Last year, I bailed on the vampire series True Blood after the first episode. It struck me as contrived, straining after black humor, depraved romance and Southern gothic horror. But something must have happened while I was gone. The second-season premiere (Sunday, 8 p.m., HBO) no longer strains, but powerfully achieves its effects. I felt like I'd stumbled into a fully formed world, with a vast web of relationships both natural and supernatural. I labored to piece it all together - the fun kind of labor.
At the drama's center is Sookie (Anna Paquin), a skinny Louisiana waitress in love with a dreamy vampire (Stephen Moyer). In this parallel U.S., vampires are out of the closet, an oppressed minority who argue their case on TV talk shows. They slake their unholy thirst with artificial blood - at least some of them do. Others can't stay away from the real stuff, and this week's episode has its share of dripping necks and ripped torsos. It's also bursting with perverse sex, religious fervor, Southern-fried texture, mysterious characters and real human feeling, despite all the unhumans skulking around.
See you next week.
Sunday, 9 pm (A&E)
Another faded star opens up his life to reality-TV cameras, but Hammertime is a refreshingly non-freakish entry in the genre. MC Hammer, the '80s rapper, doesn't have a crazy family, a personality disorder or a bizarre preoccupation. He's simply a nice guy who allows A&E to tag along as he interacts with his amiable wife and kids. They're an appealing bunch despite the fact that they don't do a whole lot in a given episode: clean the house, visit a college, etc.
I don't know if I'll be compelled to watch episode two. But if Hammer is ever looking to adopt a new son, I'll be the first one in line.
Tuesday, 8 pm (TNT)
No one could possibly be excited about yet another medical series, and TNT seems to recognize that. So it pours on the melodrama in the premiere of Hawthorne, hoping that extreme plot points will rouse viewers already overmedicated by House, Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, Nurse Jackie, etc. Within minutes, chief nursing office Christina Hawthorne (Jada Pinkett Smith) is talking a patient off a ledge, assaulting a hospital security guard, struggling against handcuffs, wresting a newborn from a homeless woman, dodging a knife-wielding maniac, talking to her dead husband's ashes, and confronting her daughter, who has handcuffed herself to a high school candy machine. (That's a total of two sets of handcuffs for those keeping score at home.)
The show feels desperate, and Pinkett Smith has nothing to do but strike tough poses before ultimately softening.
"We've got a pulse!" a nurse screams in the operating room. That's more than you can say for Hawthorne.
Top Chef Masters
Wednesday, 9 pm (Bravo)
The latest edition of Top Chef moves beyond wannabes to already-ares. Twenty-four celebrated chefs go head-to-head in what host Kelly Choi calls "a culinary clash of the titans." It could have been boring to watch seasoned pros turn out routinely excellent dishes, but the producers do a good job of keeping their contestants off balance. The chefs must make a three-course meal using only a hot plate, a microwave and a toaster oven; they must create a dessert that a group of Girl Scouts will "remember for the rest of their lives."
The best contestants, clearly, will be the ones flexible enough to shed their gourmet preconceptions. The chef who wins the Girl Scout challenge, for example, concentrates on simple chocolate cleverly shaped like a mouse. The losers get needlessly fancy. "This tastes like a hash brown," a frowning Scout says of a too-sophisticated concoction.
I'm no master chef, but even I would have thought to shape that hash-brown-like thing into a kitten or a swan.