Though it cheats a bit getting there, the fourth season of HBO’s vampire melodrama features a noticeably more cohesive storyline and revitalized character dynamics. The Blu-ray release offers a top-notch audio and video presentation, along with an impressive collection of bonus material. True Blood: The Complete Fourth Season Release Date: May 29, 2012 Studio: HBO Home Entertainment Packaging/Materials: Five-disc foldout Digipack with slipcover Year: 2011 Rating: TV-MA Running Time: Approximately 12 hours MSRP: $79.98 THE FEATURE SPECIAL FEATURES Video AVC: 1080p high definition 1.78:1 Standard and high definition Audio DTS-HD Master Audio: English 5.1 / DTS: French 5.1, Spanish 2.0 Stereo Subtitles English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish Variable The Season: 4.5/5 After an uneven, but still relatively entertaining third season, HBO’s “True Blood” gets a bit of juice in its veins thanks to a jump forward in time, a byproduct of Sookie (Anna Paquin) taking a trip to the land of Faerie, where time moves a little differently. Her losing a year to the supernatural realm of her ancestors ultimately doesn’t do much for her character – she remains just as sandwiched between the passions of vampires Bill (Stephen Moyer) and Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard) as before – but it does wonders for almost everyone else around her. Bill is now King of Louisiana and Eric continues as the sheriff of Area Five, reversing the hierarchy that once dominated their relationship. Jason (Ryan Kwanten) has made it onto the Bon Temps police force...and is surprisingly good at his job. Sam (Sam Trammell), after experiencing the betrayals of his birth family, is finally finding support, friendship, and love among fellow shifters. Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) and Hoyt (Jim Parrack) are still together, making their vampire-human love relationship work despite some inherent obstacles. Lafayette (Nelsan Ellis) and Jesus (Kevin Alejandro) are also happily dating, though Lafayette is still coming to terms with the role of supernatural forces in his life. And though Tara (Rutina Wesley) has left town and is cage fighting in New Orleans under an assumed name, she finally seems in control of her life after a long series of personal setbacks and victimizations. Though somewhat of a cheat, the off-screen personal growth for the humans like Tara and practically humans like Sam positions them to be more powerful, pro-active characters rather than just punching bags for the supernatural. And things being the way they are, Sookie’s return to the earthly plane means those more physically vulnerable characters will be getting their fair share of challenges. This time the Big Bad is of a less corporeal nature as the spirit of a 17th Century sorceress named Antonia (Paola Turbay), who has a serious grudge to settle, takes possession of a humble Wiccan practitioner named Marnie (Fiona Shaw). As a necromancer, Antonia/Marnie wields power over the dead, posing a serious threat to those belonging to the decidedly non-living Vampire Nation. Seeing the likes of Eric, Pam, and Bill humbled and even frightened for a change proves to be an effective catalyzing agent for the show. It especially gives Skarsgard a chance to play Eric in a radically different way, that in turn refreshes some of the somewhat stale character dynamics. Less compelling are the continued love triangles (and even quadrangles) between the leads. Maintaining the show’s tradition of such high romantic melodrama means there’s just as much nudity and sex as ever, but at the price of a fundamental level of believability. The bar for such things is certainly set differently compared to other shows, but it’s probably time for the writers to display a bit of restraint in the who-will-hook-up-with-whom shell game. The juggling act of maintaining various “B” plots involving characters like Sam, Lafayette, and the crew at Merlotte’s seems a little more successful this go around, meaning their stories wind up feeding into the “A” story more effectively than before. However, some of the subplots never connect at all, and viewers may experience a bit of whiplash as the show moves between them. Nevertheless, the fourth season proves to be one of the more cohesive in the series’ history, setting the stage for some significant developments in the fifth season, which began its 12-episode run on June 10th. “True Blood: The Complete Fourth Season” on Blu-ray includes all 12 episodes that aired on HBO in 2011: She’s Not There You Smell Like Dinner If You Love Me, Why Am I Dyin’? I’m Alive and on Fire Me and the Devil I Wish I Was the Moon Cold Grey Light of Dawn Spellbound Let’s Get Out of Here Burning Down the House Soul of Fire And When I Die “True Blood’s” fifth season is currently airing on HBO on Sunday nights. Video Quality: 4.5/5 The series is accurately framed at 1.78:1 and presented in 1080p with the AVC codec. Black levels can be a touch inconsistent, at times looking appropriately inky but at others a touch pulled back, affecting apparent contrast. Fine object detail and sharpness are impeccable, however, and are the obvious strengths