Thursday, 30th December '10

The Vampire Diaries Were the One Redeeming Thing about Being Sick this Holiday

So anyone who's been watching me whine ad nauseum on Facebook knows I've been down with the 'flu this holiday season. Nasty little buggers, these viruses. Got a pretty bad one last year just on the eve of Christmas Eve, and bout of being bed bound saw me finish the entire Twilight series in 3 days. I maintain I had fun reading that fluff - I was especially tickled about Edward's unorthodox bedroom habits of biting pillows and breaking headboards in the throes of passion - but yes, I was rather delirious the whole time and, I dare say, high on cold meds. This year I figured, why not maintain that vampish tradition and kick back with a little of The Vampire Diaries ("TVD")?

I mean, what harm could it do, right? Vampire stories done for the mainstream market hardly demand much brain power (I had absolutely none), and a few hours of looking at Ian Somehalder's heartbreakingly gorgeous mug could work better than antibiotics, if not at least lift my spirits from right down in the dumps...

... and I ended up watching the whole of Season 1 (22 episodes) and all available episodes of Season 2 (11 episodes) in 3.5 days. I am not in a frame of mind to do the math but I think that's a lot of TVD in a short time.

Me being me, and me still being on holiday and too weak to leave the house for a real life, also means that this whole affair demanded a review (yay, anyone?).

Let's start with the executive summary of how this particular vampire franchise fares against the other vampire contemporaries. Everyone knows that in the years of 2009 - 2010 there were only three big players on the vampire franchise market (it would appear that Anne Rice decided these infant franchises were not worth her effort competing with and I'm sure she's still collecting massive royalties for IWAV anyway). Most in your face is that whole Twilight business. Think of it as "Vampires Lite", meaning that all you are really required to understand is that vampires drink blood. The rest of your vampire and werewolf etc. myth and legend you can flush down the toilet because these vampires play Sunday family baseball to the soundtrack of Muse's Supermassive Black Hole, sparkle in the sunlight, live in giant glasshouses listenting to Claude Debussy and all that fun stuff. Werewolves, by the way, transform on cue - full moons be damned. Oh and Bella *hearts* Edward and Jacob *hearts* Bella and let's all get ready for some bizarre love triangle schtick *cue New Order music*.

On the other polar opposite is True Blood, which starts out with a pretty clever premise about vampires who now live in the open because some Japanese scientists developed a true blood substitute. This makes you think it's got something cheem behind it, perhaps a metaphor for racial discrimination or the like. But it really is just a deep dark love story about Vampire Bill and telepath Sookie Stackhouse, and all the trials and tribulations they go through to be together. There's a healthy respect for vampire lore and general other supernatural tales in this story. But if Twilight is all vampires sparkle in the sun and people talk while lazing in fields of flowers and no sex before marriage (in a VAMPIRE FLICK, are you INSANE?), then True Blood is all vampires cry blood instead of tears, demonic possession and mass, raving orgies by the campfire as Meynads wear horns and grow claws, and gyrate in the moonlight.

Having had fair doses of all three options, I say TVD is miles and away the best of the lot. If you don't have time, skip the rest. Unless you really like your Vampire stories to come with a lot of boobage, nudity and assorted soft porn, then watch True Blood (it is an HBO series after all).

Now one must admit, TVD doesn't have much of a premise. Alright, it is riddled with an almost overwhelming combination of cliches from both the vampire/horror genre AND the teen soap drama genre. Check this:

  • The pilot kicks off with (CLICHE SIGHTING 1!) a melancholic monologue by resident "good vampire" Stefan Salvatore (very aptly portrayed by Paul Wesley). He's (CLICHE SIGHTING 2!) a 161 year old vampire trapped in a (CLICHE SIGHTING 3!) 17 year old boy's body. Which I suppose is not such a bad thing, as the directors constantly remind us with (CLICHE SIGHTING 4!) scenes of a shirtless Stefan getting dressed in the morning.

  • There's some mutteirng about how he has (CLICHE SIGHTING 5!) lived in secret for over a century and now he is drawn helplessly back and must live again in civilisation, because (CLICHE SIGHTING 6!) "[he] can't help it; [he] must know Her". I know, an intro like that instantly attracts a zillion snarky comments ranging from "Why are they always trapped in the bodies of precisely 17 years old boys?" to "Don't these vampire guys have anything better to do than risk their very existence to check out a random female whom they know nothing about other than she simply makes them curious?"

