Originally aired September 10, 2009
Written by Kevin Williamson & Julie Plec
Directed by Marcos Siega
Starring Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley, and Ian Somerhalder
My rating: ★★ 1/2 stars
Compelling vampire romance series gets off to a shaky start.
The premise of The Vampire Diaries is, on the surface, simple. One human girl + two vampire brothers = love triangle. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Seven-eighths of any iceberg lie beneath the surface and so does the delicious complexity of The Vampire Diaries’ premise. The problem with the pilot episode is that, in one hour, there’s no time to delve beneath the surface. In fact, the pilot never gets beyond introducing the heroine and the early stages of her attraction to one of the brothers; the other swoops in at the end of the episode, seemingly a villain and an antagonist to the budding romance between his brother and the heroine.
The advantage that television shows have over movies is their ability to build stories and characters over extended periods of time and to course-correct when something in the show seems to be heading full-speed ahead toward an iceberg (hmm, I think I’m getting my iceberg metaphors confused). Over the course of the first half of the season, TVD makes a few course-corrections. More importantly, however, as the episodes progress, the viewers get to see the characters develop into nuanced, three-dimensional beings with relationships that cannot be easily defined, the core strengths of the show.
The pilot opens with an annoying voice-over by vampire Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley), in which he announces that he’s a vampire. The voice-over is completely unnecessary because, within five minutes we see Stefan jumping safely from the roof of his house to the ground and compelling the local high school registrar to ignore the fact that he doesn’t have the proper records. These actions combined with the show’s title should be enough to clue in even the slowest of viewers that Stefan is, in fact, an Undead-American.
Stefan’s opening voice-over plays over a scene of a hapless couple on the way home from a concert. The couple stops to help a man lying in the road. We never see the man’s face, only his god-awful ugly ring. Is it Stefan? We don’t know. But, in later scenes, we do see that he wears a god-awful ugly ring. The man in the road attacks the couple. Vampires have come to Mystic Falls, Virginia!
Recently orphaned Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev), however, is unaware that fact. One nicely choreographed moment shows Elena turning away from the television just as a news report about the couple from the episode’s teaser comes on the screen.
We see Elena writing in her diary as she, too, has a voice-over. One voice-over is lazy storytelling; two voice-overs is time to change the channel. Which I did–the first time. (I get it—the show is called The Vampire Diaries. Characters are going to be writing in their diaries. Stefan’s voice-overs in this episode are later shown to be entries in his journal—although, why, after being a vampire for 145 years and, apparently, keeping journals for that whole time, he feels the need to announce to his journal that he is a vampire is a mystery to me.)
Luckily, I gave the show a second chance because the show improved greatly after the early episodes. (One early course-correction was dropping the voice-overs.)
One criticism that reviewers made when the show launched was that it seemed to be a shameless Twilight rip-off and that Stefan seemed to be the poor man’s Edward Cullen. While The Vampire Diaries probably would not have been adapted for television if not for the Twilight phenomenon, the books that the television series is based on actually predate Twilight by more than a decade and Stefan, we come to learn as the series goes on, bears little resemblance to Bella’s Edward.
In the books, Elena is a blonde high school mean girl. In the show, she’s played by exotic-looking, Bulgarian-born Dobrev, and the show’s creators, Kevin Williamson (Scream, Dawson’s Creek) and Julie Plec, wisely softened her personality to make her more likeable. Not that she’s a pushover. Although still saddened by her parents’ death the previous spring in a car accident and although she lets her dithery Aunt Jenna (Sara Canning) and her possibly psychic friend Bonnie Bennett (Kat Graham) jabber at her in the early scenes, Elena soon shows her strength by charging into the school’s boys’ bathroom to dress down her drug-dealing younger brother, Jeremy (Steven R. McQueen, grandson of the late film legend).
The pilot does a mixed job of presenting the show’s human coterie. Bonnie, who will be solemn and serious in later episodes, comes off like a vacuous bubblehead, barely distinguishable personality-wise from Elena’s other friend, Caroline Forbes (Candice Accola). If Graham weren’t African-American and Accola one of the world’s whitest human beings, the audience might never have been able to tell them apart. At first. The show’s writers then course-corrected Bonnie. The Bonnie of the pilot bears no resemblance to the Bonnie of subsequent episodes. Caroline, on the other, remains a slutty bubblehead, but, even in the pilot, she’s shown to be rounder than she first appears. One of the pilot’s strongest moments comes near the end, after Stefan, who had been on the receiving end of Caroline’s slutty full court press all episode, gently turns her down. Then, Caroline confesses to Bonnie her envy of Elena for the effortless way she seems to accomplish everything.
Jeremy, who could come off as a clichéd version of the troubled teen when he spouts lines like “I don’t need this” or “I don’t want to hear it,” instead is played with a lost vulnerability by McQueen. This aspect of his character comes out most in his interactions with his one-time hook-up Vicki Donovan (Kayla Ewell). She deflowered him to get drugs and then moved on to the older, richer Tyler Lockwood (Michael Trevino), the douchebag son of the mayor. (Readers of the books know the reason for Tyler’s douchebaggery, but viewers of the show have to wait for the second season to discover the Lockwood secret.)
