I'm not going to try to sell you on The Vampire Diaries anymore. That may sound a little harsh, but I don't mean that at all in a bad way. Three seasons in, I don't need to tell you this isn't some
double-digit-IQ Twilight knock-off. You've already heard me say that, unlike True Blood, The Vampire Diaries has a tremendously talented cast as well as characters who are richly developed and (gasp!) genuinely likeable. Not only does the series deliver one jaw-dropping cliffhanger after another, but there'll be four or five cliffhanger-worthy moments an episode. The pacing never relents. The Vampire Diaries consistently stuffs several episodes' worth of plot into each installment. Its mythology is lush and engrossing. The series refuses to settle into a comfortable rut, with anything resembling the status quo there just long enough to be shattered. Don't confuse this with a guilty pleasure. Well-acted, smart, sexy, sharply written, spectacularly plotted, gut-wrenchingly emotional, suspenseful, and wildly addictive like nothing else out there, The Vampire Diaries is in the running as my favorite drama on network television. If you're still turning up your nose for some reason, then...whatever. It's your loss.
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In a word, the third season of The Vampire Diaries is about family...or, rather, trying to hold onto one. Elena's is all but gone, limited to just her increasingly distant brother Jeremy. The two of them have a surrogate father in Alaric, but even he's content to set up shop on the couch rather than settle into one of the house's depressingly vacant rooms. A fractitious family at best seems as if it could collapse at any moment. Elena and Damon both are desperately hunting for Stefan. The previous season closed with Stefan unleashing the monster within, swearing allegiance to the millenium-old original vampire Klaus. 'The Ripper' has resurfaced. Though he obeys Klaus' every command to murder and maim, Stefan isn't some mindless, manipulated slave; he relishes in the kill. In any other series, Stefan would be back to his righteous old self within two or three episodes, but...well, this is The Vampire Diaries. Things will never be the same again. Klaus has much of his true family within arm's reach, though he prefers to keep the bulk of them skewered and subdued. His aim is to raise a new family, one that's both more loyal and more like him: a hybrid of vampire and werewolf. The birthing of this army proves to be far more difficult than Klaus could ever have dreamt, and his torment grows that much greater when he finds the family tree of his birth to be more expansive and more vengeful than once believed. The dominance of family this season doesn't stop there. Hell, we learn that the existence of vampires at all is predicated on the idea of protecting one's own. No one in Mystic Falls escapes unscathed from all this, with the sorceress Bonnie, undead Caroline, and lycanthropic Tyler all struggling with parents who've either turned their backs on them or can't accept their children for who they now are.
The Vampire Diaries does so much right, and approaching the top of that list is its disinterest in convention. Stefan and Elena form the core of the series in so many ways, and yet it's quite a while before the two ever share the same frame this year. They're kept physically apart for far more of the season than I would ever have thought possible, and even after that point, they're hardly 'together'. Stefan has changed profoundly. He may never return to the unwaveringly good guy he once was, and the journey back proves to be a whole hell of a lot more grueling
than flicking a light switch back on. It's a greatly appreciated change of pace. I mean, up till now, Stefan was kinda bland. Sure, sure, he was the loyal, dutiful boyfriend you're glad to have. Meanwhile, his brother Damon is the sultry, snarky bad boy you lust after, and as his better nature bubbled to the surface over the past fortysomething episodes, Stefan started to pale by comparison. He's a hell of a lot more intriguing this season, especially as Paul Wesley sinks his teeth into the character's crueler, more sadistic nature. There's a role reversal where all of a sudden Stefan is the charismatic, smirking psychopath, and Damon is at least a little bit more the righteous hero type, all without stripping bare the elements that define him. Both brothers are a lot more compelling at the end of the day because of it. Love triangles aren't my thing so much, but thanks to the way these two characters change, the course that takes this season feels very natural and wholly earned.
