Judge Steve Power doesn't think vampires are so tough, if a bit of red meat can take 'em down.
Our reviews of The Vampire Diaries: The Complete First Season (Blu-Ray) (published August 31st, 2010), The Vampire Diaries: The Complete Second Season (Blu-ray) (published August 29th, 2011), and The Vampire Diaries: The Complete Third Season (Blu-ray) (published September 24th, 2012) are also available.
L.J. Smith's series of teen-centric novels comes to the small screen courtesy of writer/producer Kevin Williamson (Scream). Does this one manage to stake a claim in the post-Twilight glut of Vampire fiction, or is The Vampire Diaries just another brooding tale of undead angst that's been left in the sun for too long?
Facts of the Case
Elena (Nina Dobrev, Chloe) is depressed, of course. She attempts to go about her day to day existence in the town of Mystic Falls, Virginia, attending classes at the local high school and socializing with her crazy psychic friend, but the memory of her recently departed parents hangs heavily. She's doing a much better job of coping than her drug addled, lovestruck younger brother, and she seems more collected than her slightly older aunt, a college student suddenly burdened with the stewardship of her deceased sister's teen offspring.
As if all that weren't enough for poor Elena to deal with, that sexy new boy at school has been making doe eyes at her from across the room, and she feels magnetically attracted to him. The boy is Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley, Roll Bounce), who has problems of his own. Not only does he emote like a sopping wet dog, but he happens to be one of the immortal damned. He too has some familial issues, chiefly a kooky psychotic brother named Damon (Ian Somerhalder, Lost), who's embraced his inner vampire and generally loves to rip the larynx out of still-breathing normal folk. Even worse, both of the Salvatore brothers have taken an interest in Elena because she's a drop dead ringer for their old flame, who's been dead since the Civil War.
I blame Anne Rice. High on her "goth" throne of black velvet and white lace, she turned the uppermost boogeyman of Halloween boogeymen into a sexually starved creature of angst and yearning. Her tragic figures turned bloodsucking denizens of shadow into romantic figures of grace and tragedy. The real tragedy is that her imitators took her ideas and ran with them, but most either missed the point entirely, or otherwise chose to ignore it. Beneath these beautiful undead lurked the grotesque, primal savagery of the Vampire, beneath the porcelain mask lay the face of Count Orlok.
The Vampire Diaries doesn't really bring anything new to the table in that regard. Defenders will be quick to point out that the novels pre-date Stephanie Meyer's pulp Vampire love story by a decade or so, but don't kid yourself guys, if Twilight wasn't the media sensation and constant icepick under my toenails that it is, we wouldn't be looking at a slickly produced TV series based on another gaggle of books that feature teenage vampires in love. More likely we would be looking at a very different Vampire Diaries, where teens stake mud-faced vampires on a nightly basis, and fast-talking blonde women are the ultimate vampire slayers, using witty banter no real blonde teen would ever be capable of mustering. But I ramble, and digress as well. So, no, The Vampire Diaries isn't exactly what one would call original or fresh, but (surprise!) it's actually rather good.
I'm not sure how far the dialogue sways when you stack the show next to the books, but the first thing that struck me about this show was the wit. This isn't Gilmore Girls or Joss Whedon unreality, where 16-year-olds are all verbose and cynical dweebs who drop Star Wars and classic film references at every opportunity; these guys speak like real people. Witty, realistic banter has been a quality I usually associated with Kevin Williamson's writing style, thanks to efforts like Scream and Teaching Mrs. Tingle. His approach to teens seems more authentic, and stops the show from getting too caught up in 'lingo.' The scripts are pretty polished as well, and move pretty swiftly with some well established side characters. Again, the brilliance of the dialogue is that it serves the actors in portraying their characters rather than dictating them. We know a character is a wiseass or a cynic because of the portrayal rather than some cheap one-liners or witty repartee. It's honestly a step above the sort of genre TV I'm used to seeing when I hear words like "The CW."
I can only assume the show's other chief strength comes over intact from the books, and that's the mythology of Mystic Falls. The community has a pretty well fleshed out history, and many of the older characters in town happen to be in on the action. The show weaves threads involving the town's history during the American Civil War, the Salvatore family, and the other less than living forces that lurk about into the main plots. These sub-plots eventually supplant the high school shenanigans in exchange for something more akin to Supernatural minus the stupid, which makes for entertaining viewing that keeps you invested. There are one or two issues that give me cause for concern down the line, but I'll get to that.
I've also got to hand it to most of the cast. They handle the pea-soup fog of angst without ever resorting to cheap pouting or the classic go to, the thousand and a half yard stare. Had these three leads been chosen for Meyer's big scree vamp-wolf-teen love triangle, we might have gotten a film worth watching. Ian Somerhalder in particular really chews his role to pieces, embracing the darker side of undead life. His Damon Salvatore is a hoot to watch in action, and there's surprisingly more to him than drinking of blood and rampaging evil. Paul Wesley isn't given as much to do with the mopey do-gooder, Stefan, but he could have very easily taken the road more travelled and made him an absent, sullen eyed pouty-face. Thankfully, he doesn't.
The Vampire Diaries definitely has some cash behind it, what with Kevin Williamson's involvement, and it shows in the look and feel of the show. There's a cinematic vibe going on here that I seldom see in television. Direction seems considerably less rushed than normal, effects work is great, and the lighting and staging could easily pass for feature film at a glance. Warner's DVD treatment is equally excellent, capturing all of the dark shadows and earth tones in a pristine anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen transfer. The sound isn't given as much to do, but it certainly doesn't draw any negative attention to itself. Even quiet moments come through perfectly clear, and there's a pretty active soundstage.
There are a ton of extras on offer as well; including a few featurettes that give us a look at the series and how it's been adapted from the novels, some gag reels and casting stuff, a little bit of fluff, some fan service, some deleted scenes, and (most interestingly of all) an audio version of first book in the Vampire Diaries series. Cool!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Werewolves? Come on! You have got to be kidding me! This does not bode well for my thoughts on Season 2.
Sure it's dark, moody, brooding, angst-ridden, and at times, a little hokey. It's also well written, captivating drama with Vampires that actually don't suck! Har! The set's technical merits are also worthy of praise.
I'm putting away the garlic and holy water…for now.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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