The Vampire Diaries debuts at 8 p.m. EDT/7 p.m. CDT tonight on The CW.
At what point did vampires become one of the steps along the continuum of the sexual development of America’s young women? If the symbol of casting off parental shackles and throwing yourself into some sort of young hedonism one can only find with an inappropriate boy has typically been a twentysomething guy in a leather jacket on a motorcycle (as seen in Rebel Without a Cause and Happy Days) or, at the least, its Midwestern variant of a twentysomething guy in a beat-up pickup truck (best expressed by the video for Trisha Yearwood’s “She’s in Love with the Boy”), we now find ourselves in an age when the teenage girls of America (and sometimes their mothers) long only for the cool, clammy, root cellar-esque embrace of the undead. Times are topsy-turvy, friends, and The CW is here to make them topsy-turvier.
Fortunately for all of us, The Vampire Diaries is pretty much by default the best show The CW is debuting this fall precisely because it has no idea how bad it is. Compared to the trying-too-hard-to-be-camp-classics The Beautiful Life: TBL and Melrose Place, this feels oddly refreshing. This is a guilty pleasure created the way guilty pleasures used to be created – through a bunch of people who don’t quite realize that what they’re doing is just borderline laughable enough to actually be laughable. This does not mean that The Vampire Diaries is good by any means, but if you’ve been looking for so bad it’s good this fall TV season, your ship may have come in.
Everyone involved in the production of The Vampire Diaries is trying to claim that the series is not some sort of Twilight ripoff (and how dare you suggest such a thing!), since the books the series is based on came out long before Twilight was even a twinkle in Stephanie Meyer’s eye. Obviously, the success of Twilight and True Blood had nothing to do with The CW frantically casting about for yet another vampire-falls-in-love-with-a-human book series to bring to its network, ideally one with lots of teenagers who can stare smolderingly at the camera. The network found it in this series, and it paired it up with ‘90s horror movie/teen soap impresario Kevin Williamson. To his credit, Williamson, who worked with Julie Plec, late of Kyle XY, to bring this series to TV, doesn’t try to play any of this with the zany self-referentiality of his Scream films. Instead, he takes his popular Dawson’s Creek template, subtracts James VanderBeek and adds vampires.
By playing this material straight, Williamson has mostly succeeded in dragging the old WB back from the grave. Try though The CW might, the network has never managed to nail down the blend of character interplay, sexual free-for-all and goofy premises that characterized the WB in its heyday. The WB had a lot of good shows, particularly for the demographic it was chasing and the time it existed, but it also had its fair share of vaguely wholesome pabulum choking up the airwaves. Never let it be forgotten that the network’s biggest ratings came from an episode of 7th Heaven. The CW, by contrast, has pretty much just pushed the pedal to the metal in favor of tawdriness. It works less often than you’d think it would, particularly in the network’s promos, so that makes the relatively chaste Vampire Diaries a nice throwback.
But nostalgia for The WB can only carry this show so far. As far as mash-up concepts go, Dawson’s Creek meets Twilight isn’t a bad one (and, indeed, it sounds vaguely like the enjoyably goofy vampire soap Dark Shadows), but the series never quite has the amount of fun with it that it could have. Ian Somerhalder turns up as bad vampire Damon and has a lot of fun overplaying the character (in a performance where the quality of his over-the-topness varies from scene to scene), but the rest of the cast consists of a lot of generic pretty faces who will look good on billboards and in magazine advertisements but possess little to no actual acting talent. Series star Nina Dobrev seems like she might develop that thing where she seems to be thinking really hard and she’s pretty while doing it that all of the best WB actresses had, but she’s still a ways from that. Paul Wesley as the lead vampire Stefan doesn’t even quite have that, but he’s so obviously attractive that it’s mildly ridiculous. The rest of the teenage characters are fairly interchangeable, and they get into a series of wacky mishaps straight off in the pilot, but there are probably way, way too many of them. The thing that made Dawson’s (and, come to think of it, The O.C.) work was that it had a very, very small ensemble to focus in on. Modern teen soaps have ensembles that just balloon all over the place, and that cuts down on relatability.
But there’s probably not a lot to relate to in this show anyway. It’s the same old girl meets vampire, girl loves vampire story that’s been around for a century or so now, complete with reincarnated lovers and complicated vampire rules (apparently, they can walk around in daylight if appropriately bejeweled) and all of the sorts of things you associate with vampire love stories. The show works overtime to instill a sense of horror and mystery to its rather rote plot elements (again, taken directly from the books), but for the most part, it just ends up feeling kinda goofy, as when Stefan assures us over the opening scenes that, yeah, he’s a vampire, and that’s what we’re here to see, or when pilot director Marcos Siega films a crow from especially menacing angles. It’s not immediately clear how much everyone involved in the show knows about how goofy the show they’re making ultimately is, but it’s a welcome change from people making shows that deliberately set out to be terrible.
And make no mistake about it. A lot of Vampire Diaries is just blatantly awful. The soundtrack is full of songs you’ve heard on every other CW drama ever. There are lengthy monologues from the journals kept by Stefan and Elana (Dobrev) that pretty much just amount to philosophical rambling designed to get both characters staring with furrowed brows. The pilot plays fast and loose both with the vampire mythos and with the idea that vampires are even around (letting us know point blank in the opening scene that they’re there but then trying to eke some suspense out of the question of whether they are or not). And none of this is original in the least. But, at the very least, it’s a show that has a sense of bizarre commitment to its ideas, and that’s got to count for something on a network that seems to be redefining cynicism almost daily.
- By saying that this is the best of The CW’s fall pilots, I’m ignoring the fact that I haven’t seen the full pilot for Beautiful Life (which is seriously subtitled TBL), as the network has yet to send it out. I can’t imagine them improving that much on the pilot presentation they did send out though. This also ignores that the network’s midseason offering, the horribly titled Life UneXpected, is a surprisingly charming little show with a winning cast and a fun premise. This means the network will likely cancel it.
- My favorite bit of dialogue (which I am unfortunately paraphrasing): “We were best friends since childhood, so we just had to try dating to see if we could make it work. … But then my parents died.” I mean, don’t let THAT get in the way of your fun or anything.