True Blood: The Complete Second Season

(2010) *** 1/2 Unrated
720 min. HBO. Directors: Michael Lehmann, John Dahl. Cast: Anna Paquin, Michelle Forbes, Ryan Kwanten.

/content/films/3755/1.jpgHBO hit the jackpot with True Blood, which rode the vampire zeitgeist to ratings success in its first season and came roaring back with a wild and woolly, pull-out-the-stops season two. Based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris (and this season in particular on the second entry Living Dead in Dallas), True Blood nevertheless isn't precious about its source material. Creator Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under) has winningly appropriated the characters and plotlines to his own ends, crafting his own televisionary novels over the course of twelve-episode seasons.

Season two picks up exactly where and when season one left off (how could it not?), with the discovery of a body in the parking lot of Bon Temps, Louisiana's favored bar and grill Merlotte's. Though the mystery of who sliced up that body stretches across the season, plenty of other storylines effectively make it a memory until the murder mystery is wrapped up in the final episode. Bigger questions include: is there a minotaur in town? Can true love work out between vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) and mind-reading waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Oscar-winner Anna Paquin)? What will Sookie's unrequited lover Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell) and Bill's vampire sheriff Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgård) have to say about that? Where is short-order-cook Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis) and is he ever coming back? And just what is the deal with hedonistic maven Maryann Forrester (Michelle Forbes), who plays Svengali to lost souls like Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley) and her hunky new love interest, "Eggs" Benedict Talley (Mehcad Brooks)?

Season two deepens the series mythology about vampire assimilation and the social resistance to it, led by a so-called Christian militia known as The Fellowship of the Sun. Sookie's trouble-prone brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten) gets taken in by the church and its smiling leadership, Reverend Steve Newlin (Michael McMillian) and his wife Sarah (Anna Camp). It doesn't take long to see where this storyline is going, though it intersects surprisingly with another storyline when the vampires send characters in undercover to investigate the disappearance of a 2,000-year-old vampire with a special connection to Eric. The season's one-time plot thread busts out some Greek mythology in clever and highly entertaining ways: before you can say Dionysus, the town is put under a spell that leads to nightly bacchanals and, ultimately, total civic chaos as the season reaches its climax. It's a bold plotline for a show in its second season, as the culture of the town arguably will never be the same (though Ball makes a thematically wicked point about willful denial that may suggest otherwise). At any rate, at least one character's secret gets spilled, while another discovers a previously unknown power.

True Blood is a truly unique entity in the TV landscape (I know, it's not TV; it's HBO). It qualifies as fantasy, science fiction horror, Gothic romance, mystery, action, and soap opera. With plus-sized budgets, the series delivers feature-quality effects and a strong ensemble with no wink links in its chain. The second season gets an extra charge of energy from Forbes (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Homicide: Life on the Street), who makes a great femme fatale. And because this is HBO, sex and violence are welcome, often in tandem. The ongoing central draw is the unusual romance between Sookie and the courtly vampire Bill, now further complicated by a bold advance made by Eric. It's hard to imagine the series topping the outlandish confrontations of Season Two—all-out-war between vamps and fundamentalists, and an ancient creature versus Bon Temps—but I can't wait to see Ball try in the soon-to-land Season Three.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 5

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 5/25/2010

Distributor: HBO Home Video

HBO knows how to treat the current jewel in its crown. True Blood: The Complete Second Season gets a deluxe release on Blu-ray and DVD. The five-disc Blu-ray edition is particularly special, with exclusive features and terrific hi-def A/V. The picture quality is fantastic, perfectly capturing the show's somewhat grainy aesthetic while providing striking color (especially the red, red kroovy), deep blacks, and eye-catching textures. In short, the viewing experience is a big-time pleasure, and it's met with audio perfection: lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround tracks that put to shame most television series on the air with their clarity and bristling immersion.

Bonus features are extensive, beginning with the Blu-exclusive Enhanced Viewing Experience. A juiced-up version of the Enhanced Viewing Experience on The Complete First Season, these Picture-in-Picture tracks feature pop-up trivia, production factoids, expository plot points, "Character Perspectives" (more on these later), "Flashbacks" to key moments from the first season, "Flash Forward" featurettes diggin further into plot and character, and "Pro and Anti-Vampire News Feeds."

The set includes seven audio commentaries: director Michael Lehmann and actor Nelsan Ellis on "Keep This Party Going"; director Michael Ruscio and writer Raelle Tucker on "Release Me"; director John Dahl and actors Stephen Moyer and Alexander Skarsgard on "Timebomb"; actors Ryan Kwanten and Sam Trammell on "New World in My View"; series creator/writer Alan Ball, director Daniel Minahan, and actress Rutina Wesley on "Frenzy"; and two commentaries on season finale "Beyond Here Lies Nothin," the first with actresses Anna Paquin and Michelle Forbes, the second with director Michael Cuesta and writer Alexander Woo.

On the last disc, HBO packs in a few more fun features, starting with a widescreen HD archive of the "Character Perspectives" (2:02:14, HD) found in the Enhanced Viewing Experience. Here are Hoyt, Pam, Karl, and Steve Newlin expounding at length on the developments of the second season.

The extras just get funnier with "Fellowship of the Sun: Reflections of Light" (12:14, HD), which finds Steve and Sarah Nelwin starring in the church-produced clips "Detoxify Your Marriage," "It's Hip to Be Alive," "Who Needs Marriage?" and "Do You Want to Live Forever?"

Along similar lines, "The Vampire Report: Special Edition" (23:50, HD) is a clever cable news parody (The Perspective with Victoria Davis) that riffs on all aspects of the universe of True Blood.

Lastly, the set includes Previews and "Previously On"s for all twelve episodes.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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