Far from sucking: Reflections on season one of The Vampire Diaries

From the beginning, I was skeptical of The Vampire Diaries. When I heard about the series during development season back in early 2009, I was more than ambivalent. And what shouldn’t I have been? Its development came right on the heels of the Twilight phenomenon and just as True Blood was taking off. The whole thing felt like the CW trying to capitalize on a trend just a little too late. But due to some tertiary allegiance to a few of the folks involved with the project (Ian Somerhalder, Kevin Williamson) I watch the pilot last fall.

It did not change my mind. The Vampire Diaries pilot tries way too hard to create a moody atmosphere, spends half of its budget on fog machines and is basically as generic as I suspected it to be. Vindication! For whatever reason (I’m a masochist, I guess) I came back for episode two. Slight improvement, but still middling. More vindication! At that point last fall, I checked out.

And all last season, I read a ridiculous amount of posts and articles about how great the series was. Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide, Television Without Pity, everywhere was raving about how after a rocky start, The Vampire Diaries quickly became a force to be reckoned with that sped through plot development in a speedy, but satisfying fashion. “Oh it’s not about high school, it’s about the town and this great history.” “Ian Somerhalder destroys his role as the bad boy vampire Damon.” “Each week brings another what-the-you-know-what moment.” Blah, blah, blah, I thought. Then I sit in for the series’ panel at Comic-Con and watched the sizzle reel, which made The Vampire Diaries seemed insane.

After blazing through the whole first season in just a few days, I can now confidently say that all those statements up there in quotes are 100 percent, absolutely true. This is probably too hasty to say, but the series is definitely the most enjoyable drama from last season. And if it weren’t for Community, it’d be the most enjoyable new series, period. This post will probably be a long gush about why the series caught me off-guard, but near the bottom, I’ll discuss my concerns for season two, because there is one big one that has me thinking.

Even though I had read and heard from reliable friends about it, the way that The Vampire Diaries poses and answers mysteries caught me completely by surprise. I know that I’m used to the Lost school of storytelling and answer distribution, but even the praised-by-me approach from Fringe looks glacier-slow compared to how this series deals with things. Throughout the first season, mysteries are introduced and rarely do they go unanswered for more than four episodes. Four episodes! There are multiple reveals during the first half of season one that I would have expected to be held until season two. I’m not an impatient viewer, I would have been okay to see the series allow certain characters to keep secrets from others. However, I think Williamson and co-ep Julie Plec know the audience they’re writing for and at this point, everyone in the industry recognizes that holding on to answers for too long just to keep up some air of mystery doesn’t always work.

Moreover, this approach to storytelling actually helps the series stay away from the melodramatic high school-centered nonsense that it introduces in the pilot and then quickly gets away from. If the writers would have allowed Stefan to keep his vampire identity from Elena longer, there would have been many more episodes that felt overwrought and teen drama-y. I’ve been down that road with other series like Smallville where the lead characters try to keep something from the people they love and it just gets ridiculous by a certain point. And that’s the case with multiple characters and stories in this first season. The subtle hints about Bonnie being a witch in the pilot ramped up much quicker than I expected. Same goes for the multiple vampire reveals, the history of the town and the stuff with Elena’s lineage. Each one of those individual points would anchor an entire season on most series like this.

I also appreciate that the series is able to work with these multiple plotlines without feeling spastic or over the top, like say, True Blood. The HBO series is similar not only in content but in its insistence on introducing multiple new characters at a time, but the difference is that the CW counterpart can handle them much better. Yes, there are certainly more characters in True Blood and thus more to balance, but the numerical difference isn’t that vast. And yet, in just one season, The Vampire Diaries handles dozens of characters with ease, shifting between plotlines and character beats while still sticking to the heart of the series.

Speaking of that heart, I have to quickly give some props to cast. Ian Somerhalder is born to play this role and even from the beginning, gives the dick Damon some heart. It’s easy to play the charming asshole, but I can’t think of anyone who does as well right now on television. But in a lot of instances, when there are third or fourth leads that steal the spotlight, it’s insufferable to watch the “leads” circle around each other romantically or whatever (again, see True Blood). However, Paul Wesley and Nina Dobrev aren’t complete wet blankets as Stefan and Elena, respectively, which makes watching their lovey dovey malarkey that is at the center of many episodes.

Moving on, I really love how the series embraces history and the consequences of said history as a way to create a sense of place. There have been hundreds of series over the years that try to create this eerie small-town vibe that’s bubbling with mystery and horror — and most of them fail. However, by dipping into Mystic Falls’ history and really relying on that history to drive the narrative forward, the sense of place is actually important to the story instead of just set dressing that’s meant to create a vibe. And although it’s convenient to have so many people be related or turn out to be vampires, The Vampire Diaries sets up its storyline from the beginning by embracing that convenience because it actually fits into the small-town fabric. Mystic Falls is a place where history matters, especially family history, so it only makes sense that so many plot arcs and character revelations come with some sort of familial slant. The consequences of history play a huge part in sketching out the characters as well, which help make them come to life quicker than expected in a genre series like this.

Two more things (almost done, I swear): First, unlike say, True Blood, my enjoyment of Vampire Diaries doesn’t come from a place of guilty pleasure. The characters on this series aren’t stupid, things happen in a logical way, the twists aren’t just for twists sake and it always feels like the story is building to something. It might have a generic romance at is heart and wants to explore a love triangle that is full of false drama, but every element of The Vampire Diaries is well-crafted in a satisfying way.

But, I’m worried. I’m concerned that all the great things about season one (the pacing, the quick reveals, the narrative ground covered) will actually heart the series come season two. I hate to bring this up because it’s a sore subject for me, but I have to play the O.C. card here. The FOX teen drama had a fantastic first season, one that was jam-packed of stories, new characters and arcs that could have sustained at least two-and-a-half seasons. So it was no surprise that by season two rolled around, the series didn’t have anywhere interesting to go and decided to do the stupid thing by blowing out everything, going bigger. More characters, more love triangles (hell, there were a few quadrangles there), more drama and it was all too overstuffed. Now, as a Twitter buddy of mine Jeremy Mongeau points out, The Vampire Diaries still has a few cards to play, but that doesn’t alleviate my concerns. Season one isn’t an all-time classic, but on the whole, it’s really one of the better full pieces that I’ve seen in recent years. I’m hoping that Kevin Williamson and company recognize this possibility and avoid it like the sunlight because they have something special here.


3 responses to “Far from sucking: Reflections on season one of The Vampire Diaries”

  1. “The Vampire Diaries sets up its storyline from the beginning by embracing that convenience because it actually fits into the small-town fabric. Mystic Falls is a place where history matters, especially family history, so it only makes sense that so many plot arcs and character revelations come with some sort of familial slant. ”

    SPOT ON! this is SOOOO true. in true blood and twilight and a lot of other things, i always sit there wondering WHY? why this town? why this girl? but in the vampire diaries there is no need to ask why because it is said straight from the get go….. why elena? because she looks like katherine. why a witch? because she is a descendant of emily bennet. why are vampires here? they were one of the founding families. it all FITS in the show. it all makes SENSE.
    and i had the same exact experience. i never watched it thinking it would be like twilight but my sister kept pestering me. so i got all the episodes and watched the first and didnt like it, then the second after my sister assured me it would get better and it did get better, then the third and i was like hmmmm there might be something here.


  2. this show is just soooo amazing!


  3. Vampire Diaries Avatar
    Vampire Diaries

    Great wordpress blog here.. It�s hard to find quality writing like yours these days. I really appreciate people like you! take care and see you soon


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