A be­witch­ing new sea­son awaits ar­dent ‘True Blood’ fans on HBO

TV Week - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOHN CROOK

For a ru­ral Louisiana back­wa­ter, the tiny town of Bon Temps seems to be hav­ing a su­per­nat­u­ral pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion.

Dur­ing the first three sea­sons of “True Blood,” Bon Temps and its en­vi­rons have seen an in­flux of vam­pires, were­wolves and other shifters, as well as an an­cient Greek crea­ture known as a mae­nad. So who sum­moned the witches? Se­ries cre­ator Alan Ball has en­treated any­one writ­ing about his show not to re­veal sev­eral key sur­prises that come al­most right out of the gate in the fourth-sea­son pre­miere of the smash HBO se­ries on Sun­day, which makes writ­ing about the first episode very tricky. So let’s try this:

When we re­turn to Bon Temps, Sookie Stack­house (Anna Paquin) is still on the outs with the two main vam­pires in her life, for­mer beau Bill Comp­ton (Stephen Moyer) and studly “vam­pire sher­iff” Eric North­man (Alexan­der Skars­gard). Her brother, Ja­son (Ryan Kwan­ten), is now an ap­par­ently re­spon­si­ble deputy at the lo­cal sher­iff’s depart­ment, which is a good thing, since acting sher­iff Andy Belle­fleur (Chris Bauer) ap­par­ently is not quite him­self these days. Else­where, last sea­son’s Romeo and Juliet, Hoyt and his vam­pire belle, Jessica (Jim Par­rack, Deb­o­rah Ann Woll), are start­ing to feel the strains of their un­con­ven­tional love af­fair, while Mer­lotte’s waitress Ar­lene (Car­rie Pre­ston) har­bors grow­ing fears that her baby is a bad seed, and her boss, Sam (Sam Tram­mell), is strug­gling to con­trol his re­cently re­vealed dark side while sort­ing through how he feels about his feck­less brother, Tommy (Mar­shall All­man).

As far as the big pic­ture goes, vam­pire spokes­woman Nan Flana­gan (Jessica Tuck) fran­ti­cally is try­ing to ex­ert spin con­trol in the wake of re­cently dis­patched vam­pire monarch Rus­sell Edger­ton’s bloody reign of ter­ror — and she has an ap­par­ent ally in the char­ac­ter who is now at the head of the Louisiana monar­chy, a jaw-drop­ping change from the orig­i­nal Char­laine Har­ris nov­els that is sure to have fans buzzing. But ah, yes: the witches. They’re a lo­cal coven, headed by an un­gainly and near-inar­tic­u­late lo­cal woman named Marnie (the­ater great Fiona Shaw), whose ini­tial meet­ings seem to be wholly in line with the nur­tur­ing Wic­can school of witchcraft, heavy on fe­male em­pow­er­ment, al­though their ses­sions also are at­tended by males in­clud­ing Je­sus Ve­lasquez (Kevin Ale­jan­dro), the nurse and witch who is ea­ger for his cur­rent beau, Mer­lotte’s cook (and fan fa­vorite) Lafayette Reynolds (Nel­san El­lis), to ex­plore. But to what end? Ale­jan­dro freely ad­mits he still has no idea. “Ac­tu­ally, find­ing the char­ac­ter of Je­sus was kind of dif­fi­cult for me,” the ac­tor says. “I knew that he is a witch, so I stud­ied what magic is, white magic and black magic. Dif­fer­ent peo­ple use witchcraft for dif­fer­ent things, for heal­ing and for spells to work neg­a­tive things. It’s been dif­fi­cult as the story un­folds, be­cause you never know in what direc­tion they’re go­ing to take your guy. It’s hard to fig­ure out that bal­ance of is he good or is he bad with­out ac­tu­ally know­ing.

“I re­searched ev­ery­thing from Wicca to pos­ses­sion to rit­u­als for heal­ing to putting curses on peo­ple — kind of ev­ery­thing, be­cause like I said, I wasn’t sure which way my char­ac­ter was go­ing, and to this day I still don’t know how good or bad Je­sus is. I’m kind of run­ning a fine line right now, but I’m hav­ing a great time.”

Play­ing a char­ac­ter with­out know­ing all his facets is noth­ing new to El­lis, who went through sea­son one con­vinced that Lafayette, a fairly mi­nor char­ac­ter in Har­ris’ books, would buy the farm at the end of that sea­son, just as he was killed off in the fi­nal scenes of the first book.

“And it was only af­ter that ta­ble read that Alan Ball told me, in a very cava­lier fash­ion, ‘Oh, you know you’re not dy­ing,’ ” El­lis says. “So then I as­sumed the sec­ond sea­son would be my year to die. I’m lit­er­ally just now start­ing to think they might keep me around for the long haul, though.”

El­lis is thrilled to be shar­ing scenes with Shaw, the bril­liant Ir­ish ac­tress who worked with stu­dents at the Juil­liard School in New York while El­lis was a fresh­man and she was star­ring on Broad­way as Medea — an­other witch, co­in­ci­den­tally.

“Fiona Shaw is a god­dess to me,” he says, re­call­ing her stage per­for­mance. “She took the lan­guage of the play and made it some­how con­tem­po­rary, and she made all these very dy­namic choices that I never had seen in clas­si­cal ma­te­rial. I re­mem­ber she was eat­ing a piece a cake on­stage that the Nurse had given her, and she was do­ing this long speech, filled with height­ened, dra­matic lan­guage, and she sud­denly stopped and said, ‘This is good, isn’t it?’ I al­most fell out of my seat, and the au­di­ence just roared in laugh­ter.”

Kevin Ale­jan­dro stars in “True Blood,” which re­turns Sun­day on HBO.

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