The Vampire Diaries brought the CW Television Network its largest audience of any single series since 2006 when it premiered in September of 2009. Vampires are hot, of course, and the Kevin Williamson-developed program does indeed capitalize on the trend.
But where The Vampire Diaries differs from Twilight and True Blood is in its unabashed immersion in its genre trappings. Here is a show that happily celebrates its cliches, wittily capitalizing on the teen horror genre and high school drama with effortless glee.
Williamson’s series, based on L.J. Smith’s young adult vampire novels, gathers a boost by keeping the focus on the horror rather than the inevitable romance. It’s hard to avoid Twilight comparisons due to the subject matter, but Smith’s books predated Stephenie Meyer’s work and the content is sharper and more intriguing.
The show stars Degrassi‘s Nina Dobrev as Elena Gilbert, the central protagonist. She lives in the fictional Virginia town of Mystic Falls and, as the pilot reveals, has recently lost her parents in a car accident that she was present for. Elena now lives with her aunt Jenna (Sara Canning) and her brother, the troubled Jeremy (Steven R. McQueen).
Into Elena’s painful world comes Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley) and his brother Damon (Ian Somerhalder). They are vampires, of course, and a love triangle emerges between Elena and the two Salvatores. Elena’s resemblance to the brothers’ love interest from the 1800s, Katherine Pierce, is generally the focal point of the romantic angle of the show.
Complications over how Damon and Stefan feel about Katherine prove to be vital, as the two brothers frequently cross paths over core elements of vampire behaviour. Damon is the show’s anti-hero, often choosing between following his base impulses and doing something good for the sake of other characters. Stefan is portrayed as more purely good, although his history suggests something more sinister.
The show is sexy and dark, bolstered by terrific performances from the lead actors and the supporting cast. Williamson brings his Scream-style teen horror quality to the program and the raw wit and humour really helps The Vampire Diaries keep its entertaining pace throughout the 22 episodes.
The Vampire Diaries doesn’t skimp on the gore and creepiness, either, and that certainly helps. The pilot features plenty of eerie fog and a crow, something Somerhalder’s Damon later lampoons.
It also helps that Nina Dobrev is really, really hot.
Best of all, though, is the way the show approaches itself. While there are elements of realism, The Vampire Diaries is a very self-aware program and it isn’t above taking jabs at the other vampire narratives. Damon’s take on the Twilight series (“What’s so special about this Bella girl? Edward is so whipped!”) and his affinity for Anne Rice, for instance, proves that Williamson is well-aware of the potential for criticism of his show as “riding the proverbial coattails” of Meyer’s bland universe.
The Vampire Diaries isn’t the perfect television program, but it does create a sense of horror and risk with the characters. We get the feeling that the actions and words actually matter in a larger sense and there are downsides to the vampirism of this program. Vampires don’t “glitter” in the sun, as it were, and the darkness of Mystic Falls is the perfect backdrop to these fanged beasts.
The DVD release of The Vampire Diaries contains all of 22 episodes from the first season of the series and a pile of satisfying bonus features. “Into Mystic Falls” covers the fictional town of the show and its impressive mythology, while another feature discusses the “rules” of being a vampire. There’s a gag reel and some unaired scenes to go with the pilot commentary, and a downloadable audiobook of The Vampire Diaries: The Awakening helps further the fun.