You’ve got to give HBO credit: they know how to hype a new series.

The amount of pre-publicity for “True Blood,” the new series from Alan Ball (creator of the late, great “Six Feet Under”), has been so tremendous that it’s been almost impossible to ignore. I certainly saw my fair share of the hype when I was out in L.A., but the network’s viral marketing campaign for the show has taken awareness of the series far beyond California. It all started with, but there have been billboards, fake ad campaigns for a product called TruBlood, MySpace accounts, and more.

All this for a TV show about vampires…?

Actually, it’s a pretty savvy move on HBO’s part to throw their marketing muscle behind “True Blood,” which is based on Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampires Mysteries book series. Anyone who reads this blog knows that vampire-themed shows make for dedicated…oh, who are we kidding? They inspire straight-up obsession in their viewership, whether we’re talking about “Forever Knight,” “Angel,” or – yeah, baby! – “Moonlight.” HBO’s just playing it smart and getting the word out about the show from the get-go, to make sure it’s full-fledged event television when it premieres.

But is it…?

Well, it ain’t bad. It’s weird as all get-out, but it definitely ain’t bad.

Ball introduces us to the world of “True Blood” immediately. Vampires walk among us, but they’re not the threat that they used to be, now that there’s a product out there called TruBlood which provides them with the nourishment they need without requiring them to take a bite out of one of us normal folk. As a result, they’ve integrated themselves into society to the point where, in the early minutes of the show, we see a designated vampire representative appearing on Bill Maher’s show to discuss how they deserve the same rights as any other minority. That doesn’t mean people aren’t still scared of vampires, of course, but now they’re less a threat than a curiosity…or, to the less scrupulous, a money-making opportunity. (Vampire blood is a pretty hot commodity as an aphrodisiac, it seems.)

Okay, so that’s the world that “True Blood” takes place in, which is certainly unique enough, but we quickly meet a non-vampire who’s even more unique: Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a waitress in the small town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, who just happens to be able to hear people’s thoughts. It only extends to humans, though, which is why she quickly finds herself captivated by Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), a vampire who walks into the diner where she works. Actually, she’s totally smitten by him the second she meets him, even before she realizes she can’t “read” him, partially because she’s never met a vampire before (they don’t get a lot of vamps in Bon Temps, don’t you know), but mostly because she thinks he’s totally hot.

Speaking of hot, there’s a fair amount of sexual content in “True Blood,” with the key revelation coming when one of the characters mentions excitedly that an issue of Hustler suggested that everyone should have sex with a vampire at least once in their life. We see a couple who are well on their way to coitus when the guy notices bite marks on the girl, which leads him to become fascinated about what she’s experienced and her to suggest that they watch a video of her sexual encounter with a vampire. There’s something vaguely ridiculous about a dude with oversized canine teeth grinning at the camera as he pounds away on a woman, and yet between the way it’s filmed and the sounds he’s making, it’s pretty disconcerting nonetheless. It’s also apparently a turn-on for the guy watching the tape, since we next see him pounding away on the woman himself. The technical term for him is “fang banger,” I believe…and, no, I’m not kidding. It’s actually an expression used within the show. Later, however, we discover that the fang-banger in question is actually Sookie’s brother, Jason (Ryan Kwanten), and – oops! – the bang-ee turns up dead the next morning!

Despite her gift, Sookie’s surprisingly innocent, looking positively appalled when her co-workers start up with a graphic conversation about sex, but that’s not to say she’s not capable of holding her own, as we see when she proceeds to save Bill from death by exsanguination. The entire sequence is gripping, first and foremost in the way that the two rednecks from the bar clearly see Bill as less than human. (It’s no surprise that Alan Ball does everything right when it comes to painting vampires as a fictional minority that “Cavemen” did wrong, and not just because the latter was a comedy and “True Blood” is a drama.) Beyond that, though, it shows us that Sookie is a sweetie and Bill, despite being a vampire, is actually a pretty decent fella. Later, when Sookie tells her grandma about her experience (leaving out the gruesome details), she’s still giddy about it all…but her tune changes a little bit after she has a disturbing dream about Bill acting as though he’s coming onto to her but then suddenly attacking her. Still, she takes it in stride when Gran asks her if her new friend is old enough to have been around during the Civil War and, if so, if he’d be willing to come speak to her group, The Descendants of the Glorious Dead.

It’s apparent that some of the other folks who work at the diner are going to be playing significant parts in the proceedings, including owner Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell), the decidedly out-of-the-closet Lafeyette (Nelsan Ellis), and Sookie’s best friend, Tara (Rutina Wesley), who’s got a smart mouth and isn’t afraid to use it. Constantly. First and foremost, though, it’s clear that the focus is going to be on the relationship between Sookie and Bill and, to a lesser extent, what’s going to happen with Bill, since the authorities know about his vampire liaison and are considering him a suspect in her murder. Having Sookie be able to hear people’s thoughts is a weird touch, but it’s an interesting one, particularly when she’s able to tell exactly what awful things the people in the diner are thinking about her and Bill…not that she gives a damn, mind you.

Wisely, the episode ends on a cliffhanger, thereby forcing viewers to simultaneously curse their televisions and set their TiVo for next week, but it’s hardly even necessary. By that point, there will already have been plenty of developments to make you want to take a second bite out of “True Blood.”