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John P. Johson, HBO
"True Blood" stars Anna Paquin and Steven Moyer with creator/writer/producer/director Alan Ball.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Let's get this out of the way immediately.

HBO's new vampire series "True Blood" is not a show for the entire family. If it were a movie, it would be R-rated. It's loaded with violence, buckets of blood, strong language, nudity and sex. The kind of sex you might see late at night on a pay-cable channel that's airing edited porn films.

That's not just my opinion. As executive producer Alan Ball noted, "One of my main characters is totally sexually compulsive, so it sort of feels like you have to go there."

You've been warned.

"True Blood" (Sunday, 10 p.m., HBO) is based on Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse novels.

In the not-too-distant future, the Japanese have invented synthetic blood and vampires have, um, come out of the coffin. They're the new minority — a source of fascination for some, feared and loathed by others.

Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) isn't a vampire, but she's not your typical human. A bright and perky waitress in the backwoods of Louisiana, Sookie can read minds. Mostly she tries NOT to read minds, because it's more than a bit of a burden.

The fact that she can't read vampires' minds catches her attention when she meets her first vamp — 173-year-old Bill Compton (Steven Moyer). And soon they're in love. Which brings an enormous number of complications.

"True Blood" defies easy description. It's a romance, a mystery, a drama, a social commentary and a comedy all rolled into one.

The first episode is a bit muddled, but that's a product of having to introduce not only all the characters but the world they inhabit. And launching the mystery — someone or something is killing women in the tiny town.

Sookie's brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten) — the sexual compulsive Ball was referring to — is a prime suspect. He's got the morals of an alley cat and the women he sleeps with end up dead.

Jason doesn't know that Sookie's foul-mouthed best friend, Tara (Rutina Wesley) has loved him since they were kids. But then Sookie doesn't realize that her boss, Sam (Sam Trammell), is carrying a torch for her.

The series is chock full of offbeat characters, including Sookie's grandmother, Adele (Lois Smith), who's fascinated by vampires in general and Bill in particular; Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis), the extraordinarily colorful cook at the roadhouse; and small-town Sheriff Bud Dearborne (William Sanderson) and Detective Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer), who don't know what to make of the killings.

It's a "total accident" that "True Blood" became a series because Ball — an Emmy winner for "Six Feet Under" and an Oscar winner for the "American Beauty" script — was early for a dentist appointment.

"I was wasting time at Barnes & Noble, waiting ... to go sit in the lobby," Ball said. "I saw the first book in the series, 'Dead Until Dark.' The tag line was, 'Maybe having a vampire for a boyfriend wasn't such a good idea.' And I thought it was really funny."

He bought the book, started reading and "couldn't put it down. It's the kind of book that you think, 'I'm going to read one chapter before I go to bed,' and you read seven.

"And about midway through the second book, I thought this might make a good television show because it's got this great sort of — you just want more. You just want more of this world and these characters."

The books had been optioned for a movie that never got made. When the option expired, Ball contacted Harris "and she decided to go in this direction."

Harris isn't directly involved in the series, but she did read scripts before they were filmed and did visit the set.

"It is very important to me to be true to the spirit of Charlaine's world," Ball said. "I just wanted to re-create the adventure and the fun and the sort of excitement of reading those books and feeling like I had stumbled into this world," Ball said.

It's a world for a specific audience. The kind of audience HBO can afford to reach for, and the kind it could very well find with "True Blood."

Remember the warning at the top of this story, however. Because the show is certainly not for everyone.


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