Picking up events three weeks after the end of Season 1, the second season of True Blood opens with people trying to get back to normal life in Bon Temps, Louisiana, following the resolution of the serial killer problem. For the staff and regulars at Merlotte's this is complicated by the disappearance of their cook, Lafayette, under strange circumstances. Meanwhile, Jason Stackhouse has found religion and is being drawn into the orbit of the Fellowship of the Sun, an anti-vampire fundamentalist group, whilst Sookie and Bill's relationship continues to develop. The disappearance of Godric, the vampire sherrif of Texas, has Eric calling on Sookie and Bill's aid to help find him, meaning they are out of town when newcomer Maryann begins to have a very odd influence on the people of the town. Oh yes, and Bill also has a freshly-risen vampire protege, Jessica, to deal with.
True Blood's second season hits the ground running with a number of complex storylines in progress or just getting underway. As a result the second season has less of an introductory feel than the first, and cuts to the chase much more quickly. There's less of Sookie changing her mind every five minutes about whether she wants to be with Bill or not and more focus on more dynamic storylines, which is what the series needed after the first season, which got bogged down a few times.
The fact that Sookie and Bill are now together and that's pretty much it (despite a couple of curveballs sent towards the relationship late in the season) results in Anna Paquin raising her game notably. Whilst always decent in the role of Sookie, the character's frequent changes in attitude in Season 1 gave the impression of leaving her unsure about how to play the character. In Season 2 she is visibly more confident about the character and that comes through in a stronger, more interesting performance. Stephen Moyer also has an ability to relax and add a bit more humour to the character of Bill, which mostly comes out in his interactions with Jessica and Eric.
Deborah Ann Woll first appeared at the end of Season 1 as Jessica, but she's a regular in Season 2 and delivers a great performance as the stroppy teenage vampire who isn't initially particularly happy about her lot, but then finds vampirism an excellent way to rebel against her strict Christian upbringing. Her interactions with Moyer and also with Jim Parrack as her love interest Hoyt are very well-written and performed.
Alexander Skarsgard also gives an increasingly excellent performance as Eric. He hits impressive heights towards the end of the season when his carefully-cultivated sense of unflappable stoicism is shattered. We also get to see his life as a human in flashback, adding additional layers to his character.
Most of the rest of the cast are great, particularly Michelle Forbes as Maryann, a seeming hedonist who just wants people to have a good time. The unveiling of her true motives is well-done and Forbes seems to have a ball playing a more overt villain than some of her other roles (such as the much greyer Admiral Caine in BSG).
The season's structure works quite well, with Sookie and Bill's adventures in Texas, Jason's storyline at the nearby Fellowship of the Sun church and events back in Bon Temps unfolding in tandem, allowing the story to skip around to another location whenever one storyline starts running out of steam. However, whilst the Texas storyline is well-developed and resolved fairly quickly (in eight episodes), arguably the Fellowship storyline remains pretty predictable and its depiction as a bunch of fundamentalist whackjobs is too simplistic, given the moral complexities of the story explored elsewhere. Events in Bon Temps also unfold far more quickly than is necessary, meaning that the latter half of the season seems to be almost entirely taken up by disturbing magic-driven orgy rituals and Sam running around with various people chasing him, waiting for Sookie and Bill to get back from their storyline to help resolve things.
Still, the show remains well-written and entertaining, and even if it does lack the depth of a lot of other HBO shows it is also a lot funnier (even if that humour is as black as midnight) than some of them. The final episode also does a good job of setting up Season 3, with the introduction of Evan Rachel Wood as the Vampire Queen of Louisiana (a great performance based on 1950s starlets) and several plot elements that look set to be more thoroughly explored next year.
True Blood's second season (****) will be released in the USA (DVD, Blu-Ray) and UK (DVD, no Blu-Ray listing yet) in 2010.