In the heart of West Hollywood, a homey bungalow serves as the office for Alan Ball, the executive producer of HBO’s addictive vampire series True Blood, which returns for a fourth season on Sunday. But the show’s resident horrors are nowhere to be found here: a dog bed (belonging to Ball’s beloved French bulldog, Gigi) sits in the entryway, and the place—reputedly once the office of Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn—feels miles away from the Louisiana-set blood-soaked drama.
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That is, until Ball—who won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for American Beauty and an Emmy for directing his previous HBO show, Six Feet Under—points out a stack of books about the cult of Dionysus, leftovers from the show’s breakout second season, sitting on his nearby desk. Just like that, we’re headed back into Bon Temps territory.
“Bon Temps is for supernaturals what Florida is for serial killers,” said Ball, chuckling. “They just all end up going there.”
True Blood, based on the bestselling novels by Charlaine Harris, revolves around telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and the vampires and other supernatural entities that call this sleepy Louisiana burg home. While the show wasn’t an immediate ratings smash for the pay cable network, it quickly sunk its teeth into the cultural zeitgeist, attracting an average of 13 million viewers per episode in its third season and landing its stars—including Paquin, her real-life husband Stephen Moyer, and Swedish heartthrob Alexander Skarsgård—on magazine covers around the world.
But the sex-and-violence-laden drama isn’t all neck-biting and werepanthers. True Blood is itself a shifting metaphor for oppressed minorities in America, with vampires and other supernaturals standing in at times for gay people, blacks, or a slew of other groups. And it examines the onus of humanity within each of the characters, weighing their moral choices and the way they choose to live their lives. It is, alternately, a provocative and pensive soap opera that puts the gothic in Southern Gothic.
“I always choose to look, as much as one can, at the supernatural not being something that exists outside of nature, but a deeper, fundamental heart of nature that perhaps humans… have lost touch with,” said Ball. “It’s a more primal thing than perhaps we are attuned to in our modern, self-aware way of life.”
Ball is not one for spoilers, but he is being even more adamant this year that details about the upcoming season aren’t revealed to viewers. What is fair game is that the supernatural elements within Season 4 of True Blood will include faeries and witches, the latter introduced in a storyline that strips Skarsgård’s vampire sheriff Eric Northman of his memory, and explores the fluid nature of identity and the way in which power corrupts.
But lest you forget: True Blood’s storylines are much like vampire blood, a highly addictive adrenaline-laced psychotropic drug. Last season, Paquin’s Sookie tangled with werewolves, the power-mad Vampire King of Mississippi eviscerated a news anchor on live television, and Sookie vanished into the light with her faerie godmother. (And those are just the highlights.)
While part of the show’s allure is the corkscrew unpredictability of its plotting, all of this careening around doesn’t always work; Season 3 seemed to go off the rails by the end, having revved up its narrative to an impossible speed.
For his part, Ball doesn’t look back once a chapter comes to an end. “Honestly, at this point, I don’t even remember Season 3,” he said. “I’m not a big postmortem guy. Maybe that’s just a way of avoiding even my own criticism, but there’s so much to be done now, so I just move on.”
That season answered one of the show’s underlying questions, revealing that Sookie was part faerie, the source of her inexplicable abilities (including telepathy and “microwave fingers”) and the reason why she’s so irresistible to vampires. While even Sookie herself felt that was pretty lame, the show will demonstrate that there’s more to the faerie court than just luminous fruit and superpowers… and that there’s a darkness to their nature. Likewise, a coven of witches—of which several returning characters are members—will present a new threat to Sookie and her vampire associates.
“For the first time, our vampires are facing a real enemy who is not another [more powerful] vampire,” Ball said of Season 4’s Big Bad, related to the coven of witches at the center of the storyline. “For the first time, our vampires have had their weapons taken away from them. There’s a really funny moment later in the season where they have to resort to conventional weapons because their powers are very effectively taken from them… The season may be a little touch more romantic than other seasons have been… It’s a real love story.”
Still, said Ball, the key to keeping the show working is to make sure that each of the characters—whether human or supernatural—have legitimate emotional concerns.
“It allows us to get away with the craziness because… hopefully you care about these characters and you’re invested in them getting what they want... or seeing them foiled,” Ball said. “Otherwise, it’s just special effects and abracadabra.”
“We get to see… a pack [of werewolves] that is not an outlaw pack of vampire blood-addicted werewolves, but are just regular middle-class NASCAR race-going, country music-listening, suburban werewolves,” he continued. “We just try to keep the emotional lives front and center and the supernatural stuff, we try to keep it interesting and new while honoring the mythology.”
Despite the out-there plot twists that have become second nature to True Blood, Ball said that he never feels pressure for the show to top itself from one season to the next. (“If you start making that the guiding principle, then it becomes about something other than storytelling.”) Nor does he let audience reaction dictate the momentum or course of True Blood's narrative.
“Once you start paying too much attention to that stuff, then it all becomes about your perception of what other people’s perceptions of the show are,” said Ball, who doesn’t visit Internet boards to see what fans are talking about and will never join Twitter. “I don’t want to create a direct line between myself and fans of the show and start feeling like I have to satisfy this particular desire or need of these people, because then it’s not writing, it’s marketing.”
“I try to tell the best story,” he said, “and the story that has some heart and some genuine terror and some social commentary and some comedy and some romance and some sex and some violence.”
For Season 4, that means the addition of a new batch of characters, including Fiona Shaw’s necromancer Marnie, Janina Gavankar’s sultry shapeshifter Luna, and Courtney Ford’s lovelorn lawyer Portia Bellefleur, among others. The show has had a revolving door of new faces since the beginning. But for novices—as well as even Ball himself—it can be a challenge to keep track of who’s who and how long they’re sticking around.
“I have a chart in the writers’ room of these characters,” said Ball. “A lot of it becomes math. One of the many joys of working on this show is that the cast is so good, so you know you can depend on everybody… It’s also having five other writers in the room who are really smart, who can point things out to me that I’m not seeing because I can’t see the forest for the trees.”
At the center of that chart would likely be the love, er, rhombus that’s developed between Sookie, Eric, Moyer’s Bill Compton, and Joe Manganiello’s gruff werewolf Alcide. Fans are definitely invested in the continuing romantic entanglements between Paquin’s good-hearted character and the various other-worldly who desire her heart and her blood, though not necessarily in that order.
“I have a rule of thumb,” said Ball. “Once people come together and they’re happy, they get one episode of happiness before we blow it all to hell.”