Time for a confession: When I went into -- well, more like "was dragged into" -- The Vampire Diaries upon its premiere last year, it was with a slightly jaded outlook on the saturation of vampires in popular culture. Around one corner, you've got the abstinence-wielding, sparkly-skinned bloodsuckers from Twilight, while the thick Cajun accents and saucy saunters in True Blood pop up around the other corner. So the prospect of yet another vampire romance arc, especially one claiming air time on the sap-heavy CW channel, wasn't exactly something that seemed necessary. That mindset halts a lot of the appreciation someone could generate for the series beforehand, and they really shouldn't let it; this Kevin Williamson-developed take on L.J. Smith's "Vampire Diaries" books never feels like a cheap knock-off, or a product of a product. Sturdy performances, solid atmosphere, and a sprinkle or two of genuine horror help to claim a respectable slice of the vampiric pie for the Mystic Falls denizens, even if the show slumps into its own soapy trappings within the premiere season.
Set in a sleepy little town in Virginia, The Vampire Diaries drops us in the middle of high-schooler Elena's (Nina Dobrev) life post-trauma. She and her younger brother Jeremy (Steven R. McQueen, Piranha 3D) are coping with the death of their parents after a car wreck, which sent cheerleader Elena into an expected anti-social brood -- leading her to a breakup with her childhood boyfriend, Matt (Zach Roerig) -- and Jeremy into a rhythm of drug dealing and angst-driven scuffs with the in-crowd. Under the care of young grad student Aunt Jenna (Sara Canning), they're trying to get back to some sense of normalcy ... that is, until Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley) slips into Elena's life. Stefan's a dashing newcomer to Elena's high school with piercing eyes and a stride in his step that suggests he's an old soul. There's a reason for this, of course, since Stefan's actually a 145-year-old vampire of the non-predacious, snack-on-animals variety, enrolled in school so he can have a chance to know the eerily familiar-looking Elena and live something of a normal life for a while. And his plan's working just fine, until Stefan's capricious, violent brother Damon (Ian Somerhalder, LOST), who's a typical neck-tearing variety of vampire, swoops into town.
"Wait, Stefan's a vampire. How can he be enrolled in school, which takes place a) during the day, and b) around humans?" That and many of the other mythological bits and pieces are smoothly confirmed or tossed away early on in The Vampire Diaries, building into a stretch of introductory episodes that, admittedly, establish the series' mythos a whole hell of a lot quicker than expected. Some of the answers are a bit tedious and easy for plot's sake -- case in point, magical rings that allow vampires to be day-walkers -- but they're also handled in a straight-faced manner that justifies their position in the story, such as the reasoning behind why Stefan's diet of animal blood leaves him weaker than his brethren. Ultimately, the series drops most of the myths like garlic, crucifixes, and holy water in a fashion fairly similar to Interview with the Vampire, while allowing vampires the screen-attractive indulgences of normal sexual rendezvous and drunkenness (alcohol warms the skin, wards off blood cravings) so they can live out their lives similarly to humans. Well, save the blood-drinking, immortality, and kryptonite-level allergy to a plant called vervain, which takes the place of crosses, water, and garlic.
Creator Kevin Williamson and his crew don't sit on their laurels when it comes to using these elements in The Vampire Diaries, either, as the series' writing succeeds where some of the other modern vampire arcs meander: delivering some genuine horror, something of a shock considering the show's place on the CW network. They set this tone in motion within the first moments of the series premiere, showing a grueling vampire attack in the middle of a foggy night that's later determined to be the work of an "animal"-- attacks that have plagued the forests of Mystic Falls for years (hint, hint). These attacks pump a sincere level of tension into the little Virginia town, working on two levels as the townsfolk experience a bit of edginess about the attacks while we, as an audience, nail-bitingly witness Damon intermingle with them like a wolf in sheep's clothing. And, when vampires attack, the camera doesn't shy away from much of the gore, allowing them to violently dig into the humans with a potent force that pushes the envelope pretty far for what's ultimately a primetime soap opera with vampirism as its backdrop.
Part of what makes these horror elements feel inclusive and fresh is the setting of Mystic Falls as an old colony, which easily becomes the most intriguing element in The Vampire Diaries. As it begins telling the romantic tale of Stefan and Elena, tinkering with their flirtations while also pulling Elena's brother and best friend Bonnie (Katerina Graham) into the spotlight, it also begins to reveal the reasons why Stefan and Damon chose this particular location as their roost -- and why they, and their principles of living, are at odds with one another. Mystic Falls' history reveals a lineage through flashbacks that stretch back to the point when Stefan and Damon were "turned" in the 1800s, injecting mystical elements like vampires and witchcraft into the blood of the town from an early date. By doing that, The Vampire Diaries allows for these elements to reawaken in the town during the modern era, emphasized by the lingering presence of the Salvatore name in Mystic Falls' documents and the verging witchcraft brewing within a somewhat-unaware Bonnie. This history pumps a substantial amount of ambiance into the web of relationships, giving Mystic Falls something of a stirring, latent existence underneath the feet of its citizens.
