John P. Johnson/HBO
June 16, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

How difficult it is to be sleek, sexy, and swift — all qualities True Blood displayed so effectively last season — when you’re straining to introduce new friends and enemies to your audience. That’s the challenge of True Blood‘s third season. There’s so much going on with the characters to whom we’re committed (Anna Paquin’s Sookie, Stephen Moyer’s Bill, Alexander Skarsgård’s Eric, Rutina Wesley’s Tara, and Sam Trammell’s Sam Merlotte, to skim the surface) that the first few episodes of the new season are crammed to bursting with plotlines — and faces — old and new.

The big addition this season is the introduction of werewolves to the true bloodiness of the show. Remorseless shifters with superstrength who get hopped up on vampire blood as though it were some combination of Ecstasy and crack, the werewolves arrive with a World War II backstory complete with flashbacks of Eric and Godric (Allan Hyde) posing in Nazi uniforms. In a show this stuffed with goodness, may I offer a small suggestion? Flashback scenes just take up valuable time we could be spending in the present.

Picking up from season 2’s vampire-napping of Bill, the opening hours of True Blood follow Sookie’s frantic search for him. This accomplishes a few things simultaneously. We get a lot of Bill the way we like him most: trapped, angry, savage in his attempts to escape his werewolf captors. We also get Sookie having to decide whether she’ll take Eric up on his offer to help, knowing that proximity to the Blond God of the Dark often leaves that gal all swoony. The drawback? Too many scenes of a vulnerable Sookie, running around squawking to anyone in sight that someone needs to help her.

New faces include James Frain as Franklin, a vampire who becomes involved with Tara; Denis O’Hare as the foppish vampire King of Mississippi; and — in a crucial role from Charlaine Harris’ sourcebooks — Joe Manganiello (One Tree Hill) as Alcide, a werewolf smoothy. In the series’ second week, we meet the mother of our beloved Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis); she’s played by Alfre Woodard in a terrific performance that quickly exceeds anything she’s doing on the new TNT show Memphis Beat.

What show creator Alan Ball has brought to True Blood‘s pulp-horror trappings is a unifying theme of power versus helplessness: an insistence that victims are capable of toughening, of overcoming their powerlessness to become smarter and stronger. It’s a positive message that Ball and his writers and directors smuggle into a show that only seems to revel in decadence, gore, and duplicity. True Blood‘s dirtiest little secret is that it may be among the most ethical, even righteous, shows on television. B+

Sookie, Bill, Eric, Lafayette, Sam and the other residents Bon Temps deal with vampires, werewolves, fairies, and shape-shifters—not to mention romance and drama
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