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The Five Ways True Blood Gets Back on Track in Season Four

True Blood returns to HBO on Sunday for its fourth season, and with it comes some heavy baggage from the underwhelming third go-round. When the show's good, it's fantastically entertaining: sexually charged, sure, but allegorical, funny, aesthetically sumptuous, and just plain soapy fun. When it's not good, though, it's a real drag, totally bogged down in tangential nonsense (vampire politics, Maryann) and narrative wheel-spinning. We've seen the first three episodes of the new season, and things are looking up, with the show returning to fun form in five key areas. (This list contains extremely mild, completely general spoilers, but doesn't reveal any plot specifics.)

Plenty of Lafayette
The Sookie-Bill-Eric love triangle might be the show's central romance, but Lafayette — with all his "hooker, please" — is the show's delightful voice of reason. True Blood is its most interesting and entertaining when its fantasy elements are in contact and contrast with the normal world as we know it, and Lafayette's point of view often provides the jolt of a perfectly delivered reality check. And, thankfully, he's never been more present or happy than he is at the beginning of Season 4.

It's scary again
True Blood does gore just fine, but legitimate frights had largely disappeared from the series. Not so this season! Definitely watch the first episode with the lights on.

Eric (and, therefore, Alexander Skarsgård) has way more to do
No one's going to complain about Eric when he's dark and brooding, but this season True Blood is letting Skarsgård flex his (ample, lovely) muscles in other, sweeter directions, and it's a welcome shift. Plus, it adds some interesting emotional depth to his potential romance with Sookie.

The story actually moves forward
Finally. Only a few months elapsed over the first few seasons, so despite all the action, death, aggressive intercourse, tender intercourse, revelations, chases, shootings, shape-shifts, and general family drama, the characters were relatively stuck and stagnant. Not so this time! To put it in as spoiler-free terms as we can, this season everybody moves forward in a big way.

The secondary and tertiary characters are fun again
Arlene and Terry have the most underrated relationship on the show, and they get a juicy story arc in the early episodes that highlights what True Blood actually does well: blend dark, terrifying supernatural elements with cheeky sarcasm and folksy levity. Tara gets a solid story, Hoyt and Jessica have more to do than just stand around and loop dopey, and Sam actually starts to enjoy being a shape-shifter.

The episodes aren't perfect, and the show still has its issues — a lack of focus, the long-vanished political edge of its first season — but these initial outings are a move back in the right direction.

Editor's note: Any connections between this post and the True Blood ads on our home page today are purely coincidental. The editorial team did not know those were going up. Church and state! Church and state!

Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO