Adapted from Charlaine Harris' 2003 bestseller "Club Dead," the first episode picks up just seconds after season two ended, with telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) frantically searching for her vampire beau, Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), who abruptly vanished from a restaurant just minutes after proposing to her.
Elsewhere, Sookie's brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten), and Det. Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer) try to get their stories straight about the killing of Egg, whose death has left Sookie's best friend, Tara (Rutina Wesley), wild with grief, while shape-shifting bar owner Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell) continues to search for his birth parents.
"We definitely have used the plot from the book as a starting point, but we have done a lot differently as well," says Alan Ball, the show's Oscar- and Emmy-winning creator and executive producer. "For people who read the book, they'll be surprised who kidnapped Bill. There's a lot of new stuff happening, a lot more about vampire politics and the introduction of werewolves into our world. And there's stuff going on in Bon Temps as well. Without giving too much away, everybody's got their hands full, and everybody is being extremely tested by the circumstances of their lives."
A darker season
Paquin, who avidly pursued the role of Sookie and says the show so far has surpassed her wildest dreams, says the new season - in which she gets a new romantic interest in the form of hot werewolf Alcide Herveaux (Joe Manganiello) and meets her very own fairy godmother (Lara Pulver) - is perhaps a little darker than seasons one and two.
"But it's still just as funny, in its weird and twisted way, as our show usually is," she adds, laughing. "You see a lot of pretty heavy stuff from many of our main characters that comes up throughout the season. It's going to surprise some people. And some people are going to be shocked."
But does Sookie really need a fairy godmother when she's being wooed in one way or another by Bill, Alcide and Viking vampire Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard)?
"Well, you can always argue that the attention from all her supernatural friends is not always a good thing," Paquin points out. "It might look nice on paper, but she does end up in a lot of trouble a lot of the time."
And Sookie's nemeses this season include both Bill's "maker," Lorena (Mariana Klaveno), and Alcide's psycho ex-girlfriend, Debbie Pelt (Brit Morgan).
Many of the show's fans, however, are most deeply invested in new cast member Manganiello. Alcide is a major new character, and "True Blood" groupies started clamoring for the actor to get the role long before season three was even being cast.
"A friend shot me an e-mail with a link to a blog site where fans of the books were posting pictures and speculating as to who should play Alcide when he shows up," Manganiello explains. "This was going on a couple of years before this season. And some of the bloggers were putting up pictures of me and recommending that I play the part. That's how I found out about the books, and I made sure that I watched every episode of the show. And when I read the books, the character was described as looking pretty much like me.
"Well, over a year ago I started bugging my managers about getting me in for an audition. The 10th book just came out, and Alcide plays a very big part in that as well, so I've been completely overwhelmed by the response from fans already, when I haven't even showed up on the show yet. I'm really excited about it."
Ball says Manganiello originally came in to read for another werewolf role, but he told the casting director he wanted to take a look at the part of Alcide instead.
"He just felt right," says Ball, who also was aware of fan buzz around the actor. "It's always difficult to find somebody who is going to fit into the world of the show, because the show is kind of crazy and over-the-top, but the acting is really grounded. We have a cast of really, really good actors, so you can't just bring someone in who is pretty or charismatic and they'll be able to hold their own. We lucked out with Joe, because he's trained and also physically appropriate for the role."
Manganiello says he immersed himself in reading and watching videos about wolves, and even spent time with the wolf who is Alcide's alter ego, to prepare for the role, but then just "let the 4-year-old kid on Halloween take over."
"You tell a kid, 'Act like a werewolf,' and he doesn't have to think about it," Manganiello says. "He knows what to do, and for me, who grew up watching all the great black-and-white monster movies with Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, it was like I have been preparing for this for almost 30 years. You just know what to do."