swiftly use her resources in the human-vampire cohabitating community -- this includes the blood connection between vampires and the ones they've fed on -- reinvigorates the starry-eyed tension that the second season beleaguered. Moreover, the writers have dialed down the ease of Bill and Sookie's romantic connection and, without giving too much away, made it so it's not a downpour of halfhearted breakup-makeup tension. The gravity pulling them together and repelling them apart pushes the envelope with the credence the show can muster, instead of cranking the melodramatic gears in a juvenile fashion.
There's a more tightly-realized presence of danger in this run, a sense of immediacy that the previous season lacked. It introduces the presence of werewolves in Sookie Stackhouse's world -- no, not shape-shifters like Sam, but simple-minded, bloodthirsty werewolves that do the bidding of vampires for the chance to drink their blood. The ones we're made privy to all bow under the command of a deliciously fiendish old Mississippi vampire named Russell (Denis O'Hare) -- the king of his area in the same way Sophie-Anne (Evan Rachel Wood) lords over the Bon Temps region -- whose smarmy charm as he "politely" invites Bill to a multi-course blood dinner will spark grin-inducing chills, both in the dishes served and the manipulative web of words he spins. The den of werewolves underneath Russell's fangs marks a threatening environment for Sookie to weave through in her search, though it's not really compelling on any other level than as a general hazard; the show's creators nail the quick-rush transformations down, but they offer little more than a fiendish mindlessness that hampers the stabs at parallel B-stories coursing through the den, like the romantic arc involving Sookie's werewolf protector, Alcide Herveaux. More visceral thrills propel this season, something Alan Ball and crew needed to rediscover.
Though gore-hounds won't find it envelope-pushing or anything like that, True Blood also spikes its gritty horror elements. Vicious feeding, torture by way of silver chains and piercings, and even macabre absurdity like blood sorbet over a candlelit dinner offers a playful exploration of the show's undercurrent of nastiness, sharpening the show's edge and making it a little more squirm-inducing -- especially during one particularly bizarre, erotically boggling sequence involving Bill and an old vampire acquaintance of his. Quite a few vampires receive the silver-tipped end of torture this time around, though, and the show doesn't shy away from death during this spurt, either. True Blood lets loose some of its wild abandon, and it's undoubtedly for the better. But perhaps my favorite element to come out of this season, oddly enough, is an unhinged vampire named Franklin (James Frain), whose piercing eyes and fierce body language towards the object of his carnal desire can best be described as vehemently obsessive. Every time he goes on his erratic tirades about his violent infatuation with a certain Bon Temps denizen, I couldn't keep myself from laughing uncomfortably at his maniacal energy.
Even as it upticks the visceral rawness for a more vigorous rush of blood, sex, and mythos, True Blood rediscovers the show's true focal strength: unearthing the darker corners of the vampires and humans that populate Bon Temps, and its surrounding areas. Glimpsing into the characters becomes much more fun than tedious this time around; yes, questions receive answers around Sookie Stackhouse's abilities, yet it's tempting to posit that discovering her nature might be the least immediate and intriguing revelation to come out of the season. Looking deeper into Eric's history becomes an intriguing window into the history of the association between vampires and werewolves, as well as a clever look at what's shaped the mentality of one of the series' more introspective, magnetic entities. Sam's search for his family yields some unusual but ultimately gripping results when he stumbles onto his brother, Tommy, a kid with Sam's abilities who's trapped under the thumb of oppressive parents. And Jason's post-cult coping re-centers the character in a position where he has to deal with the awful mistake he made at the end of last season, dragging his need for structure over to becoming an aspiring police cadet.
A lot of other elements erupt in this season of True Blood that are difficult to juggle -- Arlene's pregnancy, Jessica's struggle with her ex Hoyt, Lafayette's budding relationship with a caregiver, and the investigation of illegal vampire-blood sales -- yet Alan Ball and his crew manage it proficiently, and with a clear grasp on keeping things clear and moving throughout the entire season. Moreover, there's a self-aware vision they've formed with the tempered soapy drama and the harsher macabre elements, and it's genuinely exciting as it rushes towards its revelations. Sure, it might be a little loose and fast with some of the characters' motivations and attitudes for the sake of momentum, yet the propulsion behind the pulp masks some of its wilder jumps. It all simmers to a conclusion, however, that seems less-focused and more geared towards a broader-stroked cliffhanger than the season's construction really deemed necessary, on top of leaving us on-edge about the answer to Sookie's paranormal powers. The difference here, as opposed to last season, is that we've been tantalized into an addicting burst of quality from the True Blood crew, and it actually leaves one wanting more this time around.
