“The Vampire Diaries”: Judge away, at least I’m happy by Matilda Dixon-Smith

Posted on March 15, 2012

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Dear readers, I wish I could say “I survived the blood-sucking epidemic”; that the Vamp-Romp phenomenon failed to suck (LOL) me in. To say that would be lying—and I would never lie to you.

I read the Twilight books, I indulged in two seasons of True Blood, I also rather enjoyed BBC’s excellent Being Human. It’s safe to say that I was well into this Vamp-Romp world. Even so, through all this there has not been one story that has captured my heart the way CW’s The Vampire Diaries did. I’ll admit that it may have begun as a paltry response to the already paltry Twilight series (even though TVD books are over a decade older than Twilight, the show was definitely TV’s answer to Edward Cullen). Despite this, The Vampire Diaries has evolved from derivative mediocrity into something engaging and unique. It is now cleverly constructed television that panders to its audience while subtly coaxing them to work harder to reap its exceptional rewards.

If I haven’t lost you before, with my protestations concerning trashy television and even trashier movies, I’ve probably lost you now. “‘The Vampire Diaries’?” You ponder quizzically. “Is she serious??”  Just hear me out y’all. This show is NUTS!

Elena (Nina Dobrev) is an orphaned teenager (The CW’s favourite kind) whose life spirals out of control when the 160 year-old vampiric Salvatore brothers return to Mystic Falls. Elena falls for Stefan (Paul Wesley), the Salvatore who has retained his humanity and is thus more suitable for starry-eyed love business. Unfortunately for Elena, Stefan’s infinitely more attractive and dastardly brother, Damon (Ian Somerhalder), also has his eye on her. Elena has spent two seasons unlocking the secrets of supernatural Mystic Falls, along with her friends Bonnie, Caroline, Tyler and Matt, her brother Jeremy, and (inappropriate on so many levels) history teacher Alaric. This season (the third season), the villain du jour, Klaus, is rampaging through town, maiming or killing just about everyone he can get his hands on. His big bad family of thousand-year-old creeps are also periodically popping in and out of Mystic Falls like it’s some kind of rest and relaxation facility for hard-core villains.

Oh, and THIS happens, like, a lot.

Here’s the thing: in Mystic Falls, there are no rules. All that pesky business about vampires sizzling in the sun? Solved by a simple witch talisman. Some nonsense about characters who die actually staying dead? It’s all good, y’all, because the witches are on that one too. Kevin Williamson and his writing staff have obviously decided to just make the rules up as they go along, and while you’d think this would mean a hot mess, it actually makes for a cracking show. I kind of wish I could unsee the first half of season one, where the show took the “diaries” in the title really seriously and Stefan and Elena did painful voice-overs of their journal entries. By midway through season two, TVD was a totally different series.

“Dear diary…”

It might seem like a silly show, and in some ways it is, but in other ways it’s brilliant. The writing is whip-smart and the performances are strong. Supporting stars like Candice Accola (Caroline), Michael Trevino (Tyler) and Matt Davis (Alaric) command a real presence on-screen. I credit Williamson’s writing staff with having an ability to know exactly what to do with their characters, and with creating a host of multi-faceted supporting players. While Dobrev is duller as Elena, she is note-perfect as calculating doppelganger Katherine.  Any girl who prefers Wesley’s Stefan over Somerhalder’s Damon is a lunatic. Somerhalder is quick-witted and dangerous, with an underside of desirable (even sometimes heart-wrenching) humanity. He is also extremely good-looking: chiselled features, a rockin’ bod and beautifully intense eyes. This season the writers are trying to strip away some of Wesley’s nice guy image, making him more interesting (and more fun) to view, but Somerhalder is still the superior male lead.

Wouldn’t you rather make kissing noises with THIS gent? 

What Vampire Diaries does really well is villains. The more flawed and generally nasty a character is, the more you tend to like them. This season, the MVP of the series is villainous Klaus. He is played with witty and sophisticated precision by Joseph Morgan, and most of the show’s fun is driven by him. Besides being awesome, he is also cruel and vindictive, further proving that this show’s writers know how to create a character that is far from one-dimensional. The most recent stroke of genius was in having Klaus form a rather dashing attachment to one of the fans’ favourites, Caroline. This development has given his dangerous bravado a chance to crack and reveal some deep-seated insecurity. The complexity of the well-trodden good/evil theme is so brilliantly done on Vampire Diaries, it makes comparing it to Twilight like comparing apples and a packet of Twisties: the only thing that connects the two is that they both happen to be food.

Attractive though he may be, you don’t want to get on the wrong side of  Klaus.

It’s no secret that I’m a great fan of light-hearted television (generally aimed at teenagers). I’m not ashamed of liking these shows because it’s here I’ve learned the most about writing truly great TV. It’s so much easier to see a show’s merits when you’re not worried about the needless complexity or trendiness of a series’ premise, or intimidated by the HBO-style gung-ho attitude to story production. Because most of Vampire Diaries is simply good fun, one is able to detect the finesse in its construction, the detail in the writing and the admirable way the series manipulates and extends the television form. With the perfect balance of high calibre individual episodes and meaty story arcs, and a firm understanding of how to reward an audience’s commitment with outstanding payoffs, this critically over-looked show is so much more than it appears.

Matilda Dixon-Smith is You’re Dripping Egg’s co-creator and editor-in-chief, and the writer most unwilling to mature her television-watching tastes. For more from Matilda on US television, have a read of her Beating the…Cold: The Best and Worst of US Summer Ratings TV article.

What do you think of Vampire Diaries, and of the Vamp-Romp genre as a whole (which, thankfully, appears to be drawing to a close)? Let us know your thoughts in comments!

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Posted in: Television