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Though Stefan and Damon lead the charge of the amazing character work that The Vampire Diaries delivers this season, they're hardly the only ones to benefit. It's great to see Elena train to become more of a vampire slayer, wielding a strength that matches her eagerness to march head-on into battle, even if the cost is very likely her own life. I can't quantify why, exactly, but I do feel as if Elena is a less compelling character this year than she was in either of the two seasons prior, perhaps out of sheer exhaustion that everyone in the series puts her needs and wants so far above their own. Tyler is almost unrecognizable from the hot-tempered, lycanthropic frat-boy-in-waiting from the first season, more honest, responsible, and self-sacrificing than he ever would have thought possible sophomore year. The Vampire Diaries being the show that it is, it's not exactly all rainbows and lollipops for Tyler either, and he loses his control and free will in a very different way than we saw in his earliest werewolf days. Klaus makes for an extraordinary antagonist, devilishly wicked and sopping with charm. I especially love that, after a while, he ceases to be the season's big bad. It's not that Klaus has some sort of epiphany and awakes a gallant hero; despite his unmistakeably malevolent side, he just feels woven into the overall tapestry of the show rather than just an arch-nemesis-of-the-year. He's immensely powerful and all but immortal, yet there's something very lonely and vulnerable about him at the same time. That's a very rare and impressive achievement. The one misstep is trying to humanize him somewhat by having him fall for Caroline. That seems to come out of nowhere and, even in a series where everyone oozes chemistry for everyone else, it doesn't really feel convincing. Alaric undergoes a surprising transformation, in keeping with the series' insistence that there are no free passes...that all things supernatural have a consequence. Caroline remains The Vampire Diaries' secret weapon: sweet, caring, unflinchingly optimistic, strong yet vulnerable, more of a moral compass than anyone else on the bill, and...okay, there's the way she looks when the series decides to strip her down to her skivvies. Matt, one of the only out-and-out humans remaining on the show, steps up to MVP status this season too.
Not everyone has it so great, though. Bonnie was elevated to such dizzying heights as The Vampire Diaries' second season drew to a close. I mean, that sacrifice...? My jaw hit the floor. It's disappointing that she's so underutilized this year. She's little more than supernatural duct tape, pulled out of the drawer long enough to magically smooth out the crisis of the week only to then get immediately tossed aside. Scoring so little screentime makes it tough for any of her subplots to really resonate, leaving her more plot device than character and generally just an all around buzzkill. Her whole parental drama thing is a complete non-starter too. The season finale promises an intriguing new direction for Bonnie, but then again, I think I said that last year too. Katherine is barely there. Love Klaus. Generally like his sister Rebekah. Love, love, love Elijah, although he scores by far the least screentime of the 'big three' Originals. Wish
there were more of the other Original siblings, tho'. Outside of Jeremy-sees-dead-people, this season isn't sure what to do with Elena's kid brother, and I can't say he's missed when when he starts disappearing for weeks at a time.
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If you skimmed past those past few paragraphs, I guess the short answer is that The Vampire Diaries' third season is its most uneven. Its highs are every bit as spectacular -- maybe even moreso -- than anything the series has produced to date, but its lows -- misfires like "Break On Through", "Homecoming", and "All My Children" -- are series-worsts. Hey, though, let's focus on the sunnier side of things first! The pacing is as wonderfully manic as ever. There are at least two or three "oh, shit...!" moments an episode. If there's a more consistently surprising, more frantically paced series on TV than this, I guess I'm missing out. It's more intense and suspenseful than a lot of horror flicks coming down the pike anymore, and the level of violence and gore is right up there too. Despite its blood-spattered action and breakneck plotting, The Vampire Diaries never loses sight of its very strong emotional core. It has a knack for weaving robust characterization into the mix without the pace ever screeching to a halt. Hell, that's handled so skillfully that a confrontation between the Salvatores and two Original brothers is unnervingly intense even when all they're doing is sitting at a dining room table, negotiating over a late supper. Sure, a tiny bit of exposition might get doled out at the outset to refresh viewers' memories, but once an episode is underway, the twists and turns aren't overexplained. That sort of respect leaves room for subtleties that are so much more greatly appreciated, in the performances and plotting alike. I love how The Vampire Diaries will bench a character if he or she doesn't fit into that week's episode, and I wish series like True Blood or Dexter had the guts to do the same. At any point where I'd start to question the writers -- "hey, wait a minute..." -- there's an immediate response. Everything happens for a reason. No one does anything moronic or out-of-character purely to service the plot. It's still willing to shake up the status quo, refusing to settle into a comfortable rut. In a world where Marvel
Comics will say that the Hulk is responsible for trillions of dollars in property damage but has never caused a single death in any of his many, many, many rampages, it's intriguing to have two romantic leads in a TV show fucking slaughter people left and right. This is one of the few genre series where I actually feel invested in its mythology and backstory, and the origins of vampirism and an episode-long flashback to Chicago in the '20s make for some of my favorite moments this season.