True Blood: Season Three arrives from Warner Brothers/HBO in a five-disc foldout case that strongly resembles the previous seasons in layout and disc design -- sleek and simple, but fitting. The discs alternate between two and three episodes on each, while an episode listing with brief descriptions can be found on the inner portions of the folds. Watch out for the images/clips that the menus offer, however, because they glimpse at a few faint spoilers that'll detract from one or two surprises.
Video and Audio:
Unlike the premiere season of True Blood, this season sports crisper photography that doesn't lean so adamantly towards grit and grain. Reflected as such through this multi-disc set, the transfers latch onto a lucid focus on the shifting color schemes -- cold, industrial, high-contrast blues and red for scenes around Fangtasia and Bill's house, while a dusty, aged, browning tint dominates sequences around Russell's home and in other locales. The fluctuations in pale and flush skin tones capably shift in standard-definition, while splashes of deep red blood, the sheen of lustrous silver, and the grittiness of a grimy teal-leaning basement offer blasts of highly impressive detail and color swings, often convincingly enough to ease the pangs on not purchasing the series on Blu-ray.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks also assertively present the material in a near-HD fashion, stretching sound effects aggressively to the rear channels and capturing the depth and high-pitched dialogue within a tremendously satisfying range. The slip-out of fangs sharply zips against the face of the design, while the fierce swoosh of fast-moving vampires carries from the rear to the front with thick breadth. Searing of flesh from vampire skin, the clang of chains, and the billow of fire all crop up in this run of True Blood, quite frequently, and the piercing rush that they offer makes for a satisfying visceral experience in between the dialogue-heavy bursts. Rare moments show the limitations of the track, a rough line delivery or a withheld sound effect here and there, but otherwise everything here sounds extremely sharp and satisfying. English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are available by manually toggling during each episode, while French 5.1 and Spanish 2.0 sound options are also available.
Each episode arrives with a traditional collection of specific bookshelf-purposed pieces, including Previous On and Next On for each, as well as the quick Post Mortem blurbs attached to them. Audio Commentaries are available for roughly half of the episodes, which feature varied actors, directors, and other crewmen for each. Most of these commentaries err towards generic, fluffy chatter with only a few glimmers of insight into the episodes' creation, but hearing the varied stars reflect on their experiences remains fairly satisfying on the surface. Tracks are available for the following episodes: "Beautifully Broken", "It Hurts Me Too", "9 Crimes", "Hitting the Ground", "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues", and "Evil is Going On".
Aside from those, there are only a few stray special features scattered across the discs. Anatomy of a Scene (10:32, 16x9) appears on the first disc, which revolves around shooting live wolves in the woods and mixing computer-generated effects to create the quick werewolf "morphing" sequences. Things remain dry until the last disc of the set, which includes several Minisodes (18:55, 16x9) that weave around the curious but ultimately inconsequential gaps in the story arc -- Jessica angrily hunting, Bill shopping for a ring, Eric shopping for a new Fangtasia dancer, etc -- as well as a brief music video from Snoop Dog himself for his True Blood-themed "Oh, Sookie" (2:59, 16x9).
Those who enjoyed the second season will see an ever greater uptick in quality in True Blood: Season Three, honing the adult vampire tale into a more tightly-realized and composed arc. It takes the grandly-operatic Sookie-Bill relationship, breaks the elements down surrounding it into the unique individual components, and reconstructs a bloodier, fiercely-moving momentum that also glimpses deeper into the intriguing characters. The quality's strong enough here, in fact, that folks off-put by the output of last season should venture into Bon Tempts again for another go of the outlandish, inventive series. Very Highly Recommended.