'True Blood' ready to flow again

Chuck Barney
TRUE BLOOD - 9 p.m. EDT Sunday - HBO
Contra Costa Times (MCT)

It's finally time for the "Blood"-thirsty to be appeased.

Yes, "True Blood," television's most outrageous and lascivious series, returns Sunday for its third season on HBO and die-hard devotees know what that means:

More suspense. More sex. More Sookie.

And now, get ready for more characters. As creator Alan Ball's supernatural soap opera expands its world and thickens its plots, the number of names in the cast credits is rapidly multiplying. Joining all the vamps, shape-shifters and mind-readers this season are, among others, a pack of werewolves. Not just any werewolves, mind you, but vicious, "highly trained" werewolves fueled by vampire juice.

Clearly, "True Blood," based on the novels of Charlaine Harris, continues to be a wild, over-the-top spectacle where anything goes. At times, it may make you roll your eyes. At times, it might seem like it has completely lost its mind. But never ever does it leave you watching the clock and feeling bored.

No wonder then that the show's potent blend of horror, romance and dark humor strikes a vein in so many ravenous fans. The "True Blood" audience more than doubled last season to 5 million per first-run episode. Toss in the fans who watched via replay, DVR and on-demand viewing, and HBO has its biggest water-cooler hit since "The Sopranos" left the air.

And judging from the early episodes that HBO has made available for review, we're in for more bloody good fun.

When we last saw the residents of Louisiana bayou town of Bon Temps, they were reeling from the hedonistic mayhem wrought by immortal seductress Maryann. In the aftermath, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) was mulling a marriage proposal from her beloved bloodsucker, Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), only to discover that he apparently had been abducted.

Meanwhile, shape-shifting bar owner Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell) embarked on a search for his biological family, and Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley) was mourning the death of her boyfriend, who was shot by Sookie's dimwitted brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten). And that's just scratching the surface of "True Blood's" dense narrative.

As Season 3 unfolds, Sookie launches a frantic search for Bill and reluctantly enlists the help of Eric (Alexander Skarsgard), the brooding — and hunky — vampire who just happens to lust after her. A big mistake? Time will tell, but it appears that this love triangle will be a major component of Season 3. And many fans undoubtedly will be rooting for bad boy Eric to win over the saucy Sookie.

During her search, our heroine also forms an uneasy alliance with a sexy werewolf named Alcide (Joe Manganiello), who serves as her bodyguard. Other notable newcomers include Russell Edgington (Dennis O'Hare), the vampire king of Mississippi, and his snooty sidekick, Talbot (Theo Alexander). Also, Alfre Woodard is a major surprise as Ruby Jean Reynolds, the estranged mother of Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis).

Initially, these and other fresh characters make Season 3 feel overcrowded — and we pity any new fan trying to make sense of it all. But by the middle of the second episode, the show begins to gain traction and sucks you in with its new set of tantalizing mysteries.

It helps, of course, that "True Blood" doesn't take itself too seriously. While its fanged creatures might come across as ghastly and unnerving, they're also good for a few laughs. When, for example, neophyte vamp Jessica (the engaging Deborah Ann Woll) seeks advice on how to keep herself from totally giving in to her dark urges while feeding on a human, the caustic Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten) informs her that it's all a matter of mind control.

"I think about crying children with soggy diapers," she says. "Or maggots."

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