The title's not all that far off, though: there are vampires, and there are indeed diaries. One of these diaries is being kept by Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev). Elena's been writing down her thoughts for quite some time now, but in these dark days, her diary is her only outlet for the way she really feels. She's still reeling from the deaths of both of her parents just a few short months ago, and while she tries to present a smiling face to the world at large, she's emotionally ravaged inside. Elena has been keeping almost everyone around her at arm's length, dumping one of her oldest friends who she'd only recently started to date and tearing just about every last page out of her social calendar. She's dead inside.
Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley), meanwhile, is dead, period. He too keeps a journal, although having been alive...well, undead...for around 150 years, Stefan has had quite a bit more to write about than Elena. One of the first things Stefan did upon his return to his ancestral home of Mystic Falls, Virginia is re-enroll in high school. As an eternal 17 year old, he doesn't run into any trouble looking the part. It certainly doesn't hurt that as one of the few surviving vampires who doesn't sizzle and smolder under the light of day, there's little reason for anyone to suspect that Stefan is one of the undead. Stefan and Elena are inexorably drawn to one another, and the two of them are almost immediately established as a couple. Epic romance. Moony eyes. You know the drill.
Stefan can't escape his blood. You can take that in the most literal sense: there's the blood he must ingest in order to survive, although he's long since sworn off feeding from humans, living instead off of small animals in the woods around his palatial family estate. This makes it easier to for Stefan to more seamlessly blend into mainstream society rather than feasting off it from the fringes, but it leaves him weaker than most other vampires as a result. It's just not as potent as what's coursing through our veins. There's that sort of blood -- the crimson, sticky kind -- and then there's the blood of his family. Stefan's brother Damon (Ian Somerhalder) is also a creature of the night, and he long ago swore to make every last second of Stefan's existence an eternal hell. Damon kills without hesitation...not only to feed, and not only to hide the existence of vampires from the world at large, but simply because he likes it. There's more to Damon's return to Mystic Falls than revenge, though. There's a much greater -- a much darker -- motivation behind it all. At the same time, Mystic Falls isn't being caught as unaware as Damon might like to think...
The Vampire Diaries finds its footing startlingly quickly. Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, for instance: as universally adored as those two series are, neither of them were really any good at all until the tail-end of their first seasons. Even with as strong as Supernatural quickly became in its first year, it got off to somewhat of a shaky start, and a fair number of the episodes from its first season are hit-or-miss. The Vampire Diaries, on the other hand, is just about perfect by the time the third episode rolls around. There really aren't any weak episodes after that. There's no filler dumped in just to pad out the rest of the season, and it doesn't spin its wheels the way a lot of shows do when leading up to the big finale. It's impressive enough that The Vampire Diaries hits such dizzying heights in its very first season, but to maintain that sort of consistency across virtually every episode...that's exceptionally rare.
Even with all of its genre underpinnings, at its core, The Vampire Diaries is a soap opera, complete with dead parents, drug abuse, adoption drama, alcoholism, and lots and lots of relationships. Don't go in expecting it to be a Buffy clone or a Supernatural knockoff. The elements that make those series so brilliant are showcased here as well, but action, horror, and a snarky sense of humor don't dominate. The great thing about The Vampire Diaries -- and I write this from the perspective of someone who's not the usual target demographic for this kind of show -- is that the soapier elements are never overwhelming either. For instance, as the series opens, Elena's younger brother Jeremy (Steven R. McQueen) has turned to drugs in a failed attempt at trying to cope with the sudden deaths of his parents. In any other show, there'd be some sort of big, overwrought intervention...drenched in syrupy strings, a heartfelt monologue, and saucer-plate weepy eyes. That, or he'd bottom out in some sort of cartoonishly over-the-top way. Because The Vampire Diaries is so respectful to its characters and its audience, it doesn't trot down either of those paths. People try to reach Jeremy and fail. He has to arrive at the decision to improve his lot in life himself, and he quickly does. Though Jeremy is certainly given a helpful nudge, his maturation is handled quietly and convincingly. The Vampire Diaries doesn't have all that much interest in settling for the obvious, and it resists wringing out drama from the same plot points episode after episode.
