The Vampire Diaries: "The Return"
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The Vampire Diaries: "The Return"

A few years ago, I always found myself surrounded by people who watched and loved Smallville, yet I could not muster up the necessary enthusiasm to watch the show beyond dropping in every few episodes or so. I could see what it was about the show that had people so excited about it, but I always found the episode plotting clumsy, the acting weak, and the overarching storyline full of stalls essentially built into the show's premise. Outside of briefly getting excited by the theory (advanced at the Television Without Pity forums) that the character of Chloe was going to eventually turn into Lois Lane somehow, since Allison Mack was my favorite thing in the cast, I just couldn't be bothered. But then one May, I tuned in for a season finale and realized that basically nothing had happened since the last episode I had seen. I realized I could watch just the season premieres and season finales of Smallville and mostly keep up with my friends who were ridiculously devoted to it. I could drop into Smallville conversations and toss in whatever knowledge I'd gleaned from the premieres, finales, and "previously on" segments, and no one would be the wiser.

I'm starting to think The Vampire Diaries will be the new show I do this with. The series moves like a bullet train, but nothing on it ever really changes. Cosmetic changes are made to the show. Different people hook up with each other. The various members of the supporting cast get involved in assorted scrapes that have little to no bearing on the main plot. Nina Dobrev plays 16 different characters. Nina Dobrev's brother wants to be a vampire, except sometimes he doesn't, except now he does again. The Vampire Diaries is the best current exemplar of an old TV storytelling fact: If you speed up the plot twists as fast as possible, it will be harder for people to realize you're just cycling through the same five or six storylines over and over and over again.

Last May, I watched the season finale of The Vampire Diaries and was blown away by how insane it was. The show was so damned goofy and over-the-top that even I, a vampire skeptic who hadn't watched an episode since the overwrought pilot, just kind of went with it. It was enough to prompt me to check out highlight episodes from the first season over the summer, and while I mostly enjoyed what I saw (the series employs that breakneck, throw-caution-to-the-wind pace better than any show on TV, even its most obvious relation, True Blood), I also got a sense of diminishing returns. The show was just cycling through an endless iteration of the same basic setups. I could see where watching this from week-to-week might get tiring.

The biggest problem with the show for me is that it's centered on a love triangle. Love triangles are such an old plot device that there's basically no way to do anything new with them. The reason they remain potent is because teenagers love 'em. You always remember your first exposure to the idea of a love triangle the most fondly. For me, I guess, it would be Dawson's Creek (also shepherded by Kevin Williamson), where I longed for Dawson to realize that Joey was the only girl for him and stop fooling around with this Jen tramp before I realized the show was only going to be successful if both girls were viable options for the asshole, which meant he would keep vacillating between them (and Joey, eventually, would keep vacillating between him and Pacey), and nothing would ever get resolved. It's just the same thing here, but I've got 11 years on the plot device, and when Nina Dobrev (whom I refuse to call by her character's name for reasons even I don't understand) tells Boone from Lost that she'll always love Stefan, and he takes it poorly enough to attempt to murder her brother, well, I know the show's going to be walking that one back fairly quickly.

And, indeed, it does. In order for the show to continue, Boone has to be just as believable a love interest for Nina Dobrev as Stefan is. He must remain the Pacey to her Joey in this scenario, and for all the shit Pacey put everyone through, he never killed anybody's brother in a fit of pique. So after Boone (and, yes, I know his name is Damon, but part of the fun of a show like this is calling the characters any damn thing you want) snaps her brother's neck, there are scenes full of mourning, and Nina Dobrev says she'll never forgive him and so on and so forth, and I'm just sitting there and counting the moments until the brother comes back to life. Again, hard to date a dude who killed your brother, and the show's not going to ditch its "will he/won't he become a vampire" thing this quickly. So, yeah, he gasps back to life, and maybe he's a vampire or whatever. It's not really a cheat because the show lays groundwork to escape from this corner, but it's still disappointing because, really, the only reason he's still alive is to service the love triangle, not the character of Boone. If he just casually murdered a dude and it was considered backsliding, that might be interesting.

But never mind all of that. The season premiere was still pretty grandly goofy, and the love triangle unexpectedly found a second wind, thanks to the greatest fucking idea in the history of television: Evil Nina Dobrev. Nina Dobrev used to be a girl both Stefan and Boone were in love with way back in the day, and then she was a vampire, and now she's Evil Nina Dobrev (that's really all you need to know to discuss this show at parties). Now, Evil Nina Dobrev is back to make Regular Nina Dobrev's life hell, and she's remarkably good at confusing people who know Regular Nina Dobrev into thinking that she's actually the genuine article, even though she spends all of her time sneering at things. Actual Nina Dobrev, who exists out here in reality with all of us, has a pretty enjoyable screen presence, as evidenced by her random singing and dancing at the Emmys, and I always hope the show will tap into this, but so far, it hasn't. Fortunately, playing her own evil twin has allowed the actress to at least have a bit of fun.

What's more, this whole evil twin business should feel a lot stupider than it does but somehow doesn't because it's a way for the show to have its cake and eat it too. She exists almost entirely as fan service, as though a bunch of people who bitch about The Vampire Diaries on a message board had collectively willed a golem to do their bidding into existence, made it look like Nina Dobrev, and loosed it on the show to do all of the things the real version cannot do. "Yes, my lords and masters!" she says. "I shall make out with Boone from Lost! I shall take off my shirt! Then I shall toy cruelly with Boone from Lost's emotions, that his heart might be smote twice over! I will kill the most useless character with a pillow! Goddamn, do I look amazing in these jeans!"

Evil Nina Dobrev is like the id of everyone who works on the show or watches the show made reality, and it's amazing to watch her rampage through an episode, doing things the show has needed to do for a while, as though she's crossing them off a chore list prepared for her by Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec. If this keeps up, by episode five, she'll have killed everyone on the show, erased the background scenery like she's in Duck Amuck, devoured reality itself, and found herself stranded alone in a white wasteland, shirt ripped in half, bloody sword clutched in hand, accompanied only by Boone from Lost, who will be standing over in a corner kickboxing the sky (or whatever weird performance tic he's picked up that week), and this will have become THE GREATEST SHOW ON TELEVISION.

Now, listen. I know all of that isn't going to happen. But a show like The Vampire Diaries thrives only when it convinces you that pretty much anything could happen at any given moment. Evil Nina Dobrev gives the show that momentum at present, while Boone from Lost occasionally grants the same. (Seriously, if you haven't watched this show, his performance is one of the most gloriously daffy on television. It generally consists of him genially tipping his cap toward "overacting" as he trucks right on by toward "completely bizarre." I mean this as a good thing.) But that can only last for now. The reason I'm pretty sure I can only watch this show in premieres and finales is because I know that next week, everybody involved is going to put a halt on the momentum and send things back toward a respectable mean. But I don't want that. I want this show to feel as crazy as it did last finale and this premiere. But to be that crazy, you pretty much can't be a TV show, where there needs to be some sort of status quo. As much as I'd like Evil Nina Dobrev to be the series' Ragnarok, I'm pretty sure she'll just end up being a bitchy evil twin. That's fun, but it's no utter desolation

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