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...and then there's the not-so-good. One issue is that this season of The Vampire Diaries starts off so astonishingly well, but the further it goes along, the more content it is to spin its wheels. Much of the back half seems shapeless and without direction. Elements of those weaker episodes are critical to a conclusion that deeply impresses me, so clearly the writers have a plan mapped out, but it does feel as if they aren't entirely sure what to do with the Originals for a while there. This season introduces a slew of potentially spectacular roads to travel down and either immediately cuts itself off or trots down a much less interesting path. Jeremy's newfound ability to see ghosts seems as if it's building to be such a critical element of the season, and though it does build to a hell of a crescendo...well, a lot of the havoc takes place off-screen. You get the build-up, the final moments, and the aftermath of an assault by the undead. The scale of it all is impressive, but our usual characters feel pretty disconnected from the worst of it. I love that The Vampire Diaries has such a frenzied pace and fits so much into each episode, but the peak of the ghostly invasion is something I think would've played far better if it had more room to breathe. I can't say I'm crazy about Jeremy starting to feel like a Skype video conference to the afterlife either. Hybrids soon become something characters talk about rather than a vital, integral aspect of the season. Aside from two -- both of whom are characters who've appeared in dozens of episodes -- they're basically a non-entity halfway through, no matter how much is blathered on about them. Despite being these supposedly ultimate, indestructible creatures, Damon and Stefan both seem to be able to wipe them out without breaking a sweat. There's a serial killer subplot that's awfully uninvolving at first and (at least by Vampire Diaries standards) plods along for far too long, although the payoff eventually proves to be so, so, so worth it. The Originals start to feel like a distraction from an established ensemble that's underutilized, and then it doesn't even make the most of those new characters either. ...and, as ever, some of the dialogue and relationship drama creaks along, but I think that's all part of the pulpy fun. As spotty as some of the episodes near the final stretch can be, they make way for the masterful reveal of "The Murder of One" and the brilliant "The Departed". The latter isn't just my favorite of The Vampire Diaries' consistently spectacular season finales but is also a hell of a game changer.
But wait, what are we talking about here again? This is the third season of an intensely serialized and wildly addictive series; the smart money says I had you at "The Vampire Diaries". Despite its handful of uncharacteristic missteps, The Vampire Diaries remains one of my absolute favorite series on television, and this sprawling season set comes Highly Recommended the same as ever.
The Vampire Diaries continues to look phenomenal on Blu-ray. The image is exceptionally crisp and detailed throughout, holding up remarkably well even under the lowest of light. Its palette is bright and vivid when appropriate -- remember, most of the series' bloodsuckers can walk around unscathed under the light of day -- though it generally settles into something more subdued. Interestingly, the flashbacks aren't as stylized as they were in years past, with "The End of the Affair" in particular opting for a sepia tint rather than bathing those scenes in a soft, diffused glow. Video noise remains mostly unintrusive throughout, I couldn't spot any haloing or other digital anomalies from a normal viewing distance, and...well, I'm not left with much of anything to gripe about at all, really. I've had nothing but high praise for the other Blu-ray releases of The Vampire Diaries, and its third season maintains that very high standard.
Oh, and just in case you're curious how the DVDs in this combo pack stack up next to the Blu-ray discs, feel free to pop these screenshot comparisons open to fullsize:
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This season of The Vampire Diaries spans four dual-layer Blu-ray discs and, if you're keeping track at home, five anamorphic widescreen DVDs. All 22 episodes have been encoded with AVC and are presented at their original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.78:1.
I could probably just copy and paste my review of the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks from season two...not a whole lot has changed. The technical end of things certainly remains the same: same codec, same 16-bit depth, and, of course, it's all in 5.1.
