Critic's Notebook: When 'The Vampire Diaries' Was Good, It Was Great

Recovering from a dismal pilot, Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson's drama (which comes to an end Friday night) spent several years as one of TV's most purely entertaining shows.
Courtesy of the CW
'The Vampire Diaries'

In 2010 and 2011, in the heart of what we keep calling a Golden Age of TV, there were four shows that made my Top 10 lists in both years.

Three of those shows won't be surprising. Friday Night Lights completed its run with two classic seasons made possible by an unlikely partnership between DirecTV and NBC. Parks and Recreation continued its evolution after a rough first season by delivering two nearly perfect runs of episodes. And Breaking Bad kept twisting the screws as the third and fourth seasons became its tensest yet.

The fourth show to make my Top 10 in both 2010 and 2011?

The CW's The Vampire Diaries.

Naturally.

The Vampire Diaries concludes on Friday after eight seasons and 171 episodes, and although I haven't missed an hour, it's not a show I talk about very much anymore. The show has gone through a qualitative arc that verges on unique — I'd compare it to Sons of Anarchy, but only because I know being tied to a CW supernatural soap opera would cause fans of the FX motorcycle soap opera to go into conniptions — and no matter the level on which it's going out, it feels right for me to give a nod to a series that really was the most undervalued great drama on network TV for two years.

When Vampire Diaries premiered in 2009, let's just say I didn't like it.

I called Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson's pilot "a shameless bit of pandering to the fang-banging throngs" and complained of stars Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley and Ian Somerhalder, "the men all pose more than act and Dobrev only has a shade more expressiveness."

This was how I described the show's best-case scenario: "Much more self-consciously silly than Twilight, featuring more rolling fog than an ’80s rock video and driven by a half-dozen of the most stilted performances East of Melrose Place, The Vampire Diaries may emerge as the sort of brainless guilty pleasure The CW hoped its recent Fox retreads might become."

Somehow, that was enough for me to stick with Vampire Diaries and for a while, Plec and Williamson were forced to wade through L.J. Smith's dismal novel and the series was a hammy mess of bad acting and even worse plotting. Don't make me remind you of those few episodes in which Stefan (Wesley) joined the football team because his vampire powers made him an unstoppable force as wide receiver. This happened, and it wasn't good.

The show's turning point was not, in fact, the first midseason finale episode, which was titled "The Turning Point." It came a little bit earlier and it involved the all-too-fast arc in which Vicki Donovan (Kayla Ewell), not-hugely-compelling love interest to Steven R. McQueen's Jeremy and sister to Zach Roerig's Matt, was bitten, became a vampire, then became an uncontrollable monster and then was staked permanently, in the space of three episodes.

The arc represented everything Vampire Diaries would settle into doing so well for the two years that followed. Vicki wasn't all that good as a human character and Ewell wasn't all that exciting as an actor, but Vampire Vicki was marvelously vicious and feral and it took exactly two episodes for Ewell to go from an afterthought to my favorite actor in the cast and then just as quickly, she was gone. More than a few shows would have milked this Vicki storyline over 12 episodes or over a season, and more than a few showrunners would have, after correctly recognizing a strength or asset in Ewell's ability to play bad, found a way to back away from Vicki's demise and kept the actress in the fold. I'd venture to say, in fact, that the later version of Vampire Diaries would have made those compromises.

Plec and Williamson laughed in the face of sustainability and audience comfort. For the next two years, you could count on The Vampire Diaries doing two or three absolutely crazy things per episode, going to mid-episode commercials with the sort of cliffhangers or twists most shows would save for the end of a season. To watch the show in those seasons was to sit with one's jaw regularly agape as characters died or reversed moral direction and did things that seemed impossible for the writers to fix or live with, but the writers found ways to make nearly every wacky or bizarre choice land. There aren't many shows I feel the need to watch immediately so as to avoid having the surprises spoiled, but for two years Vampire Diaries had to be watched live and it was so entertaining, sexy and funny that prompt viewing was never an imposition.

Make no mistake, Vampire Diaries was, as I've said, a supernatural teen soap opera with all of the inherently silly trappings, from high school characters who never attended classes to a sometimes comical adherence to a holiday schedule; every Christmas or Halloween became tied to a Mystic Falls town celebration that then became tied to a fancy-dress gala that then became tied to a flashback.

