Image C+ Sound B- Extras C-
"Pilot," "The Night of the Comet," "Friday Night Bites,""Family Ties," "You're Undead to Me," "Lost Girls," "Haunted," "162 Candles," "History Repeating," "The Turning Point," "Bloodlines," "Unpleasantville," "Children of the Damned," "Fool Me Once," "A Few Good Men," "There Goes the Neighborhood," "Let the Right One In," "Under Control," "Miss Mystic Falls," "Blood Brothers," "Isobel," "Founder's Day"
by Walter Chaw You can diagnose things like Kevin Williamson's tween opera "The Vampire Diaries" by how much of the dialogue consists of peoples' names. "Hey, Ben is with Carrie down in the tomb with Josie and Halley. Chris said he and Caroline would meet us there, but then Damon said that Stefan was going instead, but Stefan still has feelings for Elena..." OMFG, amiright? Add to that a liberal use of music by the likes of Matt Kearney, The Fray, and Bat for Lashes, mix sloppily with flavour-of-the-month genre fetish, and, voilà!, the kind of thing everyone describes as a "guilty pleasure"--which basically means they're not telling you they also enjoy "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo". The remainder of the dialogue is interested in secret parentage, secret siblings, and this and that about lore to establish credibility while simultaneously demonstrating that everyone involved in this one has read more books than Stephenie Meyer (a low bar) and is aware of Stephenie Meyer...and Heath Ledger...and Emily Brontë. Never mind, you wouldn't understand. Similarly difficult to understand are magic rings that allow vampires to walk around in daylight, ancient tombs sealed by Creole witches led by that bitch from "A Different World", and a complex series of events that need to happen before one of this show's vampires is able to turn one of this show's hot little nymphos into a vampire. It's a metaphor--not for abstinence, per se, but maybe for embarrassing tumescence. That's right, "The Vampire Diaries" is a boner joke.
Our heroine is cute Elena (Nina Dobrev), revealed (through a voiceover diary entry--a conceit that's dropped after a few episodes, thankfully), as the series opens, to have lost her parents, satisfying her status as heroine of both Judy Blume and Disney varieties. Elena looks just like Victorian tart/vampiress Katherine (Nina Dobrev), who maintained a not-as-unusual-as-it-is-today ménage-a-trois with two cute brothers, droopy Stefan (Paul Wesley) and bad boy Damon (Ian Somerhalder). Katherine, of course, turns Stefan and Damon into vampires, and a century-and-a-half or so later, Stefan comes out of hiding when he spies his immortal beloved resurrected as romantic Elena. Meh, been there done that; there's even a cameo photograph as part of the opening credits, and a good part of the series' success rests on its ability to be entirely familiar to its base so that it can become more instantly addictive. Once Stefan reveals himself as a dreamy transfer student, good at football and making his asshole history teacher look like an asshole, lo, there's brother Damon, out for mayhem in the form of cheap sex, the casual accumulation of blood puppies (first up, druggie slut Vicki (Kayla Ewell), then preppie gal-pal Caroline (Candice Accola)), and dramatic tension in an inevitable triangle that reforms around Katherine doppelgänger Elena.
It's interminable and predictable, with late-'00s slick production design and a soundmix to match. And the plotting is basically predicated on introducing as many characters as possible, a bedroom scene every three episodes, and a bloody attack or murder every two. Somewhere around episode 6, Depeche Mode appears on the soundtrack to announce some vampire lore and Stefan's creation story; long about episode 10, a vampire hunter, Alaric (Matthew Davis), is introduced, and then episode 14 or so sees a tomb of vampires released into sleepy Mystic Falls just because. There's another cute best friend, Bonnie (Katerina Graham), who's a witch and has a grandmother (Jasmine Guy) who is also a witch. There are witches, see, because "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is a huge, well-respected cult hit. These witches seem involved in the business of making things hover, burst into flames, and smithing magic rings that allow the wearer immunity from supernatural harm--sometimes resurrection, other times the ability to walk around during the daytime. It's like a role-playing game for nerd-girls. The vampires are strong and fast, aren't afraid of crucifixes or holy water (something Stephen King played with to marvellous effect in 'salem's Lot), and can only change others by um, drinking, having them drink, then killing them and then...I don't know. Doesn't matter, it's a metaphor.
Vicki lasts seven episodes in the most thankless mini-run of this first season as she's killed at least five times by different people before her finally dying, and then mostly forgotten until her corpse is discovered, covered in mulch, when bimbo Caroline falls down a riverbank trying to get a cellphone signal. By the third time her neck is snapped or she's mortally drained of her precious humours in the show's clumsy attempt to tell a very special story about domestic abuse, it's actually kind of funny. I confess I was rooting for more creative ways to not-quite-kill her for the remainder of the run. "The Vampire Diaries" also 'very-special-episodes' Elena's little brother Jeremy's (Steven R. McQueen) struggle with substance abuse among younger teens, Stefan's late-season battle with blood-aholism, and Caroline's ongoing self-esteem problems despite the fact that she's clearly the school Heather (to quote another: "Everybody wants me as a friend or a fuck...and I'm only a junior"). There's something for everyone, really, for every girl-type and how they see themselves, and for every lonely middle-aged lady-type who imagines herself a MILF still attractive to someone who looks like Ian Somerhalder. Speaking of hot women of a certain age, Mia Kershner plays Alaric Van Helsing's (un)dead wife and bears some resemblance to Melinda Clarke, who plays the single slut loser/misunderstood drifter mother of Elena's jock ex-boyfriend Matt (Zach Roerig). She does fuck Damon, almost or something, one or both, or maybe they didn't. Anyway, it's going to happen.
