On one hand, you could call The CW's new drama "The Vampire Diaries" a shameless bit of pandering to the fang-banging throngs who have made "Twilight" and "True Blood" into the media landscape's two most reliable pop culture phenomena.
Seems like something's missing there.
Oh right. The *other* hand.
On the other hand, as pandering goes, "The Vampire Diaries" is at least entertaining pandering, especially if you pretend that creators Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec were trying to make a hammy gothic yarn for teens, a Hammer Studios version of "Dawson's Creek."
Much more self-consciously silly than "Twilight," featuring more rolling fog than an '80s rock video and driven by a half-dozen of the most stilted performances East of "Melrose Place," "The Vampire Diaries" may emerge as the sort of brainless guilty pleasure The CW hoped its recent FOX retreads might become.
Think of it as "9021-Type-O" or "Gossip Ghouls" and prepare to giggle. I don't care if the show was supposed to make me laugh or not. It was still a hoot.
[Full review after the break...]
Nina Dobrev, the CW's latest "Degrassi" refugee, stars as Elena, a porcelain-skinned beauty brooding over a recent family tragedy. Her ennui is so great she practically has "Bite Me" inscribed on her neck. When Elena isn't mourning for her lost parents or listening to her best friend's (Katerina Graham) suspicions that she may be psychic (a confusing leap of logic related to Salem in some way), she has to cope with her brother's (Steven R. McQueen) grief-driven descent into stereotypical ho odlumism.
Striding into Elena's life with a leather jacket, shades and a mane full of hair pro duct is Stefan (Paul Wesley). He's so dreamy that as he walks down the hallway, freshman girls finish going through puberty. Like Edward Cullen, he's 17, but how long has he been 17? Centuries, apparently. In that respect, Stefan and Paul Wesley have a lot in common. Unlike Paul Wesley, who has only been a werewolf and a fallen angel, Stefan is a vampire, which would be a surprise, except that he tells us as much in the opening voice-over.
Soon, Elena and Stefan are about to embark on the sort of timeless love that can only happen between a vampire and a human (or between Britney Spears and her latest husband). She smiles at him and bats her eyes coquettishly. He grimaces, stares soulfully and begins appearing outside of her window at night.
Stefan's a good vampire, a Cullen-esque vampire content to feed only on vermin and lesser Jonas Brothers, but there's something in the woods that isn't so merciful, something that's mauling featured extras and slutty tramps alike. That something? Well, let's just say that Stefan has a brother named Damon and he's played by Ian Somerhalder, who, instead of walking around in eternal misery, smirks in malevolent glee. Both Wesley and Somerhalder have dead, lifeless eyes, but rather than being an impediment, it just comes across as a genetic trait.
The basis for "Vampire Diaries," a series by L.J. Smith, is so poorly written it makes "Twilight" look like Tolstoy. It's basically "Sweet Valley High" if Jessica decided she wanted a vampire to take her to prom. [Memo to self, pitch a "Sweet Valley High" book in which Jessica and Elizabeth fight over a vampire and the loser gets torn to pink, frilly bits.]
In this context, Williamson and Plec couldn't help but elevate the source material. These aren't quite the hyper-articulate (some might say obnoxiously-so) teens of "Dawson's Creek," but they're quick with a pop culture reference and prone to pronouncing every emotion they're feeling. This latter trend is made even more grating by a dual voice-over. Not only is Elena sharing her teenage girl thoughts with us, but Stefan also keeps a diary that he narrates from. [Well, they're quick to clarify that what Stefan has is a journal, though his private thoughts are just as breathless as Elena's. Over his decades of experience, Stefan has learned that you can be as sensitive and demonstrative as you like on the page and still keep your mystique provided you're monosyllabic when there's company.]
The pilot is directed by Marcos Siega, who has displayed the heart of an exploitation filmmaker in the feature "Pretty Persuasion" and in his work on "True Blood" and "Dexter." He likes to create moody atmosphere and although "Vampire Diaries" is set in Virginia (and filmed in the Atlanta area), it might as well be a soundstage and renamed Sleepy Hollow. It's all winding roads, dark forests, monument-studded cemetaries and skeletal trees. The production was designed so that every location is just a passageway for fog or a landing space for giant crows. And when the vampires attack, they create lurid bloody wounds, and when they fight, they throw each other through walls. Nothing in "Vampire Diaries" is played half-way.
It's more like the classic schlockfests they occasionally parody on "Supernatural" than like the sometimes genuine frights that "Supernatural" can evoke. [That doesn't mean that the shows aren't a good pairing. The same people writing disturbing incestuous slash fiction about "Supernatural" will be able to work "Vampire Diaries" into their rotation. Nice of The CW to set up that kind of continuity.]
The actual vampire mythology in "Vampire Diaries" is a nonsensical hodgepodge. Stefan can walk in the sunlight because he wears a gigantic class ring? I had no idea this was a feature that Jostens offered. So Stefan wanders in the daylight, but he can't enter a house unless invited. I love it when we make arbitrary choices. He probably loves eating garlic pizza in church as well.
Mostly, like Edward Cullen, he likes to stare and he likes to lurk and he becomes really quickly obsessed with nubile human flesh. Then again, the characters in "Dawson's Creek" all exhibited obsessive behaviors as well, so Williamson is on Terra Firma.
Young ladies -- The CW's only target audience -- have already expressed appreciation for Wesley and Somerhalder in the past and Siega doesn't obscure either object of desire for very long. The vampire effects and makeup are used sparingly and I can only vouch that this show's bloodsuckers aren't distractingly mimicking the "Buffy" brood or the "True Blood" vamps.
Really, "Vampire Diaries" ought to be kibble for anybody with a third-rate James Dean fetish, as McQueen, who played to this demo in an "Everwood" arc, isn't nosferatu, but he's pouty enough to be one. The men all pose more than act and Dobrev only has a shade more expressiveness. But they're all gorgeous, so they'll fit in with the "Beautiful Life" and "Melrose Place" casts on photo shoots. And if that doesn't work, they can always eat 'em.
If anybody in "Vampire Diaries" showed too much human emotion (other than sullenness and misery) or if anybody showed any awareness of the turgidness of the material, the show would fall apart. But this isn't Williamson in "Scream"-style tongue-in-cheek mode, which is a relief to any and all who suffered through Williamson's last attempt at genre winking, the lycanthropic dud "Cursed." The laughs are a different sort of laughs.
The other night, watching "Vampire Diaries" for the second time (every bit as silly), I finished the DVD and went over to TV at a serendipitous moment. HBO was showing "Scream" and Jamie Kennedy was lecturing Matthew Lillard about movie killers and their motivations.
"That's beauty of it all! Simplicity!" Kennedy ranted, as I tuned in. "Besides, if it gets too complicated, you lose your target audience."
That, kids, is also the mantra of "The Vampire Diaries."
"The Vampire Diaries" premieres on The CW on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009.