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Ellen Gray: HBO's 'True Blood' back for third season

TRUE BLOOD. 9 p.m. Sunday, HBO. IF I'D EVER bothered to think about vampire politics before HBO's "True Blood," I suppose I'd have guessed modern vamps would lean libertarian, Count Dracula notwithstanding.

Alexander Skarsgard has a revealing encounter with another "True Blood" character.
Alexander Skarsgard has a revealing encounter with another "True Blood" character.Read more

TRUE BLOOD. 9 p.m. Sunday, HBO.

IF I'D EVER bothered to think about vampire politics before HBO's "True Blood," I suppose I'd have guessed modern vamps would lean libertarian, Count Dracula notwithstanding.

Turns out, though, they're still royalists, subject to a strict hierarchy and seniority system.

Oh, and for reasons that escape me, they appear to observe the seemingly arbitrary lines between the 50 states of a country that wasn't even in existence the last time some of them were living, breathing human beings.

Why am I rambling on about undead government?

Well, for one thing, because I'm not supposed to be discussing any of the more pressing questions dealt with in Sunday's Season 3 premiere of "True Blood," starting with: Who (or what) kidnapped Bill (Stephen Moyer)?

The show, which likes to end its episodes on a high note - often the sound of Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) screaming - left off Season 2 last September with the telepathic waitress returning from the ladies room, having decided to accept her 173-year-old boyfriend's proposal of marriage, and instead finding him gone.

Cold feet?

Sorry, I really can't say.

What can I say?

That for those of you who love "True Blood" for its soapy mix of sex and horror - and occasional flashes of humor - nothing important is missing from the three episodes I've seen of the new season.

Nothing, at least, that's permitted under HBO's generally permissive guidelines, which may stop short of showing us exactly what Sookie sees during a confrontation with a certain tall, blond (and naked from the back) ex-Viking (Alexander Skarsgard).

That there's at least one scene between two other characters that plays like fan fiction should only add to the fun for those who watch for just such detours. I'm afraid I found it merely annoying, as I did the huge chunk of last season devoted to orgies involving people under the influence of Michelle Forbes' way-over-the-top "maenad."

What didn't annoy me: one of creator Alan Ball's departures from the Charlaine Harris books that inspired the series, the creation of a sort of ward for Bill in the form of a teenage vampire named Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll). The character continues to pay dividends as her attempts to learn the difference between feeding and frenzy go horribly - and hilariously - wrong. And like me, she might not much care if Bill ever makes it home.

'Breaking Bad'

If one mark of a truly great television show is its ability to make us care about the lives of characters we wouldn't normally give a hoot about - as, say, "The Wire" and the first season of "The Sopranos" did for me - then this is the season "Breaking Bad" (10 p.m. Sunday, AMC) moved from good to great.

Which isn't to say Bryan Cranston shouldn't have won those back-to-back Emmys for his portrayal of chemistry teacher-turned-meth producer Walter White in the show's first two seasons: He's been deserving all along (as has his co-star Aaron Paul, who last week was nominated, along with Cranston, for a Television Critics Association award for individual achievement in drama).

But just as Fox's "Glee" had me at "show choir," "Breaking's" bleak premise, that a previously law-abiding man facing almost certain death from lung cancer would turn to illegal means to ensure his family's future, was never really a tough sell.

Yes, creator Vince Gilligan and his fellow writers turned up the heat steadily under Walt's resolve to get his and get out, and you could argue that by the end of last season Walt was a long way from the guy we thought we'd come in with.

But this is the season "Breaking Bad" fans looked the monster in the face and didn't look away.

At the top of this Sunday's Season 3 finale, which was written and directed by Gilligan, we catch a glimpse of a much younger Walt, one who scarcely resembles the embittered teacher and part-time carwash attendant we first met two seasons ago. This is a guy who seemed inclined to take chances, telling his pregnant wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), as they tour what we know to be their future home, that they shouldn't settle for a "starter house."

"Why be cautious? We've got nowhere to go but up," he says.

And although that statement hardly separates him from the millions of too-hopeful householders of that time, it's a reminder that under the meek exterior, there was always another, more ambitious Walt.

Is an undercurrent of ambition or even rage enough to turn a man into a ruthless killer? Are only some people capable of becoming what Walt has, or are we all vulnerable to responding with force, not just when our backs are against the wall but when we merely become angry?

I still don't know. And "Breaking Bad," so generous with its ammunition, remains gratifyingly stingy with the easy answers. *

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