As fictional lovers go, bubbly blond Sookie Stackhouse and tall, pale Bill Compton are as massively mismatched as they come. After all, Sookie (Anna Paquin) is exuberantly human and Bill (Stephen Moyer) is, well, totally undead in HBO's flamboyant new vampire saga, "True Blood."
"Bill is really genteel but that doesn't stop him from being blood-hungry," Moyer says of his menacing 173-year-old character in "True Blood," adapted for television by Alan Ball ("Six Feet Under") from the popular series of Southern vampire novels by Charlaine Harris.
"The tension between Bill and Sookie is quite palpable," Moyer says in between scenes in which the courtly vampire, who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, escorts his lady friend Sookie, a telepathic roadhouse waitress, home on a dark and eerie night.
That sexually suggestive tension is key to "True Blood," premiering 9 p.m. EDT Sunday. Set in a small Louisiana town (actually the Santa Monica Mountains northwest of Los Angeles), the edgy series chronicles a time when synthetic blood supplies enable Bill and other vampires to live openly among humans, without necessarily feeding on them.
Like Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) in the classic vampire soap opera "Dark Shadows" (1966-1971), Bill has returned to his ancestral home, where he woos Sookie and tries to fit into human society. Like Frid's Barnabas, Moyer's Bill is an unresolved paradox — part seductive protagonist, part menacing monster.
"He's not typically vampiric," says Moyer, who played a vampire in the Brit miniseries "Ultraviolet." No long black cape and ghoulish grin for Bill, who dresses yuppie-casual. "But we do get to see him sort of sex-starved at one point," Moyer says. "And there are moments when he is quite confrontational with other vampires, when other people are predatory with Sookie."
"True Blood" also pushes the content boundaries of premium cable, with plenty of extravagantly gushing arteries and over-the-top bedroom antics to rival Showtime's "Californication" — all mixed with a good dose of Southern gothic goofiness.
Ball was looking to produce "lighter" fare after the life-and-death introspection of critically acclaimed "Six Feet Under."
"Charlaine has just created this amazing world that's funny and vibrant and scary and also a sort of social treatise, you know what I mean?" Ball says.
The centuries-old vampire metaphor is "also about the terrors of intimacy, and about any kind of misunderstood, hated, feared minority — homosexuals, other cultures," Ball says. "When I first pitched 'True Blood' to HBO, I called it 'popcorn TV for smart people.' "
Still, vampire series are not always surefire. Last season, CBS spiked "Moonlight," despite its loyal following for undead hero Mick St. John (Alex O'Loughlin).
Like "Moonlight," "True Blood" plays on the thrill of a vampire-human hookup. But the mechanics of Bill and Sookie's romance proved tricky for Moyer and Paquin during filming.
"You do get fangs caught in places," Paquin says, remembering her first lip lock with Bill's lethal teeth, which pop down when he's lost in bloodlust. "Perhaps it's like people with braces trying to make it work. Puncture wounds aside, one gets used to it," she teases.
Although Ball says his series "is true to the spirit of the novels," there are differences. "True Blood" takes the powerful and ruthless nature of vampire clans a little further than the novels do, he says. Sookie narrates the Harris books but not "True Blood." Instead, Ball has given Sookie a female best friend and confidante named Tara (Rutina Wesley).
The events in the 12 episodes play out over a fast and furious two-week period, like they do in Harris' first vampire novel, "Dead Until Dark." As in the novels, Sookie's mysterious boss Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell) is very much in evidence, keeping close to Sookie.
But Ball has greatly expanded the characters of the roadhouse's gay short-order cook, Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis), and Sookie's bumbling and sexually indefatigable brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten).
"They've given me some really outrageous story lines," Kwanten says. "Jason just jumps into things before he thinks about them. He thinks he's Louisiana's answer to Casanova. Any reservations or inhibitions I had before starting the show have well and truly gone now in a good way," he says of his sex scenes. Then he laughs. "One of the grips jokes that he sees me naked more than he does his girlfriend."