In Defense of THE VAMPIRE DIARIES
Welcome Erin Curtis, Jenny Bragdon and George Bragdon from our sister site, Forever Young Adult. You'll be seeing lots more of them around here, so say howdy! -Meredith
The Vampire Diaries just might be the best show you're not watching. That's right. Scoff all you want, but read on to hear just why this CW drama is one of the strongest (and certainly one of the most entertaining) genre TV shows out there.
No Flowcharts or Diagrams Required.
The Vampire Diaries is not the best genre television show, but it may be the best at being a genre television show. Unconcerned with shadowy conspiracies or complicated narratives, this isn’t a show which inspires whole websites dedicated to predicting its outcome. It isn't going to string out a complicated mythology that captures the attention of a nation; there will never be an Entertainment Weekly cover story which includes a flow chart attempting to link its many dropped hints and clues into a cohesive road map which will Answer All Your Burning Questions. Michelle Trachtenberg is never going to show up unannounced and no one is going to wake up and realize it was all a terrible dream. And that’s why I love it.
The writers of The Vampire Diaries understand something which most genre show-runners have yet to grasp: a simple story, told well, is always preferable to a complex story not told at all. There is no overarching origin tale in this show which must be constantly revisited: instead the viewers are presented with a major issue each season which is then, hallelujah, resolved by season’s end. Every episode sets up a minor (or major) problem which feeds into the season's storyline and that problem is then dealt with accordingly, setting up a minor (or major) cliffhanger for the next episode.
This may sound formulaic and cheap--a Monster of the Week show in which the monsters are humans and their human problems--but as a longtime fan of genre television, I find it fucking refreshing. I am tired of investing hours of my life to watch a television program in which the creators pretend that they have any type of plan for how everything should wrap up. I am tired of spending more time on a show's continuity than the show’s own script supervisor. When is the last time a genre program actually threaded together even half of its spun-out threads?
Guilty Pleasure Television, Minus the Guilt.
You know how you start watching a show ironically, just so you can know enough about it to ensure that your snide comments are informed? Yeah, that was how I started watching The Vampire Diaries. And while the first few episodes of the first season played with hokey Dark Shadows-type fog and menacing crows and our lead protagonists writing forlornly in their journals--they are so, so sad, don't you know--it still had enough genuinely creepy scares to hold my interest. It's a vampire show whose vampires aren't--as a rule--cuddly (and they never sparkle), and which feels like it follows more traditional lore than most of its contemporaries. Because, yes, it's a show loosely based (and I DO mean loosely) on a YA vampire book series written in the '90s, but it's also a show loosely based on a YA vampire book series written in the '90's, interpreted by adults.
It seemed right about halfway through that first season that the writers/producers of the show realized just what they had in their actors, and how much fun their actors were having with embracing the fact that this was camp television. That's when this "guilty pleasure" shifted into straight up "pleasure."
They've pushed the boundaries of what they can get away with, censor-wise, on network TV--both with the horror elements and unusually clever use of the word 'dick'--and have consistently allowed the cast to play with their characters in a way that doesn't make them come across as completely schizo. For instance: Damon Salvatore (the "bad boy" of the two vampire brothers) is like a blood-sucking, PG-13 Al Swearengen, a despicable but lovable scenery-chewer who, somewhere along the way, becomes sort of a good guy. However, he never fully changes from his self-destructive nature, and as a result, they don't have to resort to giving him happy pills to bring back Angelus.
Sigh, groan, shake your head in dismay to express your disgust with the way they sell teen shows like this as "hot," with well-toned twenty- and thirty-something actors standing in for teenagers but--let's be honest now--we rarely tune into a television show to watch boring, unattractive people. That's especially so with a genre soap opera as rich as The Vampire Diaries. And so, yeah, it helps that TVD boasts an ensemble cast of PYT ladies and hearthrobby gents. And while TVD does lightly push the limits of network TV, the very fact that it is a network show means that it can never slip into, say, True Blood territory and cover up clunky storytelling in a fog of gore, boobs and orgies. Hell, even by contrast to some other CW shows, TVD can seem refreshingly chaste. Despite the intermittent shirtlessness of the Salvatore brothers played by Paul Wesley and Ian Somerhalder (yes, the boys are like walking washboards; but the timing of said undress seems like a funny game between the audience and the show-runners), and despite lead actress Nina Dobrev occasionally vamping it up in some lingerie, all the sexy times are more implied--revealing just enough to be, well, hot. Is it silly and mildly annoying at first that so much screen time is dedicated to men without shirts (hey, at least they aren't in jorts) and drawn out scenes of "will they or won't they get it on?" A little. At first. But, get into the story and the characters, and in time you'll be ignoring or maybe even enjoying those elements. Because those are just some of the parts that makes TVD's clever, campy engine run. As with the show on the whole, the writers/producers/directors/runners seem acutely aware of this and use these silly tropes for maximum fun, and not for gag-inducing melodrama/network teen porn. And, I defy every person--man or woman--to watch the crazy eye charm of Ian Somerhalder in a few eps and not develop at least a small crush on the guy.
Bottom line: With its tongue firmly in its cheek, The Vampire Diaries isn't asking to be saved from the ghetto of teenybopper TV, but it should be.