In one scene of great exposition, Tyler makes bedroom eyes at Vicki in front of his best friend, Matt Donovan (Zach Roerig). Matt looks on disgusted and says, “Please tell me you’re not hooking up with my sister.” Tyler responds completely disingenuously “I’m not hooking up with your sister.” Matt, knowing that Tyler is lying, simply says, “You’re such a dick.” We learn in this short exchange: 1) Vicki is Matt’s sister; 2) Tyler is a dick; 3) Tyler has no compunction about sleeping with his best friend’s sister and lying to his face about it; 4) the power dynamic in the Matt/Tyler bromance lets Tyler screw his best friend’s sister, lie about it, and get away with it without getting a lot of grief from Matt about it; and 5) Matt is one of the world’s least assertive people. All in three lines of conflict-driven dialogue (conflict being what brings energy to any scene).
Matt spends much of the episode moping and Elena-longing (a common activity of many male characters in the series). Elena had broken up their long-standing relationship after the death of her parents when she realized her feelings for Matt were nothing more than friendly.
Matt certainly isn’t thrilled when Elena starts hanging out with Stefan, whom she meets first in the boys’ room at school and later in the cemetery. She runs into him after being chased by a crow; “It was all very Hitchcock,” she explains. Stefan realizes that Elena has scraped her leg. As Elena rolls up her pant leg to examine her bloody wound, Stefan’s fangs come out and his eyes go veiny. The “vamp face” make-up and effects are far more effective than those on Buffy the Vampire Slayer a decade earlier, which just looked like bad prosthetic make-up. Stefan gets his urges under control before Elena notices, and he hightails it out of there before he turns Elena into an afterschool snack.
The business with the crow is never fully explained by the television series. It’s an element from the books that the show’s writers dropped after the first episodes. (In the books, Stefan’s brother, Damon, can shape-shift into a crow.)
The attraction between Stefan and Elena is apparent early on. Wesley and Dobrev have a breezy chemistry that lights up their scenes together. The viewer gets the sense that the moments Elena spends with Stefan are the first times she’s felt at ease since the death of her parents, though this wisely remains implied and not explicitly stated.
Stefan mentions in one of his voice-overs that he feels a compulsion to be around Elena. Part of the reason for this compulsion is revealed later in the pilot. Stefan’s “Uncle Zach” (actually his many X great nephew) confronts Stefan just as Stefan is putting his shirt on to go to a party. Stefan denies attacking the townspeople, and Zach, who knows all about vampires and Stefan’s history, asks him why he’s returned to Mystic Falls. This prompts Stefan to pull out a tintype of woman who looks exactly like Elena. The picture is labeled, “Katherine 1864.” Who Katherine is remains unexplained.
Two aspects of the show that are ripe for criticism are the frequency the male actors appear shirtless and the constant stream of parties and special events in Mystic Falls. An episode of The Vampire Diaries without a special event is like an episode of Three’s Company without some kind of misunderstanding. However, I’m willing to give the show a pass on these elements, as ridiculous as their frequency becomes, because I have no aversion to shirtless men and the special events develop into a way for the show’s writers to construct episodes. The plotlines on TVD are highly serialized, so the special events create the structure for the individual episodes.
Katherine is brought up again in the climatic confrontation between Stefan and his brother Damon (Ian Somerhalder), the third part of the triangle. The fact that Damon doesn’t show up for 45 minutes is one of the key weaknesses of the pilot. Damon’s wit, his mercurial, often erratic behavior, and Somerhalder’s charismatic performance carry the show during the rocky early episodes. The energy that Damon’s arrival brings is immediately apparent. Damon throws a few taunts about Katherine and Elena at Stefan, and Stefan drops his previous brooding equanimity and tackles his older brother out the window. Stefan’s disgust at his own lack of composure and Damon’s glee in being able to break that composure reveal some of the dynamics that govern the relationship between the brothers. Stefan, we now learn, feeds only on animals, fighting an eternal battle against his own instincts. Damon relishes in the power being a vampire gives him. Stefan’s internal conflict and the conflict between the brothers are two of the elements that drive the series.
During the confrontation scene, the audience learns that Stefan and Damon wear god-awful ugly rings to protect themselves from burning in the sun and that the ringed attacker in the teaser was Damon, not Stefan. In the course of the fight, Damon manages to divest Stefan of his ring. He taunts Stefan about his ability to take the ring away from him but hands it back to Stefan almost immediately. Thus, while Damon vows to give Stefan an eternity of misery, the audience understands that Damon doesn’t want to kill his brother or even to limit him significantly.
That this strong scene is followed by another Elena/Stefan voice-over duet is a shame, particularly as these voice-overs go beyond clunky exposition and offer vapid pseudo-insight into the nature of human or vampire (depending on whose voice-over it is) existence.
The pilot brings up questions that create the momentum that will propel the action of the episodes to follow. Why has Stefan returned? Why is he so interested in Elena? Just because she looks like Katherine? Why does she look exactly like Katherine? Who is Katherine? What will happen when Elena meets Damon? How will Elena react when she learns about vampires? Why has Damon returned? Why has Damon vowed to bring his brother eternal misery? What do the brothers really feel about each other? Why does Stefan feed only on animals? What will come of the Vicki-Tyler-Jeremy triangle? How will Caroline’s insecurities influence her behavior toward Elena? Or her behavior in general? Will Matt ever stop moping and get over Elena? Is Bonnie really psychic like she claims?
Some of these questions are answered early on. The answers to others take whole seasons or more to unfold. The pilot may be unevenly executed, but it contains the foundation for a strong series.