Gradually, the show stops having its "children" go to school in favour of shouting matches involving names and relationships, then lots of culling of all the new faces introduced and filling up the spaces in episodes ever more cluttered. There are entire subplots that rise and fall--all of them involving mothers slapping daughters during arguments, tweens falling in love and getting jealous, and then, for flava, all of the above in period fetish-wear. Apropos of nothing, I do want to notice that Caroline switches from a nice little bra at the cliffhanger of the second episode to a nice little nightie as the action resumes in episode 3 with no explanation, except that Caroline's superpower is the ability to audition for an underwear catalogue while not acting in a tween vampire show. While we're at it, I want to notice that Stefan has this adorable habit of not being able to pronounce things like "lapis lazuli" in exactly the same way that Alec Baldwin's soap-opera doctor character on SNL pronounces "cancer of the anal canal" as "canCOR...of the anal CANE-al". That is to say, you find your pleasures where you may, because it doesn't talk about anything, but it has a representation for everything--meaning that its closest analogue is that shoutout that arena rock stars give to whatever city their manager has whispered to them that they're in for that night's performance. "Good Evening, Suicidal Girl with Daddy Issues!" And 44% of the viewing audience flips open their silver Paul Frank Zippos.
Warner brings every nut-crushing instalment of "The Vampire Diaries: The Complete First Season" home on four Blu-ray discs housing 1.78:1, 1080p transfers that alternate between crisp and sure/crushed and noisy. Colour range fluctuates from scene-to-scene, detail goes waxy at random, and certain night scenes look like amateur porn. I don't know what's up, but I'm somewhat loathe to blame digital technology (the series was an early trial for the ARRI Alexa)--methinks sainted Marcos Siega, director of the first two tone-setting episodes, probably had something to do with the irregularities, given that he's more interested in "the love story" than any other aspect of production. More on that later. The audio, lossy DD 5.1 (surprisingly and you should note) is actually pretty solid for the medium, offering active surround channels and a clear reproduction of the reams and reams of exposition. Seriously, this series reads like Matthew 1. (I can't tell anymore if it's blasphemous to say that.) There are opportunities lost, no question, but if you're here for the best of mumblecore, well, feast your goth ears, son.
Williamson, contributing writer/executive producer Julie Plec, and, completing the holy trinity, Siega contribute a commentary for the Pilot, talking at length about how they felt they had a responsibility to the set of young-adult potboilers from which the series took its inspiration yet deviated from the storyline of the books fairly quickly, and how everything came together like a fairytale to produce the best television show television has ever seen. Quick lip-service as to why they all thought another vampire product would be artistic rather than just parasitic fails to convince, though they'll mention this again in "Into Mystic Falls" (25 mins., HD), where Williamson, Plec, Siega, and various set designers gather to relect on the mystical synchronicity that brought them together that had nothing to do with the bazillion dollars Twilight had wrestled from the black-nail-polished and friendship-bracelet festooned fingers of a nation of sad girls and lonesome mommies. It occurs to me that the audience for this stuff is generally young women afraid to lose their virginity and old women bitter about how they lost theirs. Woohoo! Each disc offers unaired and deleted scenes (in SD) that add up to about 15 minutes total running time. They're mostly more exhausting dialogue sequences. Those looking for more violence or PG-rated sexuality will be disappointed.
"When Vampires Don't Suck!" (19 mins., HD) assembles scholars and historians like critic David Skal to do their best to pretend they're not in a "Vampire Diaries" tie-in and instead involved in an enterprise that's a serious platform for their expertise and passion. Williamson and Plec return along with various cast members to talk over footage of a promo trip they took to a mall so that sad girls and lonely mothers in "Vampire Diaries" T-shirts can cry together in front of them. "Darker Truth Webisodes" (8 mins., HD) string together four cheapo web series involving some angry loved one from Manhattan trying to find and kill Stefan--a parallel storyline without any main character participants, much like The Bourne Legacy and about as successful. "Vampires 101" (7 mins., HD) reveals that none of the cast knew what the lore was supposed to be in their universe until it was revealed to them by the scripts--reminding me that a few episodes into the series, as they're explaining the magic rings, they also take a moment to take the piss out of Twilight. Danger: Glass House Aphorism on the right.
"A New Breed of Vampires" (13 mins., HD) boasts about how they cast beautiful twentysomethings and how Elena in the book is blonde but Elena in the show is brunette. There are some audition tapes in there, plus lots of gushing. A "Gag Reel" (4 mins., HD) demonstrates how un-witty these people are as they flub their lines and break shit, while a complete 400-minute audiobook of the first book in the "Vampire Diaries" serial, The Awakening, rounds out the set. A 12-page insert pamphlet lays out the episodes in addition to directions for downloading said audiobook onto your computer.