As active as the surround channels are, they're almost always reserved for light ambiance and to reinforce the music. A few scattered effects take advantage as well -- encircling flames, sprays of gunfire, and a raven suddenly darting off-frame, for instance -- but the rears aren't especially immersive, and they're rarely used to heighten the tension. The Vampire Diaries definitely sounds as if it's oriented with stereo primarily in mind, and...okay, I get it. The
target demo probably isn't pumping this series through an overpriced home theater rig or anything. Bass response is impressively deep and resonant when it comes to music, particularly the ominous, low-frequency growls in the score. The effects you'd expect to be bolstered by a substantial low-frequency kick -- all those haymakers, bodies being flung around, and the like -- really don't pack much of a wallop, though. These soundtracks don't offer the same sense of distinctness and clarity that I'm used to hearing on Blu-ray either, although that's very much in keeping with the previous season. Dialogue sometimes sounds a little edgy, but it's well-balanced in the mix and consistently discernable throughout. Not overwhelmingly impressive but very much in league with what I was expecting to hear.
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As before, a lossy Portuguese dub has also been included. Subtitles, meanwhile, are offered in English (SDH), French, Spanish, Portuguese, Finnish, and Swedish.
This third season of The Vampire Diaries is a nine disc set (!), spanning four Blu-ray discs and five DVDs. It's the first combo release of a season set that's passed through my hands, and just for good measure, there's an UltraViolet code tucked inside as well. Even though the episode splits vary by format, the enclosed episode guide nicely accommodates both DVD and Blu-ray. Because of the sheer number of discs, the case is wider than the previous two Blu-ray season sets, and it can be a little tricky to close. As ever, this season of The Vampire Diaries also slides into a slipcase.
I'll break out the extras by disc. There are no commentaries this time around, and disc one doesn't feature any deleted scenes or the like.
- Deleted Scenes (4 min.; HD): The Vampire Diaries' handful of deleted scenes begin with a 42 second bit from "Ordinary People" that further explores the cave paintings. "Our Town" features four deleted scenes that run right at three minutes in all, most of which offer Sheriff Forbes some additional time in front of the camera.
- Deleted Scene (1 min.; HD): The only other deleted scene this season is a moment between Rebekah and Elijah from "All My Children".
- Stefan's Descent into Darkness (10 min.; HD): It's revealed that The Vampire Diaries' writers had Stefan being an especially good guy throughout the series' second season just so they could tear every bit of it to shreds this year. Aside from discussing
Stefan as he's consumed by his darker impulses, this featurette also touches on the addiction metaphor, the moment where the character truly loses his humanity, and how changing the music in that sequence cast it in an entirely different light.
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- The Original Vampires: The Beginning (22 min.; HD): Along with the expected writers and cast members, "The Original Vampires: The Beginning" also features commentary by a descendent of Bram Stoker's! Top that. The conversation here swirls around the origins of vampirism, both in folklore the world over and in The Vampire Diaries itself.
- Second Bite (3 min.; HD): Don't get tripped up by the title: this is another brilliant Vampire Diaries gag reel.
- The Producer's Pages (23 min.; HD): Somewhat unexpectedly, this is a collection of three different featurettes. "The Writer's Pack" (6 min.) delves into how a series this densely plotted and fast-moving is written. "The Producer's Spells" (7 min.) aims the spotlight towards line producer Pascal Verschooris as he helps bridge art and commerce, and this second featurette also delves into the scale of such an ambitious production. Finally, "Sound FX, Score, and Suspense" (10 min.) explores...well, it's kind of all right there in the title. The highlight there is seeing one sequence as different elements of the mix are gradually brought in. All three of these featurettes are well worth a look.
The Final Word
This third season of The Vampire Diaries stumbles somewhat, with the series delivering a few of its first truly disappointing episodes since the pilot. Of course, any other genre series would kill to have a batting average as outstanding as this, and even its more lackluster moments only seem weak in comparison to the dizzying heights that The Vampire Diaries has so consistently delivered over the past couple years. In its third year, The Vampire Diaries is still one of the most infectiously addictive series on television, and anyone who's been following the show up to this point desperately needs to have this Blu-ray set in their collections as well. Very Highly Recommended.