  • To cut a long story short, he meets Elena Gilbert (played to perfection by the lovely Nina Dobrev). Daughter of one of the town's oldest founding families (or so at least we are led to believe for a while), and (CLICHE SIGHTING 7!) orphaned, together with her younger brother Jeremy, when their parents died in a (CLICHE SIGHTING 8!) car crash last spring. Author's note: if you live in a Hollywood TV world, major events always happen at the end of spring term, so that you have the whole summer to ponder over them, and then have to make an awkward reappearance back in high school the next year. She is sad and although (CLICHE SIGHTING 9!) once a popular cheerleader (again in Hollywood TV world, cheerleader = popular. In my world, cheerleader = good excuse to skip house practice), is now finding it totally nerve wrecking trying to hold it all together. Along comes Stefan, hawtie that he is, striding into her world like that ray of sunshine that vampires are supposed to fear but... hey, he doesn't! (More on this later.) At the same time, (CLICHE SIGHTING 10!) they meet and fall in like, (CLICHE SIGHTING 11!) then in love, and along the way Elena must of course (CLICHE SIGHTING 12!) Discover Stefan's Terrible Secret.

  • There ensues the (CLICHE SIGHTING 13!) mandatory montage of many previously puzzling but at the time not too noteworthy signs falling into place: his (CLICHE SIGHTING 14!) look of horror and how his eyes get all veiny and funny as she accidentally slices her finger open instead of a cucumber, how some old drunk at a bar recognised him from 50 years ago and stammers, (CLICHE SIGHTING 15!) "I know you, *gasp*, you haven't aged a day!", how his name appeared on the town register in 1864 etc etc. Montage culminates in look of shock on Elena's face as she (CLICHE SIGHTING 16!) runs down to Stefan's to bang on the door and go "WHAT ARE YOU?" with tearful vigour. When you know and I know that all sane persons would not need confirmation from the source and would instead have gone all Van Helsing on his ass. Well (CLICHE SIGHTING 17!) they somehow get over THAT little hiccup in the relationship. Because, you know, all teen girls secretly want the drama of dating a vampire and care little for the fact that him being around to eyewitness the Confederacy makes him just a little more than qualified to be their grandfather. And all moves on well from there, for the most part.

  • No good couple goes unharrassed in these shows and the prime antagonist (at least for the first half of Season 1) is embodied in the (CLICHE SIGHTING 18!) resident "bad vampire" Damon Salvatore (Ian Somerhalder really doing an Emmy-worthy turn here). Of course, Damon is (CLICHE SIGHTING 19!) related to Stefan (big bad, and bad-ass older brother) and we quickly establish that he is responsible for the DBs which are piling up all over town. Damon initially likes to turn up for the kill with great fanfare involving some creepy fog and an even creepier crow (Stefan: "The crow's a bit much, don't you think?" / Damon: "Wait till you see what I can do with the fog!"), but that obsession thankfully peters out as the show progresses. It's a little murky what Damon's whole purpose in the show's supposed to be at this point, other than he beats Stefan's kosher behind up for a bit just because he can - you see (CLICHE SIGHTING 20!) Stefan being good vampire only drinks animal blood and this (CLICHE SIGHTING 21!) by definition makes him weaker than his human blood guzzling counterparts - and says that all he's doing in town is making good on his promise to give Stefan (CLICHE SIGHTING 22!) "an eternity of misery". Ah, sibling rivalry at its best.

We are also introduced to a number of other characters in the show, most of whom are equally time-honoured cliches personified:
Elena's (CS 23!) stoner kid brother, Jeremy (Steven R McQueen)

who has cute wide puppy dawg eyes, but who has fallen to the dark side of perpetual pot smoking and smalltime drug dealing since their parents died.

Elena's (CS 24!) handsome jock ex-boyfriend, Matt (Zach Roerig)

whom she broke up with after her parents died because (CS 25!) "everything changed". He remains carrying a not-so-secret torch for her and has understandable disdain for the NKOTB who comes out of nowhere to sneak away his girl.

Elena's (CS 26!) best friend and (CS 27!) budding witch, Bonnie (Katerina Graham)

who (amongst other powers) gets (CS 28!) premonitions when she touches things and (CS 29!) senses death when she accidentally brushes Stefan's fingers.

Elena's (CS 30!) other friend, Caroline (Candice Accola)

blond, pushy, Barbie doll like, who instantly suffers from goo-goo eyes and other symptoms of school girl crushes where it comes to Stefan, Damon, and pretty much any other creature with a Y chromosome that crosses her path.

Matt's best friend, Tyler (Michael Trevino)

(CS 31!) obnoxious, rude, kiampa-faced, privileged (son of the town Mayor), jock, who later also turns out to be a (CS 32!) - and you're gonna love this - werewolf.

I'm too tired to continue counting the cliches but I think I've sufficiently demonstrated that no effort was made to avoid them.


Did I also mention that both Elena and Stefan are avid journal writers? Hence the "Vampire Diaries", I suppose. The dramatic writing is a cliche in itself, as Damon so helpfully points out when sneaking an unauthorised peek into the pages which spilled forth from Stefan's tortured inner sanctum ("It's very Emerson how you reveal your soul... so many adjectives!"). But always such a useful tool when the writers run of of places to hide blatent exposition!

