Flipping Channels: 'True Blood' Offers New Blood, 'Moonlight' Retakes Flight



Below, Ron Wynn sinks his fangs into the appeal of HBO's True Blood and The CW's Moonlight in advance of their summer runs, and tells why the new Betty White sitcom Hot in Cleveland looks cold on arrival.

Just like their network competitors, cable TV properties come in different flavors. There are reliable favorites like USA's Burn Notice and TNT's The Closer that emerge as hits thanks to strong leads and serviceable, if rather familiar, plots. There are over-the-top spectacles like Showtime's Nurse Jackie and Starz's Spartacus where anything goes, utilizing the thematic and linguistic freedom afforded shows that have no network restrictions. Then you have prestige programs such as HBO's The Wire and Treme where the care and craftsmanship offer viewers visual and artistic treats seldom available on the small screen.

HBO's True Blood, which returns Sunday night at 8 p.m., fits all of these categories to an extent and yet none of them. Now starting its third season, True Blood blends supernatural thrills with daytime soap opera and Harlequin-novel excesses. Viewers looking for kinky sex and gothic gore must share time with those who enjoy near-camp humor and stray elements of satire, delivered via twists such as a bartender (Sam Trammell) trying to find his shape-shifter relatives and main sensation Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) seeking her kidnapped vampire lover.

Fortunately True Blood is vastly superior in writing and acting to the Twilight film series, though it doesn't take the tongue-in-cheek approach of '60s saga Dark Shadows. This season's arrival of (believe it or not) Nazi werewolves should add political spice to the mix, though the show has always been careful not to sacrifice its bizarre elements to score social points. Since the show's second-season ratings rose dramatically, HBO is hopeful they've finally found the buzzworthy show that can get the type of online and tabloid focus that less creative programs like The CW's The Vampire Diaries regularly grab.

CBS attempted its own withdrawal from the vampire blood bank back in 2007 with Moonlight, a show some tabbed "Dracula with a private investigator's license." Alex O'Loughlin portrayed P.I. Mick St. John, whose desire to atone for past crimes by becoming a cop was frequently jeopardized thanks to his encounters with the likes of Josef (Jason Dohring) and Coraline (Shannyn Sossamon), the woman who turned him into a vampire on their wedding night 60 years ago.

There was also the inevitable doomed love affair between vampire and mortal, with St. John becoming too close to reporter Beth Turner (Sophia Myles), a situtation that promised nothing but pain and trouble for both of them. The program generated a small but fanatical following. Unfortunately, CBS was seeking CSI-sized numbers, and Moonlight died after 16 episodes, though it's since been shown on Syfy.

But The CW, always looking for something to generate — well, if not ratings, then at least publicity, has revived Moonlight for a summer run. It will air 8 p.m. Thursdays on CW-58 following reruns of The Vampire Diaries. This move also gives O'Loughlin a fresh forum heading into the fall debut of CBS' Hawaii Five-O remake, where he takes the role of Steve McGarrett that Jack Lord filled for 12 years.

Whether the new Five-O's "Aloha" is returned with hello or goodbye remains to be seen. But there's little doubt Moonlight's still rabid following will respond to its revival — even if it's only temporary.

Off White
From her days on Password and The Mary Tyler Moore Show to her long stint on The Golden Girls, some quirky and wacky appearances on Boston Legal, and her smash recent hosting turn on Saturday Night Live, Betty White has been a TV mainstay for decades. Given the current tendency to bury older actors in faceless roles for fear of alienating the 18-49 set, it's great to see White embraced by all sectors of the audience and getting constant work.

But advance reports regarding her new sitcom Hot In Cleveland, which debuts 9 p.m. Wednesday on TV Land, are lukewarm at best. First, the fact that White portrays what's being billed as a "trash-talking, pot-smoking" caretaker raises immediate flags. White is far too sharp and savvy a professional to need that type of gimmicky characterization as a crutch.

Secondly, assuming assessments from the few people who've seen advances of the show are accurate, this is another of those smirky "cougars on the prowl" shows many in Hollywood feel constitute groundbreaking, provocative content. Even though the cast includes skilled vets such as Jane Leeves, Valerie Bertinelli and Wendie Malick, the pre-show trailers feature the kind of clichéd banter and feeble innuendos that smacks of committee-tailored desperation.

CBS just canned The New Adventures of Old Christine, one of the few properties on either network or cable whose executive producer and creator was a woman (Kari Lizer). That show presented an entertaining and offbeat worldview distinctly different from any other sitcom. Unfortunately, Hot In Cleveland doesn't seem a worthy replacement in that vein.

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