Swift and streamlined, lean and mean, the fifth season of True Blood has commenced with gratifying energy. The new season spends a lot of time on my favorite Blood meme: the mainstreaming of vampires into ''normal'' American life. You can pick whatever oppressed group you'd like to think this theme symbolizes. Me, I've come to simply like the idea that it's actually about how vampires and America would interact which would be just how it plays out here: hysterically, angrily, and sexily.
The series has separated Anna Paquin's Sookie from her former lovers, Stephen Moyer's Bill and Alexander Skarsgård's Eric. This has enabled the boys to be teamed as captives of the Vampire Authority, the organization that seems most intent on keeping Bill and Eric stripped to their waists as much as possible. Oh, and they're at the mercy of the head of the Vampire Authority, Roman, played by Christopher Meloni with a zest that suggests he vastly prefers sprouting fangs to frowning at kiddie rapers on Law & Order: SVU.
Joining Meloni is Lucy Griffiths' Nora, a chancellor of the VA and, it turns out, Eric's hotsy-for-him sister. (Incest is not off-limits on HBO calling Richard Belzer and Ice-T!) Roman and Nora oppose the delightfully named Sanguinista movement, which wants to enslave humans. (As a progressive but sly vamp, Roman thinks assimilation is key to achieving infiltration and power.) The duo join familiar characters in new settings. A freshly empowered, somewhat matured Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) enjoys a fine karaoke session with Ryan Kwanten's Jason, as she performs the Runaways' ''Cherry Bomb.'' But a bigger bang explodes the character of Rutina Wesley's Tara. This perhaps most unlucky of all True Blood players only gets in deeper, darker, bloodier trouble this season, and I tip my hat to Wesley for pulling off Tara's agony, anger, and ecstasy with such pluck.
By contrast, one of the weak spots on True Blood so far is the rather flimsy use of Sookie, who's been pushed to the margins of the vampire liberation tale. Other flaws are the cornball comic-relief scenes with Chris Bauer's Sheriff Andy, and the superfluous side plot featuring Scott Foley as an Iraq-war vet giving Todd Lowe's Terry bad flashbacks.
But with True Blood, you never know: What starts out lean and mean can grow flabby and sentimental, and flaws can turn into handsome plot twists. Which is one reason to just bite down hard and go with the show. B+