Review: Vampire Diaries: "Pilot"

In the wake of such successes as HBO’s True Blood and the Twilight films, it’s no surprise that the folks over at the C Dub were eager for a fanged franchise of their very own. (Also, let’s not forget Joss Whedon’s innovative Buffy and Angel series, which offered sexy vampire angsting before vampire angsting was in.) It’s also no shock that the CW execs turned to existing source material in search of such a prize. Vampire Diaries is based on a ‘90s book series by author L.J. Smith. Despite their unfortunate cover art, the books offer some striking characters, more than a few surprising twists and turns and a cool new vampire mythology.  They also possess a fun, sardonic humor to mitigate the melodrama and several strong female characters, which are sorely lacking from the Twilight enterprise.  

Vampire Diaries in both its forms revolves around beautiful high-schooler Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) and the vampire brothers keen on infiltrating her ordinary if tragedy-laced life—she’s just lost both parents in a car crash. Dobrev is likeable enough, even if the books do a better job of conveying Elena as the sad but popular beauty who doesn’t hesitate to use both friend and foe in achieving her ends. (She manages to charm rejected boyfriend Matt into helping her land new lover Stefan; despite these manipulations, Elena is more willfully oblivious than cruel.) Dobrev’s Elena is a little pale, and we can’t help wondering who she was before losing her parents.

In a wise turn, the CW replaced book-Elena’s cute-but-boring baby sis with drug-abusing teenage brother Jeremy, played with a quiet yet pained intensity by Steven R. McQueen. Dobrev and McQueen seem to have a decent rapport, even if the scene in which Elena confronts Jeremy over his drug use feels a little after-school special. Happily, the producers kept best friend Bonnie Bonnett (Katerina Graham) in the picture. A budding psychic with a quick humor, Bonnie provides more than just a sounding board for Elena’s boyfriend-drama.

Of course no vampire drama would be complete without some fanged fiends in attendance. Vampire Diaries offers forever-young brothers and former Mystic Falls residents, Stefan and Damon Salvatore. Played by Paul Wesley and Lost’s Ian Somerhalder respectively, the brothers—and vowed enemies—take opposite views on the whole bloodsucking thing. Wesley’s Stefan is a brooding Boreanaz-type who snacks on squirrels instead of humans. Returning to his hometown for unknown reasons, strong-jawed Stefan is immediately drawn to Elena. After a pleasant chat in the town cemetery, Elena and Stefan quickly bond over their shared prettiness and the fact that both keep diaries. (No one at the CW suggested a blog?) Of course, for Stefan the connection is strengthened by the fact that Elena looks a strange lot like a former lover.

Although Damon doesn’t show up until late in the first episode, his presence adds a much-needed element of, well, fun. “Your hair’s different. I like it,” Damon deadpans upon seeing his brother again. Playing the unapologetic quipping evil to Stefan’s sad fang-face, Damon promises a lifetime of misery before tossing Stefan around the house some for good measure. These are brothers with a darkly emotional history, and poor (or is it lucky?) Elena seems to have landed smack in the middle. Hopefully she’ll succeed in holding her own while caught between this supernatural pair.

Vampire Diaries, or the unfortunately acronymed VD, looks like it will make an interesting addition to the fall lineup. The characters—even the bloodsucking ones—seem less evil than the kids on Gossip Girl or The Hills, and if the pilot is any indication, the producers aren’t against a little violence and gore. Some of the dialogue is plainly bad, and the diary device a little hokey. Elena explains about her poor dead parents a few too many times throughout the episode. Still, Vampire Diaries has several things going for it, not the least of which is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. (“He has that romance novel stare,” Bonnie jokes re: new guy Stefan.) The CW might not be offering anything dramatically new with this series; it’s Romeo and Romeo and Juliet, and both Romeos are dead. Still, so far Vampire Diaries is doing a solid job with the old fare.

 

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