No Guilt In Saying It: "The Vampire Diaries" Is One of TV's Most Addicting Shows
Judging a TV show based solely on its pilot and predicting its success -- its ability to deliver a solid story and stay entertaining, not its ratings -- isn't easy. Some pilots I love; some I hate. But most fall in the middle ground -- that murky "It has potential" realm that frustrates both critic and reader alike. I'm the first to admit that watching further episodes can change my initial opinion of a series. Sometimes, it just takes time to either warm up to or give up on a show. Seeing as we aren't in the business of going back and running an addendum to reviews, readers won't know if our minds have changed about a show or not. Today, however, I'm breaking with tradition and admitting my love for a series I at first largely dismissed: "The Vampire Diaries."
That's right -- the CW teen supernatural soap opera that starts its fourth season tonight. I love it. I have been anticipating its premiere as much I did for HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" and Showtime's "Homeland," if not more so. It may not carry the same gravitas as those shows, but it certainly is addicting. Upon its debut in 2009, I deemed "The Vampire Diaries" as unnecessary -- a "True Blood" light that looked too much like The Twilight Saga to be appealing. These days, though, I prefer it to "True Blood," which seems to have lost its ridiculous way with each season. "Diaries" isn't a great drama that should be winning all the awards. But damn it if it isn't entertaining as hell.
A lot happened in the first three seasons, which are based on the YA books by L.J. Smith, in the life of teenager Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) and the vampire brothers she is torn between, Stefan (Paul Wesley) and Damon Salvatore (Ian Somerhalder), in fictional Mystic Falls, Va. Her brother, Jeremy (Steven R. McQueen), can communicate with the dead; one of her best friends, Bonnie Bennett (Kat Graham), is a witch while another, Caroline Forbes (Candice Accola) is a vampire who is dating a vampire-werewolf hybrid, Tyler Lockwood (Michael Trevino); and Elena has been hunted on more than one occasion by members of the original vampire family, the Mikaelsons. She is a doppelganger of vampire Katerina von Schwartzchild/Katherine Pierce, a nasty piece of work that both Salvatore brothers fell for back in Civil War-era Mystic Falls before they were turned. The doppelganger development is too detailed to explain here; just know that it makes Elena a target for the "originals."
"The Vampire Diaries" doesn't have the same camp feel as "True Blood" or, say, the spunk of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Its drama is played straight, and somehow, it works, moody indie music and tales of broken teen hearts and all. I've pinpointed a few reasons why I think the show is so watchable:
- Characters die, or better yet, transition. None of the leads have been offed just yet, but plenty of supporting characters have said goodbye throughout the years. Some characters have been turned into vampires, often against their will and to various results, and a recurring theme of the series is that there are consequences to interactions with the supernatural world. The series began with Elena and Jeremy newly orphaned after their parents were killed in a car crash, and little by little they and their friends have lost other family members, guardians and loved ones as everyone's involvement with vampires, witches and werewolves has deepened. This isn't Twilight; there is actual risk involved.
- You can't help but care about the love stories. True, love triangles aren't exactly original, and I'm sure you can find Team Damon and Team Stefan gear at places such as Claire's Accessories in the mall. But ask a fan which brother they think Elena should be with, and you're sure to get an answer. All of the characters have had their own romantic highs and lows as well, but the triangle is at a the center of the series and has so far remained compelling and kept fans guessing -- and shipping (I'm looking at those rooting for Caroline to be with Klaus, one of the originals).
- Flashbacks! History! Somerhalder! You see this in other works, too, including all of the vampire TV series and movies already mentioned. But there's something endearing about the mid-budget use of costumes and wigs to represent different eras and cultures. With ancient vampires in a cast, it's too irresistible not to travel back in time to see them romping about, sucking on necks here and there. "Diaries" has done a nice balancing act of revisiting the past and keeping it relevant to the present. And no matter what time period he's dwelling in, Somerhalder clearly has a blast playing the "bad" brother. His smirks and one-liners help keep the show from straying too much toward the maudlin.
I'm glad that out of curiosity I kept watching "The Vampire Diaries." Sometimes, it's the shows we least expect to which we get hooked on the most.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. She's Team Damon.