All of that is built atop the blossoming vampire-human relationship between Elena and Stefan that's all the rage nowadays, at first generating suspense around the girl's slow discovery of the guy's spine-chilling secret and, consequently, her succumbing to his appeal. We've seen it before with the Bella-Edward and Sookie-Bill connections, where a lost, internally-tormented girl tippy-toes around some new, dark stranger that's just traipsed into town, and the Elena-Stefan link doesn't really try to veer away from that. But in The Vampire Diaries, all the components for earnest drama/melodrama theatrics come together in their dance around the truth, and the authenticity stricken between the characters' deft dialogue and an overall gritty, evocative mood bolsters the series forward with stylish composure. Though the show's driven by relationships, the vibe that Kevin Williamson and his crew concoct craftily veers away from reaching out to place a choke hold on the audience's heartstrings. That is, until Elena discovers Stefan's secret, which ignites into violent on-again, off-again wavering of their togetherness that, though orchestrated competently, becomes unreasonably pulpy for a patch of the storyline.
When it comes down to it, The Vampire Diaries' survival as a third-tier grab at the vampire phenomenon might've not succeeded without a slate of very capable, gripping performances from the primary characters, which boosts the validity of the series up much higher than expected. Nina Dobrev creates a headstrong entity out of Elena, finding a convincing, nimble mix between slightly lowering her guard for Stefan and keeping her defenses up amid her emotion turmoil. Paul Wesley interacts with her vigor with a restrained, compelling keel as Stefan, who easily earns marks as the most interesting non-bloodsucking vampire out there right now due to his temerity. And then, there's the devilish Damon, whose biting quips are brought to slimy, indulgent life by Ian Somerhalder. He takes the reins as the source of evil at most points in The Vampire Diaries, since he's the "real" vampire that does a bit of killing and manipulation with his memory tricks, yet there's a level of dimensionality about his lovelorn torment that reaches beyond simply dismissing him as the sinister evil brother.
These successes maintain enough momentum to thrust through the entire season, yet the storytelling in The Vampire Diaries wavers as it grows longer. Right around the time when Stefan and Elena finally make a concrete decision about whether to stick together or split apart, the show diverts into an erratic root structure of plot devices that range from intriguing and perceptive, to irrational and unstable. Elena goes on an empowered search for answers regarding her heritage that connects to the rustic history of Mystic Falls, which holds a level of concentration as the details unfurl, while there's also a keen take on struggling with addiction that Stefan endures that's pretty damn gripping. And, chiefly, Elena's brother takes an interest in vampire culture that has nothing to do with her relationship with Stefan, which turns into a nice development stint for Jeremy and a great segway into introducing two new welcome, mythos-heavy additions to the storyline -- home-schooled bookworm, Anna (Malese Jow, The Social Network), and history teacher Alaric Saltzman (Matt Davis), both of which know the extent of Mystic Falls' sordid history.
On the other hand, there are a lot -- a LOT -- of relationship-driven twists and dramatic eruptions that'd give daytime soaps a run for their money with improbable breakneck shifts, some of which haphazardly take advantage of the show's mysticism. Slushy melodrama ebbs and flows behind the discovery of one of Damon's past victims with ties to the folks of Mystic Falls, which, when revealed, should've created much larger, character-splitting rifts than it actually did. Emotions and reactions to events simply bend and break at the behest of the operatic storytelling, steering established demeanors down some unfortunate roads that cripple their authenticity. And then, there's the show's loose grip on the fabric of death, which begins to creak underneath some rather feeble, convenient turns near the meat of the first season. Once the audience discovers that there are actually humans that can't be killed -- something in between humans and vampires -- and The Vampire Diaries pulls the same "they died ... or DID they" stunt twice over, it becomes aggravating as that partition between humans and vampires further weakens in a semi-unexplained, magical way.
Even as the overwrought ludicrousness heightens, including typical melodrama swirling around double-crosses and long-lost family members arriving just in time for drama's sake, the strengths coursing through The Vampire Diaries' veins -- firm grasp on its gothic mythology, an interesting back story, compelling characters, and a lingering thrust of suspense -- keep the momentum consistently flowing week after week. And, admittedly, creator Kevin Williamson and his crew craft a sense of involvement with the story that's more addictive than expected; he allows the audience to gradually absorb the relationship ups-and-downs between Elena and Stefan within the frills that accompany suspenseful, stoically-postured vampire waywardness, including clever cliffhangers at the end of each installment that make certain to dig their hooks into the viewer. Though these last-minute bursts become anticipated, they're nonetheless intriguing enough to make the series absorbing on at least a base level. Yes, it capitalizes on the pop-culture phenomenon gyrating around vampires, and yes, it appeals more to the soap opera demographic with its devil-may-care theatrics, but the craftsmanship circulating through The Vampire Diaries takes it a step beyond its contemporaries with a straight-faced slant.