of the transfer. Visible skin texture - sometimes to a fault - precludes any use of noise reduction; likewise grain structure appears appropriately preserved with no signs of artificial sharpening or edge enhancement. Color, though at times manipulated for effect, also appears nicely deep and saturated. Audio Quality: 4.5/5 The DTS-HD Master Audio track offers an immersive and enveloping mix that includes an effective blend of atmospheric, environmental and dramatic surround effects with consistently clear and intelligible dialogue. Though perhaps not as surrounds-intense or laden with LFE as a top-shelf theatrical release, it's an impressive mix for a "mere" TV program. Scenes often have the sounds of crickets, wind or other environmental noises giving things a subtle sense of place. In contrast, more dynamic measures are taken to enhance various supernatural states and conditions. LFE is used sparingly, but consistently deep and clean. Special Features: 5/5 The bulk of the interesting and wide-ranging bonus material is wrapped up in each episode’s picture-in-picture Enhanced Viewing Mode, though there are also a number of items available outside of that experience. Each episode also includes a look behind the scenes through the “Inside” featurettes, original broadcast previews and recaps, and audio commentaries for six of the 12 episodes. The fifth disc has an interesting roundtable discussion about the post-production process and a sizable, interactive character map. Convenient DVDs and digital copies round out the impressive complement of extras sure to keep viewers occupied for hours. Recaps and Previews: Episodes include the "previously on" and "next on" promos that originally aired with them. Enhanced Viewing Mode: Included with all twelve episodes, the picture-in-picture feature includes character perspectives, which provide background on motives and plot points, a flash back and flash forward video feature that helps jog viewers' memories or teases what's to come, character bios for key figures, and informational pieces describing the show’s underlying mythology. Given the quantity of material being splashed across the screen, it can be somewhat distracting, so the feature plays best after one has already watched the episodes and want to dig a little deeper into the story. Audio Commentaries: Six commentaries feature members of the cast and crew in various combinations. Though the tracks featuring Creator Alan Ball and the lead actors will be the first to be sampled, and seem sufficiently informational, there are likely some good nuggets to be found in the other tracks as well. The commentaries consist of: Episode 2: Stephen Moyer (Bill), Deborah Ann Woll (Jessica), and Brian Buckner (Writer/Co-Executive Producer) Episode 3: Anna Paquin (Sookie) and Alan Ball (Creator/Executive Producer) Episode 4: Alexander Skarsgard (Erik) and Michael Lehmann (Director) Episode 6: Raelle Tucker (Writer/Co-Executive Producer) and Gregg Fienberg (Executive Producer) Episode 9: Sam Trammell (Sam) and Romeo Tirone (Director) Episode 10: Fiona Shaw (Marnie), Nancy Oliver (Writer/Co-Executive Producer), and Lesli Linka (Director) Inside the Episodes: Writers and producers highlight the major story developments in each episode, while directors describe various shooting techniques used for key scenes. Episode 1 (3:47, HD) Episode 2 (4:50, HD) Episode 3 (4:22, HD) Episode 4 (5:04, HD) Episode 5 (4:46, HD) Episode 6 (4:59, HD) Episode 7 (4:22, HD) Episode 8 (4:47, HD) Episode 9 (4:03, HD) Episode 10 (4:34, HD) Episode 11 (4:22, HD) Episode 12 (4:59, HD) Digital Copy: Compatible with Mac and Windows computers. Offer expires May 31, 2014. DVD: Spread across two flipper discs, the season is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic video and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio in English and French and Dolby Digital 2.0 in Spanish. Subtitle options are English, French, Spanish, and Brazilian Portuguese. [Disc Five] True Blood: The Final Touches (28:25, HD): Creator Alan Ball hosts a round table with the members of his post-production team, covering topics like visual effects, sound design, editing, and digital grading for specific elements used in the season. There’s a bit of backslapping throughout, but the piece offers an interesting look behind the scenes of the show’s post-production methods. True Blood Lines: The interactive feature maps the relationships and connections between the show’s multitude of characters, categorizing them by human, vampire, shapeshifter, werewolf, witch, werepanther, faerie, and miscellaneous. Individual character pages include a short biography, as well as links to the pages of those to whom they are connected. An additional archive area includes short biographies of 43 deceased characters from past seasons. Recap The Season: 4.5/5 Video Quality: 4.5/5 Audio Quality: 4.5/5 Special Features: 5/5 Overall Score (not an average): 4.5/5 HBO Home Entertainment delivers an excellent Blu-ray release for “True Blood’s” fourth season, getting high marks across the board in audio, video and special features. It’s a definite “must own” for fans and collectors of the series.