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Once More, Without Feeling

By Sarah Carlson | TV | September 17, 2009 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | September 17, 2009 |

I can’t tell you what it says about our culture that one of the hottest entertainment trends is vampires, but the zeitgeist is churning out another sampling with “The Vampire Diaries.” A CW offering based on a series of young adult novels, “Diaries” provides more opportunities for beautiful and misunderstood women to bask in the deadly gaze of the undead. The TV show isn’t bad, and the pilot actually boasts a thrilling cold open in which a couple is killed off by an unseen vampire within seconds. “Diaries” is actually mildly entertaining. But it’s another angst-ridden teen tale set to angsty pop music in a gloomy and cloudy small town with a high school attended by a vampire — in broad daylight, a trick he pulls off thanks to a special ring. (Not as cool as how his eviler brother uses a crow and rolling fog to alert humans to his presence.) Haven’t we seen this all before with a certain Edward and Bella, and wasn’t that horrible enough? Buffy in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” mingled with vamps because it was her duty to kill them; “True Blood’s” Sookie mingles with them and other supernaturals because she is supernatural, and once the underworld learns of her gifts, there’s no turning back. Reasons you may find ridiculous, but reasons nonetheless. “Diaries” is another teenage girl who will fall in love with the mysterious pale dude in her history class. Why? No reason, really, but the story is going to be told anyway.

Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) and her younger brother, Jeremy (Steven R. McQueen), are recent orphans, braving the first days of school in the fall with their parents’ spring deaths still fresh. Friends awkwardly ask how they’re doing; Elena’s ex, Matt, stares longingly at her by the lockers but won’t say hi; their young aunt is struggling to play parent. Both are realizing that while their world is still in shambles, everyone else’s has moved on. No more free rides, as one impossibly cruel teacher says to Elena in front of her history class. Elena shares her feelings with her diary while Jeremy turns to drugs and older women, specifically Vicki, Matt’s sister. They trudge through the gloom to school, apparently located in an alternate Virginia, where it’s gray and cool in August and not muggy as hell. Elena soon bumps into the hot new guy, Stefan Salvator (Paul Wesley), and she bumps into him several more times during the next few days. He keeps appearing suddenly, which she finds a little odd, but what the hell, he’s gorgeous. It’s just a coincidence he shows up in the graveyard as Helena is there to visit her parents’ graves. It’s just a weird quirk that he disappears once he sees she has a cut on her leg and she notices his entire face starts to change — instant dark circles under the eyes. Maybe he’s foreign?

Elena and Stefan are able to spend time together at a party, however, but it’s at that party that a vampire attacks Vicki in the woods, leaving her barely alive and to be found by a distraught Jeremy. It’s not Stefan who has fed on her and the couple from the beginning, but his brother, Damon (Ian Somerhalder), back for a visit to the Salvators hometown after not having spoken to Stefan for decades. He’s got a grudge for some reason, and leaving evidence of a vampire is his way of potentially implicating Stefan in the attacks. Damon also knows what the audience now does, that Elena looks like someone named Katherine, who lived during the Civil War era in the same town. Stefan has a picture of Katherine and has come back to town specifically to meet Elena, though how she and Katherine are connected is unclear. Damon’s plan has worked, though, as Vicki tells Matt that it was a vampire that attacked her at the party, not some strange animal. Perhaps Elena will connect the dots and suspect the mysterious Stefan who freaks out about blood? And if so, what next? Will she fall for the sensitive vampire who also writes in a diary? I’ll be more impressed if she tries to kill him, just to shake things up a bit.

It’s easy to understand the appeal for tweens and teens to the Twilight series — the girl is the sole focus of the guy, a mousy-haired model who is pained by her beauty and existence and will do anything for her. It’s beyond fairy tale; he’s heroic and strong and will kill for her and usually does. That sentiment makes the story compelling for those burning for that kind of desire, but it doesn’t make the story actually good. Twilight pretends to be a chaste teen love story, when it really is a flaming pile of poo that sets the women’s movement back decades by offering up a heroine whose only desire is her long-dead beloved. I’m crossing my fingers they make a fourth movie based on the fourth book of the series; I am so looking forward to seeing a vampire baby nearly kill Bella as it emerges from her body, only to take so much of Bella’s blood that she has to be turned into a vampire, too, a nice little analogy of the heroine literally losing her humanity from giving into her desire. Thanks, Mormon housewife. “True Blood” is far more interesting, and while you can argue against the technical merits of Alan Ball’s TV show, you have to give him and author Charlaine Harris credit for going whole hog with the notion of the supernatural. Not only are vampires real, but so is every other mythological creature you’ve heard about. Sookie is just as in love with her beau, too, but she thrives in her independence and will kick him out in a second when he’s done her wrong. And “Buffy,” well, “Buffy” is awesome. She kills her love when it comes down to it. An increasing scale of feminism in these respective shows almost correlates with how they are received, Twilight being everywhere and “Buffy” still being a genre show. The masses are devouring the poison by the handfuls.

So where does that leave “The Vampire Diaries”? Somewhere in between. It won’t be as graphic or as insane as “Blood,” but it’s a step up from Twilight in action, romance and in that the main actors looking awake while delivering lines. Elena seems a strong enough heroine for the CW’s “Gossip Girl”-watching audience, and at least Stefan doesn’t glitter. I only hope Elena has more of a spine than her vampire-loving predecessors, and I only hope having a vampire show doesn’t become a network requirement akin to having ones about cops and doctors. I love “True Blood,” but it’s unique — there’s honestly nothing on TV like it. “Diaries,” while entertaining, is simply unnecessary. And by today’s TV standards, that makes for a hit.

Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Welsh Corgi.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.