September 23, 2012 by Jason Seligson
To the uninitiated, the unfortunately-named CW drama may seem like your typical trashy-teen soap. And while there are some moments in the show’s pilot that executive producers Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek, The Following) and Julie Plec (Kyle XY) admit are evocative of a certain book franchise, here’s a brief but necessary disclaimer: The Vampire Diaries isn’t Twilight. Fans of complex characters and drama will still get something out of this show—even those with an aversion to the vampire craze that has saturated pop culture for the past few years.
The pilot isn’t perfect—and it may take several episodes to hook you, but The Vampire Diaries does what any good show should: it deepens over time. Each episode peels back a layer of its emerging mythology—one that’s as meticulously plotted as any show on TV right now. This “box-within-a-box” approach is what Lost undoubtedly mastered, but The Vampire Diaries has perfected the art of the cliffhanger in its own right. Every episode—nearly every commercial break—delivers some new revelation or twist to tide the viewer over until the following week.
The show is constantly shifting its own paradigm; there’s no set formula, which gives the writers the freedom to make each episode its own story, while servicing a larger story arc. The Vampire Diaries embraces a kind of boldness that makes the stakes feel real. In other words, the investment made by the viewer is rewarded, as tragedy is a genuine (and likely) outcome. This kind of forward momentum storytelling has worked for three seasons, with no sign of slowing down.
While reviews for the show’s premiere were initially critical, the conversation became far more positive as it progressed. Daniel Fienberg, a TV and Film critic for HitFix.com has been a longtime champion for the CW show. In August, Fienberg cited The Vampire Diaries along with HBO’s Boardwalk Empire as his two most anticipated returning shows of the season. “We’re talking about two shows that actually had game changers,” he said in a television critics’ roundtable video.
The acting is overall solid. Paul Wesley’s Stefan doesn’t have much range; but Ian Somerhalder’s tortured, smarmy Damon injects the show with the kind of energy it needs. As the lead female actress Nina Dobrev plays Elena, a girl dealing with the death of her parents. As the series progresses, she comes into her own and juggles multiple nuanced roles with a skill I’ve only seen done by Anna Torv of Fringe. The supporting cast is more peripheral in the early episodes, but seeing relatively unknown stars like Candice Accola undergo a metamorphosis along with their characters has been a joy to watch unfold.
The Vampire Diaries clearly owes a lot to what came before it. If Buffy was the professor—The Vampire Diaries is the student that never missed a class, studied hard, and earned straight A’s. Because while one can never overstate the impact Joss Whedon’s cult-show-that-could has had on television—Buffy is more alive than ever here, in a show that shares so much DNA that the two could be second cousins. Sure, The Vampire Diaries doesn’t have that great winking dialogue only Whedon can pull off—the show will never call a stake “Mr. Pointy,” and the chances of a full-on musical a la “Once More With Feeling” remain slim—but its reverence of the slayer-saga shines through all the same.
What makes The Vampire Diaries great is how it defies logic in more ways than one. What should have been the third-rate version of a campy, already trite genre has consistently proven itself to be far more than it appears. Negative perception is something that came with the territory, however; Williamson and Plec knew what they were getting into well before the pilot.
“We decided early on, to let us just buy ourselves into this premise that has so been done, and let us introduce a world [of characters and a town]. And just kind of begin and hope that people just want to be on that road with us long enough for us to lead them into what we know the show is,” Plec said in an interview with the Nerdist Writers Panel. “We found the core of what the show is…this whole profound idea of loss and loneliness that can really be filled up with love.”
Maybe it’s the Buffy connection, but watching The Vampire Diaries feels strangely nostalgic—like a slice of what the WB used to be roughly ten years ago. The CW had a rocky start, and while former WB hits like Smallville and Supernatural brought in substantial viewership, it wasn’t enough. The Vampire Diaries—having amassed critical acclaim—is the kind of show that the network needs right now, both to continue to draw in viewers and to stay relevant beyond its perceived “tweens” network stigma.
If you’re a TV fan, don’t let the name dissuade you. The Vampire Diaries premieres October 11, at 9/8c. All three seasons are available on Netflix Instant Watch, and there’s still time to catch up on one of the best shows on TV.