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Hoping to suck in viewers, HBO has needed injection in True Blood

Waitress Sookie Stackhouse is vampire Bill Compton's bat girl.

Premiering: Sunday, Sept. 7th at 8 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Anna Paquin, Stephen Moyer, Rutina Wesley, Ryan Kwanten, Sam Trammell, Lois Smith, William Sanderson, Nelsan Ellis
Created by: Alan Ball, based on the novels by Charlaine Harris

Set in the "not-too-distant" future, which apparently is Buffy-less, True Blood's vampires harken to earlier eras of freedom fighters and suffragettes.

They want equal rights above all, and are championed on television by a blonde woman representing the American Vampire League.

"We just want to be part of mainstream society," she tells a skeptical Bill Maher on what's supposed to be an episode of his Real Time HBO series.

True Blood also is HBO's property, and its potential seems enormous. Crafted by Six Feet Under maestro Alan Ball and adapted from the "Sookie Stackhouse" novels by Charlaine Harris, its first two episodes (in an inaugural season of 12) are an intoxicating blend of backwoods Louisiana and blood-sucking outcasts.

The principals are waitress Sookie (Anna Paquin) and 173-year-old Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer). Their instant but textured attraction to each another gives True Blood a depth and humanity (at least on her part) that separates it from your basic blood-curdling creature feature.

Paquin, a pre-teen Oscar winner for 1993's The Piano, is exhilarating as a talkative, down-to-earth table-server cursed with an ability to not only read minds but to hear them voiced.

This sometimes has the effect of trying to dial up a clear radio signal on a lonely two-lane highway in Wasilla. It can be a jumble of sounds, but Sookie all too often can differentiate the thoughts of men trying to get in her pants. It's the reason she's never had a real romance.

Vampire Bill is bracingly different, though. She can't read his mind at all, which is both relaxing and possibly perilous for her. Bill in turn is taken by her mysterious aura. "You're somethin' more than human," he tells her. "May I call on you sometime?"

They begin bonding after Sookie rescues him from a pair of vicious "blood-drainers" seeking to sell his vital fluids for big black market money. It's a bit perplexing how they manage to overpower him so easily. But it's otherwise clear that Bill's blood is veritable heroin compared to a newly invented "synthetic" brand that has allowed vampires to exist without having to feed on humans. Thus their "emancipation," but the distrust remains.

Sookie's pals and kin are almost uniformly against her vampire liaison. They include best friend Tara Thornton (played with a good deal of sauce by Rutina Wesley); horndog brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten); and small businessman Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell), whose down-home bar/eatery is the Chili's of Bon Temps, LA. Sam also has feelings for Sookie, but not in a creepy way. At least not so far.

When not waitressing, Sookie spends ample time with Grandma Adele (Lois Smith), with whom she lives. Adele dotes on her, and isn't at all resistant to the idea of a vampire boyfriend. She'd also greatly like Bill to talk to her "club" about the Civil War, which he experienced first-hand. But they'll have to convene a special after-dark meeting, because vampires still must sleep in during daylight.

Tara and Sookie are BFFs without being off-putting gossip girls.

A fair amount -- but not an overdose -- of graphic violence and sex also infiltrates Bon Temps.

On Sunday's premiere, brother Jason's unplanned rough coupling with a "fang-banger" (women who do it with vampires at a thousand dollars a pop) leads to his arrest for murder. And at the close of this hour, Sookie sustains a savage beating from the same blood-drainers she earlier thwarted.

This serves as a "cliffhanger" of sorts, with our heroine in very dire straits as the closing credits roll. It doesn't take an Einstein to deduce that a certain pale-faced somebody will be coming to the rescue on next Sunday's Episode 2. But his healing powers are still something to behold.

True Blood also has a killer theme song -- "Bad Things" by Jace Everett -- and great visuals to match. Broadcast networks have downsized their opening mood music to the point of virtual extinction, fearing that audiences will change channels rather than sit through it. HBO remains commendably old-school, letting the themes for all of its series run for a good minute or more. Great dishes are always enhanced by succulent appetizers, and HBO still knows this, gets this.

Shorn of The Sopranos and Ball's aforementioned crowd-pleaser, Six Feet Under, HBO also knows that it needs a game-changer. Its cachet hasn't gone bankrupt just yet, but definitely needs a fresh infusion of capital.

True Blood could be the one. Buoyed by Paquin's exhilarating work and Moyer's much more than workmanlike performance, it ushers in a world of its own with a world of possibilities. Watch it on a high-definition plasma screen if possible.

Grade: A