How I learned to love The Vampire Diaries
Last night, I finished the third season of The Vampire Diaries, a series that has rather unexpectedly turned into one of my favorite shows on television. I got into it at the beginning of this year, as a way to fill time between baby feedings while my wife was home from maternity leave. We were looking for a show that was fast, addictive, and conducive to binge viewing, and Carrie Raisler’s ecstatic recommendation on The A.V. Club was enough to sign me up. At first, the show more or less met my expectations: it was watchable and fun but little else, and it showed only occasional signs of the narrative momentum I’d been told to anticipate. Bit by bit—or bite by bite—it began to figure out its own potential, and by the end of the first season, it was one of the fastest, shrewdest, and most inventive genre shows I’d ever seen. (I’d still recommend that newcomers start with the pilot, then skip all the way to the last three or four episodes of the first season, filling in the rest as necessary online. Once you hit that first season finale, there’s no going back.)
In short, a guilty pleasure had been transformed into something much more: a pleasure that I can recommend without any trace of guilt or condescension. The Vampire Diaries is a stellar example of Roger Ebert’s dictum that a work of art “isn’t about what it’s about, but about how it’s about it”: it’s still ultimately a show about a bunch of teenage vampires and witches and ghosts and werewolves, but instead of getting stranded in its ridiculous mythology, it uses it as a launching pad for some delightfully twisty and surprising storytelling. As the series piles up the complications and cliffhangers, you can sense the writers taking pride in their own ingenuity, and if the first two seasons were often characterized by a winking self-awareness, it’s since been supplemented by a startling degree of feeling. In just three years, it’s built up more narrative memory than most series that run twice as long, but instead of losing its emotions in the machinery of the plot, it uses the history the show has established to confront its characters with one impossible choice after another.
And this sort of thing is really hard to do well. When we talk about narratives in which character is inseparable from plot, we tend to think first of stories in which the events are driven solely by the characters’ organic needs and objectives. To put it mildly, this isn’t always the case with The Vampire Diaries, in which story arcs have a way of being shaped by forces outside anyone’s control: a curse, a revelation from the past, a vengeful ghost, a seemingly endless series of MacGuffins. Roughly half of any given episode consists of the characters explaining the plot to one another, with the other half devoted to the usual stakings, decapitations, and high school dances, and I’d be lying if I said that the result didn’t often come off as artificial or contrived. (If the real hero of Mad Men is Matthew Weiner, as Todd VanDerWerff has suggested, then much of the drama of The Vampire Diaries seems to take place in the writers’ room.) Through it all, however, the major players have remained remarkably consistent—at least when they aren’t possessed or supernaturally compelled—and much of the show’s interest comes less from the vampiric dilemma of the week than from how a character like Damon Salvatore will react to it.
In other words, a show that could have gotten lost in its own excesses—as wonderful as those excesses can be in their own right—has used them, instead, to deepen a cast of characters who derive their complexity from the absurd, externally imposed situations in which they find themselves. (I should also note that the show’s actors, especially Nina Dobrev, Ian Somerhalder, and Candice Accola, have consistently risen to the occasion.) An episode like “The Departed,” the third season finale, depends entirely on our knowledge, or at least our vague memory, of the rules and assumptions the show has laid down, and its final moments gain their power from how fluently they draw upon the rich store of material that the series has accumulated in record time. There’s still an entire season for me to watch—and I’m waiting impatiently for it to show up on Netflix—and it’s unclear if it’s managed to live up to the high standards that have been set so far. That’s why I’m setting down my thoughts here now, with the high of those first three seasons still intact. If you’d told me a year ago that The Vampire Diaries would become one of my favorite shows, I wouldn’t have believed you. But if there’s one thing this series has taught me to value, it’s suspension of disbelief.