True Blood has always flirted with jumping the shark. How couldn’t it? A campy Southern Gothic horror comedy about redneck Louisiana vampires? Why, the summary alone sounds ludicrous, even if you’re a fan.

But forget that. When it debuted, it was trashy fun — sexy, uber-gay, funny and bone-chilling within seconds. Season 1 was a hoot. Season 2 took a turn, it’s true, but it got better, and Season 3 was mostly very good. But Season 4, which ended last year, was dreadfully bad, almost unwatchable, with witches and fairy blood and trailer-trash werewolf and werepanther packs. As a friend of mine noted, “I can’t watch it — I grew up in Louisiana, and I spent too much time with toothless hick already in my life.” (For me, that’s exemplified in the character of whiny waitress Arlene, who I’ve known way too many of in my life.)

Season 5 — which debuted last week during both the Tony Awards and the Mad Men finale, so you might have missed it (the premiere reruns Sunday afternoon on HBO and via On Demand, before the debut of Episode 2 Sunday night) — is off to a more promising start than Season 4 ended on, though Season 4’s first few episodes were promising, too.But of the four eps I’ve screened, it’s on the right track. The shark might be within view, but it’s not directly below.

Season 4 ended with Tara (Rutina Wesley) getting shot in the head; best friend Sookie (Anna Paquin) and cousin Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) convinced sultry vamp Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten, who for me is worth watching this show alone) to turn her into a vampire. It worked, only Tara is uncontrollable. Meanwhile, Bill (Stephen Moyer) and Eric (Alexander Skarsgard) have united against The Authority, which puts them in opposition to its head, Roman (Christopher Meloni, whose character debuts tonight). It seems Russell Edgington (Denis O’Hare) is still alive and out for revenge, too.

No Meloni lover (and if you’re gay, you almost certainly are one) wouldn’t look forward to a little blood-sucking from his presence, although he’s the de facto bad-guy, along with the return of closest gay Rev. Newlin (Gary Bauer lookalike Michael McMillian), now a vampire and desperate to get into Jason’s (Ryan Kwanten) pants.

I know, it’s complicated; the cast of regulars has exploded to 21 this season, and it’s become a convoluted soap opera along the way. That’s also part of its appeal.

Meloni looks to be a more engaging nemesis than last season’s Fiona Shaw, but the series ie beginning to run thin on new ideas. It started with vampires, then expanded into shape-shifters, werewolves, werepanthers. fairies, mediums and witches. That’s in addition to V addicts (junkie Andy Bellfour’s storyline being one of last season’s weakest), religious nuts and the occasional ghost. What else is there before Mulder and Scully show up?

As a result, the series has traded devious cleverness for outright cruelty — is seems vicious and bloodthirsty for sport, not plot. That can be off-putting, but it can also surprise, until the surprises become rote. (Sookie masters her fairy powers at opportune moments, is a victimized and defenseless at others; it’s the ultimate deus ex machina cop-out.)

But Ellis’s Lafayette is still one of my favorite characters ever on TV, and Kwanten’s comic timing paired with his smoking, often naked body, is a double-whammy.

And now, creator and outgoing showrunner Alan Ball has let the series return to its strength: Vampirism as a metaphor for modern society, especially gay culture (“God hates fangs” a sign reads in the opening credits) and religious fundamentalism as the province of hatemongers. It’s the most anti-GOP show on TV not hosted by Rachel Maddow.

And at least you can take comfort in one thing: It’s much better than Twilight.

Three stars. Episode 2 of Season 5 premieres on HBO June 17 at 7 p.m.