by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & True Blood & r & & r & (Sundays, 9pm, HBO) & r & & r & & lt;span class="dropcap" & "D & lt;/span & on't you dare get morally superior with me," says Amy Burley (Lizzy Caplan doing a fair-to-middling Zooey Deschanel impression) to a fat, gay, TV-addicted vampire whom she holds prisoner. "I am an organic vegan and my carbon footprint is miniscule." Later, she drains a thimble-full of his blood and trips in a semi-hallucinogenic, quasi-orgasmic state.

It's the year two-thousand-something-or-other, and the world's vampires find themselves in unfamiliar territory. A Japanese company has created synthetic blood that is real enough to sustain their bodies, and many leave hiding to live among humans -- "mainstreaming" -- essentially outing the whole race. Others are perfectly content to live as before, huddling in orgiastic nests, preying on those who have a compulsive curiosity with sex and death (basically everyone).

Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) is a waitress at Merlotte's in Bon Temps, Louisiana, a small, backwoods town that, despite the national hubbub, hasn't seen a single damn vampire. That is, until Bill Compton comes a-calling. His appearance -- coincidental or not -- unleashes a torrent of hot-hot vamp sex and cold-cold blooded murder, with Sookie or her brother Jason usually at the center.

Paquin isn't great, but there's enough going on to ignore her mediocrity. As could be expected from a show about outcasts, the heart of True Blood lies at its periphery, in among the gallery of freaks that populate the ensemble cast. Ms. Burley for example. And Lafayette, the gay line cook slash prostitute slash vamp blood dealer.

Creator Alan Ball, a critically beloved (Six Feet Under, American Beauty) and, more recently, critically mixed (Towelhead) storyteller, has always had sex at the center of his work, specifically the push/pull of repression and liberation. Here he trends far, far, toward the side of liberation, diminishing the push/pull and making True Blood feel occasionally tensionless. Typically, he's also preoccupied with death. (Six Feet Under was a five-year odyssey into it.) Here he's obsessed with it.

Taboos, though, whether they be about sex or death or death-sex, lose their power to bewitch and shock once they've been broken. After that, it's all just soap opera. It's the confronting of taboos that makes us consider our moral queasiness with certain behaviors and points of view. True Blood has been compelling for the strangeness of the story, but the more Ball and crew break and re-break cultural prohibitions, the less sexy/scandalous/thought-provoking it gets.


Top Chef

The show that seeks a balance between the art-for-art's-sake-ishness of Project Runway (like basically all Bravo programming) and the foul-mouthed culinary brio of Hell's Kitchen enters its fifth season. Celeb chefs include Martha Stewart slumming for an episode. (Bravo, Wednesdays, 10 pm)


One of my favorite new shows of 2006, Heroes got seriously lost in Season Two. So bad that I didn't even finish the strike-shortened season. Word that creator Tim Kring had ordered Season Three got me watching again, but before I could even catch up came news this week that two writers had been fired for their inability to control the spiraling plotlines. Has me thinking I (you, we) should just quit while ahead. (NBC, Mondays, 9 pm)

Inside the Actors Studio

Though it's hardly appointment viewing, and it's gotten less relevant in its 14 years on television, ItAS is really the only broad audience place you can hear actors talk frankly about craft. It's the kind of celeb show you'd expect on PBS. That's a compliment. (Bravo; check listings)

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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