14
Sep
2011
Confessions: Adventures in the Awesomely Awful
The Vampire Diaries
Rachel
We all have them: guilty pleasures. Those shows we don't tell our friends we watch, those movies we see over and over when we don't want to think, the books we hide under our beds. In Confessions, I try to explore what makes these particular pop-culture gems so compelling, and try to exorcise some of the bad mojo that surrounds them.

Generally speaking, the vampire trend is tailor-made for the guilty pleasure format. The thinly veiled metaphor, the constant threat of danger, the inevitable forbidden romance, the sex. I've already discussed my shameful love of Twilight, and yes, I also watch True Blood, but The Vampire Diaries is a recent acquisition (this could have very easily been a marathoning post). The Vampire Diaries is bubblegum drama done well; it doesn't take itself nearly as seriously
as Twilight but manages to keep from totally crossing the line into unpalatable kitsch.

So, the story: Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) is a brooding teenager, reasonable so seeing as mere months before the start of the series, her parents died in a tragic car accident that she managed to walk away from (more on this later, kids). She's spent the summer in mourning with her brother Jeremy (Steven R. McQueen"¦yes, he is related to THAT Steve McQueen) and her young aunt turned guardian, Jenna (Sara Canning). When she returns to school her friends Caroline Forbes (Candice Accola) and Bonnie Bennett (Kay Graham) try their hardest to get her back to normal, but Elena is totally dark and brooding now. Enter Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley), a boy just as pretty as Elena and just as brooding, too.

So begins the delicate dance of the budding relationship with the mystery boy who obviously has a past lingering just beneath the surface of his perfect skin and chiseled jaw. A large part of that past turns out to be Stefan's trouble-causing/making brother Damon (Ian Somerholder), who pops up and immediately starts wrecking havoc.

Because, of course, Stefan and Damon are vampires, a fact that, when mixed with their competitive yet oddly close brotherhood and apparent century-long grudge, brings about all the show's drama. Stories, for the most part, enfold exactly as you'd think: conflict between two supernaturals that pull in the hapless mortals of the town, which proves a historical hotspot for such activity. The Salvatores turn out to be Mystic Fall's oldest inhabitants, original members of the founding families that still dominate the small town.

In the first few episodes, the title of the show is taken a bit too seriously, with the narrative driven forward by large voice-over sections of Elena (and sometimes Stefan) reading from their angst-ridden diaries, in which they detail their despair and gloom. And oh, of course, the sections almost always correspond. Thankfully the kitschy diary premise goes out the window. We still get references to Elena's journal, but that's really all that we need. This is perhaps the first evidence of The Vampire Diaries actively (and appropriately) trying to get its shit together as a show.

The show takes a while to decide what it wants, particularly when it comes to Elena's character. She's a cheerleader! She's a debutante! She's a humanitarian! She's a bubbly! She's damaged! She's self-sacrificing! She's independent! Blech. Elena continues the parade of vampire girl place holders (a club that also includes Bella Swan and Sookie Stackhouse), female characters present in your typical vampire series (which, generally speaking, are aimed at women) who fill the spot that the watching female wouldn't mind inhabiting, right next to the super hot supernatural. At times she is vacuous, but always virtuous, full of vigor and values but sort of devoid of character (other than martyr). That's because, of course, we (ok, I) don't really care. She's just there to give Stefan (and eventually SPOILER ALERT"¦.Damon) the chance to be cute.

The show also needed time to get away from Twilight. It started a year after the first Twilight movie was released, at the peak of vampire mania, and it shows. The lighting, the colors, the scenery, and a lot of the sequence style are taken straight from Twilight, including the scene where Elena works out what Stefan is. The show also suffers from Twilight's awful style of flashback, which eventually grew on me in providing some great moments of Stefan in funny britches and Damon in a Confederate uniform.

A major different between Twilight and The Vampire Diaries is that Elena (at least at the beginning) has the soundness of mind to be more than a little put off by his status as a member of the undead. She is repelled by the vampire flame, rather than drawn to it like some kind of sad, masochistic she-moth. And even when their relationship is at its height, Elena is conscious of the need to maintain some kind of distance, to maintain her relationships with her friends and family, and to think and act for herself. It also doesn't hurt that Stefan has the decency to stay on Elena's porch when he's "protecting" her, rather than watching her sleep.