Spread across five discs, The Vampire Diaries: The Complete First Season arrives from Warner Bros. in a standard, clear five-disc package with two overlapping trays in the center. A side-loading cardboard slipcase covers the outside packaging, while an attractive, photo-heavy Episode Guide lists lists the titles and a brief synopsis of each installment.
Video and Audio:
Having seen a fair share of The Vampire Diaries as it aired in HD on The CW, it's safe to say that WB's presentation of the 1.78:1 widescreen-enhanced episodes mirrors the experience rather well in standard definition. Black levels are deep and convincing, while the rotation between cold, slate-leaning desaturation and warm burgundy-leaning tones in the cinematography are supported with a pleasing level of gradation in contrast and color. Some fine exhibition of detail in hair and skin textures peeks out through the image, while the persistent movement of the camera never renders any terribly unsightly blocking or distortion. Grain during darker sequences crops up that stretches beyond the series' artistic intent, while the contrast can, intermittently, get soupy to a detail-overwhelming degree. But for the most part, considering that there's roughly 3+ hours of material on each disc (aside from the two on the fifth disc), The Vampire Diaries looks about as good as to be expected on DVD.
The Vampire Diaries isn't exactly an exercise in sound subtlety, with ferocious, active music mixing with loudly-attenuated dialogue, and these Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks recognize that fact. There are some sound effects that borderline on ambiance -- loud crickets chirping in the forest, chatter in a bar, and the shuffling about in a high-school costume party -- and those are preserved. However, it's in the persistent music and back-and-forth dialogue among the principles that we're most concerned with here, which these tracks nimbly handle. Lower-frequency activity from the deeper side of Damon and Stefan's dialogue flutters to the bass channel, while the alto notes from Elena and Bonnie gracefully slip into the activity with fine clarity -- though it can, at times, feel just a bit thin. A few extra-aggressive sound effects will jump out from the sound design on occasion, such as a crash into a car shield, the hammering of a blunt weapon, and the billowing if fire, which all barrel through the tracks to an amply, well-balanced degree. In short, everything's sounds rather good here. English and Portuguese language tracks are available, along with optional subtitles in English (SDH), French, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Thai, and Portuguese.
Though a few scattered special features are sprinkled across the first four discs -- including Deleted Scenes (annotated by a scissors icon next to applicable episodes) and a decent, upbeat Commentary on the Pilot with Kevin Williamson, Julie Plec, and Director Marcos Siega that discusses casting, special effects, difficulty in editing, and the tone of the series (as well as a plot spoiler for a later episode, so be wary) -- the bulk of the supplements for The Vampire Diaries can be found on Disc Five. Here, a cluster of behind-the-scenes interviews across a bunch of topics dive into the construction of The Vampire Diaries, from conception to casting.
Into Mystic Falls (25:01, 16x9) takes interview with Kevin Williamson, Julie Plec, producer Bob Levy, and the cast and fleshes out the process in giving the series life. They discuss why there was a level of skepticism in creating yet another vampire franchise amid a slew of others, how fortunate they are to have been given the opportunity to work on the project, and some alterations that needed to be made -- including why an important 4-year-old girl from the book doesn't make it into the series. When Vampires Don't Suck! (18:47, 16x9) delves into the popularity and fandom surrounding The Vampire Diaries and vampires in general, including some interview time with the curator for Vampire-Diaries.net and other film/vampire historians, while A New Breed of Vampires (12:42, 16x9) discusses the arduous process that producer Williamson and the cast had to endure to find the right mesh of actors for this production.
On the lighter side of things, the disc rounds out the supplements with Vampires 101 (6:42, 16x9) crash course on the series' cherry-picked acceptance of certain vampire myths, which features interview blurbs where the cast and crew explain the answers that are given on a multiple-choice test layout. Also, a gag reel entitled Second Bite (3:57, 16x9) makes an appearance, as well as a series of hammy webisodes entitled A Darker Truth (7:39, 16x9). Finally, as a special treat for those that haven't had the chance to experience the books, an unabridged Audiobook for L.J. Smith's The Vampire Diaries: The Awakening (6:31:24) has also been included. That, in itself, really sweetens the deal, especially since it can be downloaded onto a PC or MAC for usage with mp3 playback.
The Vampire Diaries is actually a pretty scary title for this series, one that likely frightened some people off due to its soft-sounding name. An image of a brooding vampire and his supple little girlfriend writing about their yearning for one another probably slipped into people's minds, yet that's far removed from what Kevin Williamson has brought to The CW in L.J. Smith's novels. Instead, this dark, episodic horror-drama hybrid brings together some genuine chills and a setting with a particularly compelling history, all while concentrating on a vampire-human relationship and the way it affects those around them -- including the vampire's brother, also a vampire. Though it strays a bit from excellence, latching too tightly onto its soap-opera rhythm and confronting the plot's curiosities with some rather simple-minded answers, it's still a heartily Recommended premiere season of a quality vampire property that easily claims a healthy amount of the spotlight from its contemporaries. Plus, Warner Bros. have once again delivered an excellent TV-on-DVD package with proficient audiovisual capabilities and a nice array of special features.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site