‘True Blood’: The fanged gang’s all here

Sookie Stackhouse is taking a break from love. Let's enjoy it while it lasts.

Sunday night, HBO's "True Blood" kicked off a fifth season of vampires, werewolves, werepanthers, shape-shifters, witches, mediums, demons, fairies and even the occasional boring human populating fictional Bon Temps, La.

"Zombies are the new vampires," long-suffering waitress Arlene decreed last season. No brain-eating newbies, please. "True Blood" has plenty of soapy supernatural drama to keep track of, as usual, including the return of a formidable villain.

A 2,800-year-old vampire, bent on killing everyone worth caring about in the "True Blood" universe, is not going to stay shackled and seething below ground for more than a single season.

As droll anarchist Russell Edgington, Dennis O'Hare kept Season 3 deadly and lively. Russell redefined vampire-human politics when he matter-of-factly murdered a news anchor on live TV.

Of course, with the misguided overconfidence of James Bond villains, Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) and Bill (Stephen Moyer) gave up their chance to kill Russell for good, imprisoning him in concrete instead. Sure enough, one of the last scenes of Season 4 revealed a pile of silver chains and rubble at a year-old construction site.

"True Blood" is at its best when characters are taking care of this kind of business, and the first third of the new season is all about putting out fires with varying degrees of success.

Breaking up the grim work, a series of flashbacks to 1905 shines a light on the overdue backstory of how Eric met his progeny, Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten), and why he turned her into a vampire. In the present, Pam needs help from Sookie (Anna Paquin) to get back in Eric's good graces, but she's torn about how far she'll go to get it.

Last season's female bonding moment was the one-two punch of 17th-century necromancer Antonia Gavilan de Logrono and local coven leader Marnie Stonebrook, who shared a body to lead the local Wiccans in a deadly plot to lure vampires into the sun. By the time Eric and Bill managed to save Sookie, they had attracted way too much attention, despite the vamp squads that sweep through cities erasing memories "Men in Black"-style.

When misbehaving vampires point the finger, they invoke the Vampire Authority. The shadowy threat of the always-unseen guys in charge manages to turn the undead a whiter shade of pale. This season, Eric and Bill have misbehaved so badly that they get to meet the Authority, chock full of new characters to replace recent casualties.

As Detective Elliot Stabler on "Law & Order: SVU," Christopher Meloni was the kind of cop you didn't want to annoy on a stale doughnut day. The guardian of the Authority is similar, working the conference room of vampire VIPs like Robert De Niro in "The Untouchables," not afraid to sacrifice the carpeting when his disgust boils over.

The guardian is in a lather because there are traitors in the Authority's midst, and they mirror a larger conflict. The vampires are already on the cusp of civil war over the issue of how to live with humans: Either we're food or we're friends.

Series creator Alan Ball, who likes to score points for his worldview, beat the vampire metaphor like a drum for gay rights in "True Blood's" early seasons. And this season's fanged fundamentalists - who vote for farming us like soybeans - even have their own vampire bible to quote out of context.

"I'm trying to stay away from politics these days myself. And religion," Eric responds under the guardian's questioning. He's not going to have much luck with that this season. But at least he has something to keep his mind off his broken heart.

Despite the pack of handsome guys with supernatural powers constantly sniffing around her porch, Sookie Stackhouse is not an easy heroine to love. Vampires would disagree, but she smells like warm apple pie to them.

Last season's Eric-Sookie romance was the culmination of seasons of scorching sexual tension. But our sweet, earnest heroine didn't fall for the Eric Northman who started out a randy Viking and spent centuries perfecting bad-boy magnetism. Instead, she waited until a convenient spell wiped his memory and turned him into a tapioca-flavored guy in a sleeveless hoodie with a thousand-yard stare. And that's the Eric that Sookie finally took off her sundress for.

Most maddeningly, she unfailingly forgives on-again, off-again vampire boyfriend Bill for whatever he throws at her. Drained of her blood until comatose? No biggie. Set up to be assaulted so that Bill could rescue her and play hero? These things happen. Hunted with the purpose of making her into a late-night snack for his boss? Nobody's perfect.

Even though there is always someone with protective, broad shoulders at Miss Stackhouse's front door, she should take it slow. The longer she stays single, the longer "True Blood" can concentrate on more rewarding relationships.

It would be risky to use the word "bromance" about two alpha males with fangs, but sharing a romantic rejection and being locked in a trunk together are great team-building exercises. As the new season gets going, Bill and Eric's fates are fused, and it's pure pleasure to watch Moyer and Skarsgard put their twist on the buddy adventure, a nocturnal Butch and Sundance.

Since the false reports of his death, Russell has become a hero to vampires who are not interested in assimilating with humans. Once he re-emerges, he'll have Eric at the top of his to-kill list. Odds are Russell also will come looking for Sookie, and not just for a shot of her Red Bull-esque fairy blood - she dumped his lover's remains down a garbage disposal in a moment of awesomeness.

If she stays alive without a panting, lovesick supernatural safety net, Sookie will move even further away from Bella Swan territory. When she finally shot conniving weretramp Debbie Pelt after Tara took the slug meant for Sookie, a different Sookie began to emerge. She'll need that toughness to survive what's coming for her this season.

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