Not since that episode of Ramsay's Kitchen Tantrums filmed in a balti house has there been a show as spicy as it. The latest cult American television series to wash up on our shores, True Blood is a gothic romp featuring a cast of sweaty, over-sexed vampires and more gratuitous nudity than you can shake a crucifix at.
Now, after 18 months under the radar, it looks set to “do a Mad Men” and go virulently mainstream. Trust us, a few months from now you won't be able to escape it. Just last week, the series, which chronicles a forbidden love affair between a psychic waitress and a husky vampire named Bill, received the ultimate endorsement: a front cover on Rolling Stone.
It wasn't a run-of-the-mill magazine splash, either. Anna Paquin (mind-reading waitress Sookie Stackhouse), Stephen Moyer (vampire Bill ) and Alex Skarsgård (vampire sheriff Eric Northman, a rival for Sookie's affections) are photographed naked and dripping blood. The image is both nauseating and weirdly titillating, a perfect summation of the show itself. “
True Blood has such a huge following . . . because it has paired high-quality writing and character development with a subject matter that everyone seems to dig these days — vampires and sex,” says Jeff Lavalette, a senior correspondent at the Los Angeles-based Gossipcenter website.”
Adding to the spice is the fact that Paquin and Moyer hooked up on set and married on August 21. That's despite the fact Moyer, a 40-year-old veteran of British TV, is 12 years older than Paquin and already had a girlfriend when they met.
“The real-life relationship between Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer appeals to viewers' repressed penchant for voyeurism,” says Lavalette. “The controversial supply of nudity doesn't hurt either.” Paquin and Moyer have plenty of on-screen fizzle. When their characters' slowburn romance was finally consummated after weeks of “will they/won't they”, the love scenes were at the very limits of what you can get away with on television (the show is produced by HBO, famed for other close-to-the-edge shows such as The Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm).
In an admission that surely qualifies as “too much information”, Moyer said that the fact he and Paquin, who won an Oscar for her part in The Piano, are in a relationship makes it easier for them to push the envelope for True Blood's steamy bits.
“I actually think that it helps, because we are able to try things in the sex scenes — we're able to do things that perhaps a couple that weren't together would never dare try.
“It certainly makes those moments much easier on the crew knowing that we feel comfortable. I'm so used to having them on set when Anna and I are having a love scene that when we get home and we're in bed by ourselves, I kind of miss them.”
You wouldn't catch Robert Pattinson saying something like that. And yet, there are parallels between the Twilight saga and True Blood. In their own ways, the two franchises are obsessed with bodily fluids of various kinds (whilst Twilight is a sex-free zone you get the impression the characters think about little else). #
Also, both are adapted from a series of cult novels, in True Blood's case the Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris. “It's the kind of book when you're reading, you can't stop,” said the show's creator, Alan Ball, who discovered Harris' saga in a dentist's surgery one afternoon.
The conceit behind True Blood is that Japanese scientists have synthesised an alternative to human blood, so that vampires no longer need feast on people. At the start of series one (the third recently began in the US) a vampire civil-rights movement is under way and the “vampire community” is pushing for wider acceptance. You could easily read all this as a metaphor for the gayrights movement, although Ball, who, as it happens is gay, says he doesn't want to get too tangled up in social commentary or profound messages.
His last series, funeralhome drama Six Feet Under, was a heavy meditation on life, mortality and family, and he's tired of mulling over big Ideas. “After five seasons of attempting to wrestle with the existential dilemma of being mortal,” he said recently, “I just felt like I'd like to have a little more fun.”
Ball isn't under any illusions as to the secret of True Blood's popularity — or why people are so fascinated by vampires. Really, it's all to do with sex. “That’s why the idea of having a vampire lover is one that so many people fantasise about,” he said. “It supports this entire cottage industry of vampire romance fiction/TV shows. Whether it’s for preteen girls who are afraid of sex or whether it’s for horny housewives whose real life with their husbands isn’t exciting. Hello, vampires are about sex.” The new season of True Blood starts Thursday September 9 10.30pm on TG4