So what of it? Genres are there for a reason and all creators can do is live up to the highest potential of their genre, and Vampire Diaries was, for a long time, the best darned supernatural teen soap opera it possibly could be. Plot churn is the biggest stumbling block for so many fast-paced soaps, and if something like The OC proved it only had engine enough to last one season at Josh Schwartz's original burn rate, Vampire Diaries had perhaps three seasons working at this clip. (It did not have the same late-series recovery as The OC, but that's a different story.)

I didn't initially like the show's stars, but Dobrev, Wesley and Somerhalder made Elena, Damon and Stefan into a rare love triangle in which all three actors had chemistry of different types, giving Plec and company ample romantic variations to play. Knowing there's nothing young actors enjoy more than getting to play the same characters in both good and evil incarnations, Plec and the writers made Stefan and Damon into vampires whose humanity could be literally switched on or off and both actors thrived. If I thought Dobrev had limitations as the mopey, lovelorn Elena, the show proved how talented she was with the introduction of Elena's ultra-wicked doppelgänger Katherine — and then had an indecent amount of fun making Elena pretend to be Katherine and Katherine pretend to be Elena and Katherine inhabit Elena and Elena inhabit Katherine and other character-blending oddities.

The series also found value in parts of its core supporting cast, especially Candice Accola as Caroline, and then, in the second season, gave a great introduction to the "original" vampires in Elijah (Daniel Gillies) and Klaus Mikaelson (Joseph Morgan) and then later in Rebekah Mikaelson (Claire Holt). There were definitely moments in the third and fourth season in which it felt like Morgan, Gillies and Holt were what was holding Vampire Diaries together, but they were so enjoyable to watch that I didn't care. That's around 2012, when the show didn't make my Top 10 list, but still was hovering in an honorable mention position.

It would be easy to call the spinning off of The Originals as the point-of-decline for Vampire Diaries, and the last two seasons have, in particular, been a real slog for me, which would then suggest that if spinning off The Originals was the point-of-decline, Dobrev's departure probably should have been the end. I think the answer is simpler and less precise than that. Shows like this are rarely built for 171 episodes. ("Tell that to Dark Shadows and its 1,225 episodes!" you'd be right to protest.)

Where did Vampire Diaries degenerate? Let me count some ways!

*** Too many supernatural people. In the beginning, it was the story of one human girl who fell for a vampire boy, but step by step by step, everybody on the show other than Matt, the least interesting person on the show, became a vampire, a werewolf, a hybrid or a witch or an enhanced hunter. I can't point to which was the bridge too far, but it's somewhere. Humanity was a really good counterpoint to all of the supernatural transpiring and in the absence of humanity, it became a show about who could kill whom with which magical tool.

*** Too many drinking-game catchphrases. Man, Vampire Diaries loved coming up with concepts and giving them brand names and then repeating those concepts over and over and over again. Doppelgänger! Turning off the humanity switch! Hybrids! Originals! Ripper! The Cure! This also ties into how many of the season-to-season big bads were neither big nor bad enough and failed to become bigger or badder when you repeated their names. Travelers! The Gemini Coven! Sirens! Augustine! Oh, and going off to college didn't kill the series, but like so many high school shows, that was not a journey it made fluidly.

*** Too many intense relationships I didn't care about or believe in. I didn't have a preference between Stefan and Damon when it came to Elena's affections, but I bought into it. As the show went along, though, it kept trying to convince me of too many "true love" situations I didn't buy. Whether it was Stefan or Klaus or Alaric, I never cared much who Caroline was with, but the show sure did. The show also tried really hard to convince me that Damon and Caroline's Mom were best friends and then that Damon and Bonnie were best friends and then that anybody would care if Jeremy was finally gone. It got to the point where anytime a character was killed or locked in another dimension or even overslept and missed Sunday brunch, it was like the end of the world for another character. Buffy the Vampire Slayer got away with doing this, but not every show with vampires can be Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

*** Enzo. Nah, I'm just kidding. Or am I? An awful lot of the final Vampire Diaries season was about being emotionally invested in Enzo. I wasn't. Ever.

The series will end on Friday night, and I appreciated that they brought Vicki back a couple times in this last season, which otherwise has been a dull and repetitive cycle of Damon and Stefan both gaining and losing their humanity and various characters arguing over how many of the bad things done during the course of the show they were prepared to forgive each other for.

You'd never know it from the Emmys or Golden Globes or TCA Awards it won, nor from the number of other Top 10 lists it made, but as The Vampire Diaries completes its run, I wanted to check in one last time to remind you: When it was good, it was very, very good.

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