Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
Despite being a spin-off of The Vampire Diaries, one of The CW’s most successful properties, The Originals presents a dilemma for the network: How do you launch a show with two seasons’ worth of backstory and a byzantine mythology—a show that essentially already premiered via backdoor pilot last April—in a way that entices both fans of the original show and potential newcomers?
The devised solution—to retell the events of the backdoor pilot from the perspective of a different character—is interesting in theory, but only fitfully successful in practice. In the “Originals” episode of The Vampire Diaries that introduced this new world, Joseph Morgan drove all of the action as the petulant and ruthless werewolf-vampire hybrid Klaus, who was lured to New Orleans by a coven of witches that need his help eradicating the self-professed vampire king (Charles Michael Davis, in a star-making role) who is controlling the coven’s ability to do magic.
By shifting the focus in the premiere of The Originals to Daniel Gillies’ Elijah, the action of the story moves to the background, essentially making Gillies and the audience equal observers in Morgan’s story. It’s a puzzling choice, mostly because this shift forces the majority of the actual story beats to be spoon-fed through many mouthfuls of clunky, expository dialogue. People are less characters in this premiere than a collection of easily digested bits of information (the “bartender with a grad degree in psychology” who admits she’s a “total cliché” being the most egregious) that serve to clumsily introduce new viewers, but have the potential to alienate old ones in the process.
It doesn’t help that although much of the premiere is new footage, a good portion of it reads like a retread. The Originals attempts to piece together the story of this family of vampires, a story that dates back hundreds of years, and the mishmash of flashbacks, origin story, and retelling of events already told just a few short months ago give the whole affair a Franken-pilot feel that simply wasn’t there in the backdoor pilot. Much of this was inevitable, as the show must find a way to explain to new viewers exactly who these characters are and why the audience should care about them, but by trying to serve two masters the premiere ends up only half succeeding at impressing either.
Watering the action down in this way does the biggest disservice to the characters, who come off as mere shadows of who they appeared to be in the past. Joseph Morgan has always been one of The Vampire Diaries’ biggest assets and all of his charisma and wounded fragility was abundantly clear in the backdoor pilot. Here, that nuance is lost, and even more shockingly, Daniel Gillies suffers a bit as well. (Not to mention poor Claire Holt, whose complex vampire is reduced to a vapid presence on other the end of a telephone line.) Gillies’ character is one for the ages, and although the actor’s portrayal of him is as wonderfully measured as ever, his actions here feel like the equivalent of a vampire Parent Trap situation, with Gillies just trying to keep his siblings together using whatever trickery he can.
Yet, in spite of all of these concerns, it still feels like there’s a show here. On The Vampire Diaries, creator Julie Plec has demonstrated a real ability to write interesting, nuanced family dynamics for this group of siblings while still underlining that their biggest dangers are usually each other. This conflict forms the basis of the premise for The Originals, as Morgan’s quest for ultimate power and desire to become the king of New Orleans comes into stark relief with Gillies’ desire to tame his brother through something he’s never really had before, not even with their own father: unconditional love. That this unconditional love comes in the form of Morgan’s unborn child, a seemingly impossible pregnancy that threatens to mire this whole enterprise in a bog of soapy supernatural madness, is perhaps the most interesting thing about The Originals.
But if anyone can take something that appears to be Twilight-inspired dreck and turn it into something emotionally compelling, it’s the team that elevated The Vampire Diaries into one of the most exciting supernatural shows on television. Introducing a plot point as controversial as the pregnancy so early in the show—nay, building a show around this very concept—is equally insane and brave, and demonstrates an impressive amount of confidence by the writers. It’s this confidence along with the strength of the raw materials on display here that make The Originals one to watch, even if the actual premiere leaves something to be desired.
Created by: Julie Plec
Starring: Joseph Morgan, Daniel Gillies, Claire Holt, Phoebe Tonkin, Daniella Pineda, Charles Michael Davis, Danielle Campbell, Leah Pipes
Debuting: Thursday at 9:00 p.m. Eastern on The CW
Format: Hour-long drama
One episode watched for review