I wish I could more easily pull out standout moments, but generally speaking, until the plot starts to get really crazy with the introduction of the Originals in season 2, The Vampire Diaries sort of blurs together. That's part of the joy of any good guilty pleasure, however. It provides some great white noise, serving as a kind of pop culture intoxicant that feels good in the moment but wraps me up in such a way that I don't really remember everything that happened the morning after.

The exceptions, of course, is the supporting cast, which really is what makes or breaks a proper guilty pleasure. Caroline and Bonnie prove formidable members of the supernatural community, far from the vapid teenage girls the show starts them as. Even Tyler Lockwood (Michael Trevino), who begins as the douche-bag jock, grows a character as he battles with his transient nature as a budding werewolf. The show uses the transition into supernatural life as a way of making the maturation and growth of the teenage years more palpable: the characters, while becoming who they are, become what they wind up being.

How have I gone this far without talking about Damon? Ian Somerholder is the perfect blend of crazy vicious edged with strangely soft-hearted, all of which shows in his big blue eyes and jaunty grin from shot to shot. While Damon starts the series as a vampire, he grows into his humanity, struggling with the disconnect between what he is (a century old brutal killer) and what he wants to be (someone worth loving). He isn't always successful, and he isn't always sorry for that, but the conflict proves sometimes heartbreaking and always entertaining. He is, of course, more fun when he's awful, but so adorable when he's trying to get his cold, dead heart to beat.

Stefan, on the other hand, represents the "no, I am above my instincts" sect of vampires, choosing not to drink human blood because it turns him into a raging, murderous animal. His struggle with his nature turns him into a gloomy, ruminating kill joy at points, a permanent furrow on his marble-esque brow, making him generally self-deprecating and distant. But his loyalty to Damon who, it becomes clear, has taken it on as a personal goal to ruin Stefan's life, proves endearing, albeit sort of hard to understand, humanizing the brothers in a strange way. They can't even really trust themselves, and the world around them is temporary, but they'll always have each other, whether they like it or not. The thing they bring from their lives as humans is a strong bond that even immortality can't shake, and when they act like they hate each other, its always obvious that they love each other. Because the show would be too simple if they hated each other completely, or if they always got along. The conflict is necessary, and keeps The Vampire Diaries from becoming trite.

In a plot twist that's really not worth explaining, Dobrev doubles as Stefan and Damon's maker, the devious Katherine. Katherine, it turns out, has a long and complicated past, only a small part of which includes manipulating and turning the Salvatore brothers in an attempt to form some kind of freaky threesome coven with her at the center. It's a plot line that always makes me sort of uncomfortable, and unfortunately, the connection between Katherine and her face-sake Elena results in the same problem one hundred years later. Katherine insists, at the end of season two, that it's possible for Elena to love them both (sidebar: over the course of two seasons, Damon realizes he has a soul that he'd like to be mated with Elena, and she develops an odd connection to the devious brother while continuing to harbor serious feelings for the brooder). Katherine is interesting in that, unlike Elena, she isn't at all self-sacrificing: her complicated past has made her incredibly selfish, completely driven by her own desires and instincts, who prides herself on having "no rules" and revels in being downright awful. But Dobrev gets a chance to really stretch her legs in this role, and in the end I find myself a bit more willing to put up with Elena after Katherine's been screwing everything up for an episode.

This show is begging to be a guilty pleasure. That's how a lot of the marketing has sold it, with the three leads all over each other. There is some kind of giant party that asks for equally large scale carnage or catastrophe nearly every episode; Damon directly mocks Twilight; it's on the CW. Especially when shit starts to get out of hand towards in the second season, and we get tied up with dopplegangers and witches and were-wolf hybrids. But the connections seem natural, probably because they're generally unexplainable, and because we never lose sight of the fact that these characters, supernatural elements not withstanding, are teenagers, who at the end of the day are just trying to figure out who they are and how to love.


For a weekly dose of your vampire fix, check out the soon-to-be-launched TVD reviews by Gaila, starting Thursday September 15.

Hooked? Check out more Confessions: Adventures in the Awesomely Awful here


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