While its tone is very different from Supernatural and Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- again, less emphasis on action and dialing down its sense of humor -- don't mistake this for One Tree Hill with plastic fangs and a fog machine either. Every episode has some sort of intensely action or horror driven sequence to unleash, and some sort of shock or surprise is always lurking around the next corner. I seriously found myself shouting at my TV -- the good kind of shouting! -- with the way The Vampire Diaries so deviously caught me off-guard over and over again. The twists are also well-thought-out and wholly earned, not just lazily yanking out the rug. Very few people here are safe, and characters I assumed would be a fixture for the entire run of the show are suddenly slaughtered after a few episodes. The cinematography can be impressively cinematic as well, and quite a few moments of "You're Undead to Me" and "Haunted" in particular look as if they could've been culled from a big-budget Hollywood horror flick. Especially once the pilot has come and gone, the pace screams along at a very steady clip. There are never really any threads in the storyline that are left dangling for long. Plot points that look like they'd be dragged out over the course of the first season or two are instead revealed a third of the way through. Key moments that feel like they belong in the season finale swoop in closer to the halfway mark. I mean that as the highest compliment too. Nothing ever feels rushed or underplayed. It's all presented quickly enough to keep The Vampire Diaries from stagnating but is still given enough time to have a meaningful impact...it's a perfect balance. Also, every episode offers some sort of payoff to something established earlier, and there's generally some kind of reveal as well. So much happens that part of me honestly wonders how they can keep up this manic pace in season two, although the writers have very much earned the benefit of the doubt after this exceptionally strong first outing. I'm having a hard time thinking of the last show I watched with cliffhangers this consistently addictive too. Especially now that it's out on Blu-ray, The Vampire Diaries kind of demands to be devoured in marathon viewings.
I'll admit to never actually having read or watched Twilight, but I've dug through enough rants that I feel like I have a pretty good sense of its many, many (many, many, many, many) shortcomings. The Vampire Diaries veers away from pretty much all of them. One of the chief complaints I've always heard about Twilight is that the relationship between Edward and Bella seems so...abusive? Bella is meek and submissive, marching in lockstep with whatever demands her boyfriend -- who's kind of keen on reminding her how easily he could snuff out her life -- is barking
The cast and characterization straight across the board are particularly great. There's something magnetic about every last member of The Vampire Diaries' ensemble, and no weak links leap out at me. There's certainly an effort to keep them even-keeled. There's something likeable or sympathetic about most everyone. Each character has some sort of glaring flaw as well, and that includes Elena and Stefan. Elena isn't some sort of impossibly perfect Mary Sue character. She has her shortcomings, and her friends and family aren't afraid to call her on them and take her down a peg either. In most any other show, everyone in the supporting cast would be boiled down to a three or four word description: "horny best friend" or "hyperaggressive jock"...that sort of thing. They'd be defined less by who they are and more by what the plot requires them to do that week. In The Vampire Diaries, just about everyone is infused with quite a bit more thought and dimension. This may not be at all apparent at first glance. Some of the folks who at first seem destined to be dead air are soon given some additional depth. Well, that, or they're quickly mauled. Sometimes both. I'm a terrifyingly rabid fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I appreciated the ensemble -- the way all of these characters interacted and were given so much personality -- more than Buffy on her own. I feel the same way about The Vampire Diaries. Sure, Jeremy Gilbert isn't a vampire and doesn't keep a diary, but he's still every bit as compelling as his older sister. Most of these types of stories have some kind of spunky best friend, and Katerina Graham as Bonnie might take the mantle as one of the most immediately great pals ever. Again, there's just an instant connection. We don't need it explained with some kind of expositiony infodump, and she doesn't have to make any grand gestures to win the audience over. Graham is just immediately likeable, and there's so much chemistry between her and Nina Dobrev that I instantly buy into their friendship on-screen. Bonnie happens to hail from a long line of witches. Again, this brought to mind Buffy with the whole Willow thing, and I'm sure anyone still slogging through this review has seen plenty of movies and TV shows where a newfound witch learns to master her powers. The intriguing thing that The Vampire Diaries does here is skip the learning curve. Bonnie doesn't awe and marvel at the manifestation of these abilities -- unaware that the supernatural is actually real, she's kind of horrified by it all, really -- and her eventual mastery takes place off-screen. Candice Accola also makes an impression as Caroline, an incredibly outgoing but kind of inconfident friend of Elena's who feels as if she's in some constant unspoken competition with her. She soon finds herself under the thrall of Damon -- used as a puppet for blood and sex -- and I particularly enjoyed seeing the way Caroline gradually asserts herself while still reeling from the wounds of the past. It's a very believable balance. Zach Roerig also takes the stock 'jealous ex' role and transforms it into something far more layered and compelling. Each character has his or her own distinct voice and personality. The dialogue can definitely be witty and clever -- and I'll dive into the most notable example of that in a moment -- but it still feels surprisingly natural overall. I can't think of the last time I said that about a series anchored around a bunch of high schoolers.
