Just like one of the characters on the show, 'True Blood' (9PM ET Sunday, HBO) goes through a transformation in the first couple of episodes of its fourth season. Creator and head writer Alan Ball appears to have remembered that his characters -- human, shapeshifters, vampires, faeries and the like -- are living beings with actual emotions and not just objects for him to Bedazzle with ever-thicker encrustations of incidents, events and OMG moments.
It's a refreshing and surprising change of pace. But then in the third episode, the show starts to show signs of falling into ruts it has frequently and heedlessly dived into before.
The good news is that the fourth season doesn't plunge headlong into overcaffeineated, laughable melodrama, which was the hallmark of season 3 (and parts of other seasons as well). Sure, 'True Blood' is as addicted to cliffhanger moments as a vampire is to blood, but the season premiere, which brings us back to Bon Temps, La., some time after Sookie's season 3 disappearance, shows unusual restraint and takes its time in filling us on in where all the characters are in their lives.
'True Blood' sometimes has real trouble balancing its various story threads; in season 3, good characters were shunted off the to the sidelines and the plots that did get prominence often didn't merit the screen time. The bigger issue was an overall sense that the show was simply messy and needlessly hyper and not all that interested in clarifying or emotionally deepening most individuals and relationships. We expect sexy insanity from 'True Blood,' but indifferent sloppiness is a different thing and quickly becomes tiresome.
So it's good to be able to say that the first couple of episodes of season 4 have a much cleaner trajectory and I am happy to report that (the next part of this sentence may be considered spoilery) Tara is not in any jeopardy in the episodes I saw. If Ball and Co. had gone to that particular well again, I just would have turned off the show for good, because watching a show waste good actors and turn characters into caricatures isn't my idea of fun.
It's not that the creator of a vampire melodrama shouldn't be able to put his characters in jeopardy, it's that the characters have to have some kind emotional resonance before viewers are going to care about what happens to them. And that's what concerned me about the third episode of the show: The show began to feel like it was repeating itself, with situations that recall things we've seen before and don't add much to the characters or the world depicted in the show.
Don't get me wrong, Fiona Shaw is terrific as a new witch on the scene, and I still have quite a bit of of fondness for characters such as Lafayette, Jesus, Eric, Sam and Terry. Bill is still his quietly charismatic, courtly self, and he's in an intriguing new situation this season, one that makes him more proactive and complex. Even Sookie has grown on me, and as someone who long thought she was the least interesting thing about the show, that's saying something.
But 'True Blood's' signature move has to do with power: One character will have power over another, and then kabam! That dynamic will be reversed, or it won't, or a new person will come on the scene and seize power. The show is often just a round-robin of those power exchanges, but Ball seems uninterested in saying anything about power, and that can be frustrating. Again and again, we see people holding each other emotionally or physically hostage, and sometimes even going to war, but then the dynamic shifts and the whole thing starts over again with slightly different combination of characters.
I'm not demanding that 'True Blood' go full-on 'Buffy' or 'Supernatural' and make every freaky situation into an emotional metaphor. But at a certain point, the kidnapping, hostage situation or rescue of the week becomes a little tiring, not to mention repetitive. When the show delves into the idea of characters accepting their powers and beginning to explore the uses and consequences of their capabilities, it becomes more than just a nutty romp in the woods around Bon Temps. That's the kind of thing I'd like to see more of. Then again, the show's been very successful by simply burning through a lot of story every week, and it'd be unrealistic for me to expect much more than that at this stage of the game.
Of the dozen plots that spin through the fourth season, the love triangle among Bill, Sookie and Eric has potential, given the skills of those actors, but a few threads seem downright dull, particularly the one focused on an addicted character. Hoyt and Jessica, appealing characters who were unjustly marginalized in season 3, are stuck in an uninspired domestic story line this year, while 'True Blood' appears to be misusing Jason yet again (remember when Jason used to be funny? I didn't hallucinate that, right?). As for Sam Merlotte, he's always deserved better story lines, but this season he's stuck in one with his troublesome brother, who's never added anything useful to this show.
The witches are an intriguing presence, but other parts of the show aren't casting the same spell as the magnificent Shaw. If you're addicted to 'True Blood's' brand of smoldering melodrama, well, there's a lot of it this season. And it looks as though about half of it might actually be worth watching.
Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.