Vampire and other mythical references thankfully remain more or less intact, save for creative devices made to save the story here and there:
  • Vampires blister in the sun (at this moment I'm just so relieved they don't sparkle), save for those like the Salvatore brothers who own Wiccan day rings. Can you imagine what a plot killer it would be if Stefan were to get all sizzley every PE class?.

  • Vampires can't procreate, although Damon and his smarmy grin would have you know that they nevertheless "love to try".

  • They're still killed in that traditional Buffy fashion of stake-thorough-the-heart, and vervain keeps them away. Not garlic, however, as I suppose the Salvatores' Italian heritage would suffer from the inability to enjoy a little Aglio Olio.

  • And werewolves are still tortured creatures who only shift involuntarily during the full moon. Which means that yes, they can keep their shirts on in daily life. But they cannot artfully save their trousers and tie them to their hindleg when shifting (Tyler: "This isn't the Hulk, where I get to keep my pants.").

Stephanie Meyer, please take note.

And yet somehow in this entirely unimaginative blend, a pretty solid storyline took shape. Turns out Elena's a doppelgänger of Katherine Pierce (known as Katerina Petrova back in the days before she fled Bulgaria), Pierce herself being the Salvatore brothers' love interest in 1864. Season 1 focused on damage control of Damon's various exploits and Katherine's return to wreak havoc on the brothers (or maybe it was to get Stefan back - I'm not sure I was in a Chlorpheneramine haze), and by Season 2, everyone's all drawn into this tidy little mess involving one of the Original vampires, Klaus, needing the blood of a human Petrova doppelgänger (hello, Elena) to break an ancient Aztec curse over all vampires (the same one that prevents them from walking in the sun). Of course by now Damon has been slightly reformed (i.e. is not entirely evil, although still evil generally - think how Spike got when he feel in love with Buffy) and joins the rest of the gang in the great endeavour to protect Elena (whom he is also in love with, BTW).

It's hard to put a finger on what make the series tick, but I like that it reminds me that traditional formulas are there for a reason, and there's nothing wrong with an old story done right. There's nothing spectacular or even surprising about this show, and it's exactly a teenage soap with some supernatural thrown in. But every single character is perfectly cast, with uniformly believable acting; I do actually believe that most of the main cast and the "adult" cast are seasoned veterens. The action is paced so comfortably that you're never bored nor feel like the story is being hurried.

Over time, the town is fleshed out with full character, and I like that there's a sense of history and poetry about a lot of the way things come together. The main plot markers are kitschy as they come, but the written dialogue is never overly sappy (note that I do not say it is not sappy, it is just not OVERLY so) or indulgent. You don't get lines like "the lion fell in love with the lamb" in this flick. And at least once every episode, one of Damon's snarkier one-liners has me chuckling out loud. A personal favourite came when the powers that be decided to let Damon sit down with one of Stephanie Meyer's works and have him utter the words that have baffled millions over the past couple of years:

"What's so special about this Bella girl? Edward's so whipped."

And well, Damon, Damon, Damon. I never actually expected this much from Ian Somerhalder! He's downright pretty, of course, but you need to compare his Damon Salvatore to his earlier work as Boon Carlyle in Lost to see that the dude has some serious acting chops. If I didn't already know it was the same person, I would not have recognised him. The character is impeccably scripted and played (Somerhalder's reportedly created Damon as a "wacky old world combination of Cary Grant and Mick Jagger", go figure), you'd tune in just to see what he will come up with next. Word has it that although he's the 3rd credited name for this series, Somerhalder gets top biller status at US$40,000 per episode. I say it's money well spent.

I do also like the spin they give the female characters in this show. Elena's often made to be in some sort of distress, but seldom gets all damsel-like about it. How nice a change it was when the writers had her get all down and dirty and rescue Stefan from a vervain filled well. She has (again, thankfully) no interest in being turned into a vampire, and remains completely human to the best of our present knowledge. The brothers' initial interest in her is entirely understandable given that she is physically identical to their old flame. Yet thereafter she's shown clearly to be a completely different person and whoever likes her does like her for her, and not some bizarro reason like because they can't read her mind. Dobrev's done some great work with the Elena / Katherine dual roles, and, much like what I said to be Ali Larter's chief accomplishment in Heroes, you always know exactly which person you're looking at even if they look exactly the same. It's also nice that the town Sheriff is a woman and the one person consistently capable of knocking Damon is his arrogant (albeit perfectly-shaped) ass and taking him down a peg or two, is Bonnie.

So just in summary - this series isn't going to offer anything new or exciting, but it's old and comfortable done very very nicely. It's greatly enjoyable on its own, but what I really find myself looking forward to are Damon's little sarcastic ramblings. Doesn't hurt that this is probably also the best looking cast presently on the telly.

What remains to be seen is if I will continue to like TVD this much when no longer under the influence of frightening amounts of cough syrup.

en ying snapped a shot of life @ 03:46 pm
[well, the pictures aren't going to take themselves!]

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