It'd be kind of criminal to rave about how terrific the acting and characterization are without paying special attention to Ian Somerhalder. His take on Damon is easily the most immediately engaging thing about The Vampire Diaries. It's been tossed around for ages that the best bad guys are always more interesting than the best good guys, and that's absolutely the case here. Damon gets the nod as the most instantly charismatic and snarkiest character on the show, scoring all the best lines and given free reign to, well, vamp it up. One of the things that caught me off-guard about The Vampire Diaries is that Damon is seemingly set up from word one as the villain. He's not the Big Bad of the show, though. Damon frequently commits unforgiveable, unjustifiably brutal acts, and yet he isn't portrayed as finger-wagglingly evil. I'm used to characters like Angel and Spike who used to do terrible things, felt tortured about it, but are so charismatic in the here and now that the audience generally forgets what they'd done. Excuses are made...oh, that wasn't really him. He had to kill that guy...that sort of thing. The Vampire Diaries doesn't do that. Damon is pretty gleeful about rending people into fist-sized, bloody chunks, and this is never glossed over. Even when he's stealing scenes and winning over everyone in sight as the most compelling character on the show, he still does terrible things. It's incredibly difficult to
More than anything, The Vampire Diaries is heavily oriented around relationships, but I don't necessarily mean that in the romantic sense. It's about the threads that connect these characters: of family...of friendship. The web is more interconnected than these shows usually get, creating far more of a community feel than I'm used to seeing. That's appropriate seeing as how the city of Mystic Falls is very much a character in its own right. I greatly appreciate how significant a role the past plays into both the story arcs and the overall mythology of the series. I'm used to vampire stories using flashbacks as a crutch -- to explain a particular plot point or to show how a vampire got to be the way he is in the present day. In The Vampire Diaries, it really does feel as if the story as a whole spans just shy of 150 years. Things may be coming to a head in the here and now, but the keys to understanding it all lay in the past: the role vampires have played since the founding of Mystic Falls, the conspiratorial bent of the watchful descendents of the town's founding families, how the creatures that preyed on the townsfolk 150 years ago continue to torment the Salvatore brothers, why it is that Stefan's so drawn towards Elena, family members long thought lost, hauntings, deceit, and thirsts for vengeance.
On the topic of love, though, I am more intrigued by the relationship that blossoms between Elena and Stefan than I thought I might be. My immediate reaction is that it was too rushed...that we never get a chance to see the two of them convincingly fall for one another. It's instead kind of a "just add water!" romance where they're a couple seemingly within a few hours of first meeting. The more I think about it, the more I realize that this isn't all that's going on. The two of them talk about love and how epic their romance is, but it's not. It's infatuation. As is mentioned in the extras in this set, Elena is dead inside and Stefan is quite literally dead, and each brings the other back to life. Elena is looking at this with naive, childlike eyes, and Stefan is swept up in the emotion of it all for the first time in who knows how many decades. When they swoon over each other in these early episodes, they probably don't truly understand what love is in the first place. This is why it makes so much sense that they split up seemingly every episode on the first disc or two. Nothing's settled. They don't know each other, and they don't know what this is yet. I prefer seeing that kind of shakiness at the outset. Once a relationship is tested like that, it seems stronger...more believable...once things do become more established. An integral facet of what defines The Vampire Diaries is the love
Honestly, I really don't have any nasty bits of criticism to lob out here. My gripes are generally really minor. Okay, some of the wirework in the pilot is pretty unconvincing. The crow...? The fog in the cemetery...? That's all a little on the nose, but it's a distant memory after the first couple of episodes. Even my least favorite thing about the pilot -- the narration from Elena and Stefan's diaries -- is downplayed as the series goes along. The phrase "the vampire diaries" takes on a different meaning in later episodes and cements the connection between the founding of Mystic Falls and the present day. Some characters are underutilized, either because they're killed fairly quickly or because the show isn't quite sure what to do with them at the moment. Some of those who are murdered are people I really would've liked to have gotten to know better. Bonnie is sorely missed when she's suddenly out of town for quite a few episodes, and she's gone so long that I kind of forgot she was still even in the mix. Aunt Jenna -- who looks to be in her mid-20s and has been unexpectedly dropped into the role of guardian for Jeremy and Elena -- isn't developed as much as I would've preferred, and that kind of seems like a missed opportunity. None of that really drags the show down, though, and I'd rather see The Vampire Diaries careen ahead at this sort of pace than spin its wheels to service characters I already like. The current balance between story and characterization is really strong as it is.
I'm sure it goes without saying that if you're not on-board with the concept of a vampire soap opera, you'll probably find some excuse to dislike The Vampire Diaries. Me, though...? I'm very surprised by how bowled over I was. I'd heard very good things and walked in with reasonably high expectations, but this first season is so much better than I possibly could've hoped to see. The series doesn't just lazily try to ride in on Twilight's coattails and then coast for twentysomething episodes. It aims high and never really misses the mark. The Vampire Diaries melds together melodrama, romance, suspense, horror, and some level of mystery, and every last one of those elements is handled remarkably well. It also doesn't feel as if it's taking itself with stone-faced seriousness either. Humor isn't as key an aspect of the series as it is with Buffy or Supernatural, and it never tears off into camp like True Blood, but there is some really snarky banter scattered around in here. It's fast-paced, there's a constant barrage of payoffs, reveals, and jaw-dropping twists, the show dishes out a surprising amount of depth for its characters, and...well, The Vampire Diaries sports one of the most ridiculously gorgeous casts on television, so there's that too. Loved it, loved it, loved it. Highly Recommended.
Pretty, pretty actors. Pretty, pretty Blu-ray. That kind of passes for a review, right?
The Vampire Diaries really
The Vampire Diaries doesn't quite look perfect on Blu-ray, but this is still a really strong showing, and it should prove to be be a massive improvement over the DVD release. More rambling bits of technical jargon: the series is presented on Blu-ray at its intended aspect ratio of 1.78:1, all four of the discs in this set are BD-50s, and the video has been compressed with the VC-1 codec.
Warner isn't all that keen on the concept of lossless soundtracks for their TV-on-BD sets, so The Vampire Diaries is limited to Dolby Digital 5.1 (640kbps) only. The technical specs may not look
I still think lossless audio ought to be a standard for Blu-ray releases, and pretty much every other studio out there is doing it for their season sets. At the same time, if you skip past the icons lighting up on your receiver and just listen to the audio, it's tough to find much to gripe about. It's not as active or aggressive as a theatrical release or anything, but for a TV series, The Vampire Diaries sounds a good bit better than average.
Also offered here is a stereo Portuguese track. There are nine subtitle streams in all: English (SDH), French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.
If you've picked up any other Warner TV-on-BD sets over the past couple of years, you probably know the drill about the packaging. The Vampire Diaries arrives in a four-disc case about the width of a DVD keepcase, and it slides into a glossy cardboard sleeve. An episode guide is tucked inside. The Vampire Diaries is a BD Live-enabled set, but it just looked like the standard Warner online gateway to me...nothing that keys into this show in particular.
The Final Word
Most of my favorite shows stumbled around quite a bit throughout their first seasons, taking just about the entirety of that first year to strike the right tone and to steady its footing. The Vampire Diaries, meanwhile, has completely settled in by the third episode. It's extremely rare to come across a series that finds its voice this quickly, especially one with storytelling as ambitious as this. The Vampire Diaries screams ahead at a breakneck pace: no padding, no filler, no meandering plot points that dangle for months on end, and pretty much no repetition. Even a jaded, cynical reviewer like myself who thinks he can always spot a twist coming was continually knocked over by the cliffhangers and the relentless barrage of shocks. It might not always be apparent from word one, but The Vampire Diaries' ensemble is impressively multidimensional, easily shrugging off all those comparisons to Twilight's cardboard cut-outs. It's worth noting that this is somewhat of a soap opera at its core, so don't stroll in expecting Supernatural Mark II or another round of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Some of the same elements from those series are showcased here, but the emphasis is most intensely focused on the relationships between these many different characters. The great thing, of course, is that these relationships are so compelling straight across the board. I'm not sure what I was expecting from The Vampire Diaries, but I'm walking away deeply impressed, and I really can't come up with much of anything negative at all to say about this first season. Very Highly Recommended.