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Vampire Diaries: Season 2, The

Warner Bros. // Unrated // August 30, 2011 // Region 0
List Price: $69.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 1, 2011 | E-mail the Author
I've already written a lot -- way, way too much, actually -- about how blindsided I was by the first
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season of The Vampire Diaries. I waltzed in expecting to snicker at some angsty, hypermelodramatic Twilight cash-in, and instead I stumbled onto one of the most perfectly crafted genre series on television. The kind of strange thing about reviewing the second season of an intensely serialized show like this is that there's not a lot to say that I haven't already. If you've never tuned into The Vampire Diaries before, then you're kinda reading the wrong review. After all, the first season ended on a cliffhanger -- um, several of them, actually -- and the second season premiere picks up immediately where last year's finalé left off. You need to catch up first. It's okay; I'll wait.

On the other hand, if you've grabbed the first Blu-ray set already, the only thing I need to say is "yup, The Vampire Diaries' sophomore season is every bit as good". Everything you dug so much about the first season -- the breakneck pacing, the complete lack of filler, characters with a lot more depth than you'd expect, a gaggle of very pretty and ::gasp!:: genuinely talented actors in front of the camera, and a shockingly tolerable amount of soapy, relationshippy stuff -- still holds true the second time around. You already know what makes the show so great, and you really don't want me spoiling any of the quadrillions of twists, turns, and "holy &#@%...I can't believe they just did that!"-isms. If you need a runthrough of some of the broad strokes, an ancient prophecy starts bubbling to the surface, war brews between vampires and werewolves, I guess it follows that there are werewolves, period, creatures wielding greater power than any previously seen begin to stalk Mystic Falls, and it becomes increasingly clear that it's not some sort of random coincidence that the centuries-old vampire Katherine looks so uncannily like a high school girl in smalltown Virginia. It won't do anyone any good for me to give away more than that.

So...ummm, having said all that, I feel like I've kind of talked myself out of writing a review. Hmmm. Oh well. I still have lots of space to fill, so I guess I'll rattle off a bunch of the reasons I'm mildly obsessed with The Vampire Diaries and run through how they play in season two.

So. Much. Happens.

Even when shows like Supernatural are at their best, there are always those stretches where it feels like they're just spinning their wheels...that they'll get around to really shaking things up
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later, but for now, here's another forgettable monster-of-the-week that has no bearing on anything, ever. The Vampire Diaries doesn't play that game. Since the series piles in three or four episodes' worth of plot every single week, there's no room for filler. I mean, look at the season premiere, with an ancient evil vampire twin, sliced off fingers, a knife to the stomach, a snapped neck, two possible vampirisms, and hints of a possible werewolf infestation. There's at least one "holy...!" big, shocking jolt every single episode, and you're more likely to get two or three of 'em. They're not just surprises for the sake of surprises either...everything winds up being really significant further on down the line. The second season of Weeds used to be my gold standard for how to do an infectious cliffhanger every. single. week., but I'm pretty sure it's been unseated. Even with so much going on here, The Vampire Diaries never feels as if it's rushed, and the pace, as manic as it is, doesn't get overwhelming or confusing.

(Almost) no one is safe.

Okay, okay, you can generally be sure that whatever happens, somehow our plucky human heroine Elena, her vampire boyfriend Stefan, and his occasionally bloodthirsty bad-boy brother Damon are gonna make it through in one piece. Everyone else, though...? Fair game. Just like last season, a big chunk of the supporting cast is slaughtered. Those who somehow manage to survive still wind up being profoundly changed in some way. I mean, there's no one on The Vampire Diaries that I see as dead weight, but I spend enough time skulking around different message boards to know that there are a few characters like Elena's kid brother Jeremy and their Aunt Jenna that aren't exactly fan favorites. No matter who's on your "meh" list, by the end of the season, they'll be dead, monster-ized, and/or a hell of a lot more compelling than they were last season. The Vampire Diaries fleshes out its characters better than a lot of other shows, but at the end of the day, it's kind of all about the plot. I mean, I'll watch a show like Dexter that's littered with characters who've long since outlived their usefulness, but those actors are under contract, and I guess someone, somewhere likes them, so they'll score some bland, forgettable subplot just to give them an excuse to stay on the cast. Nothing like that ever happens in The Vampire Diaries. Everyone's either integral to the show, something shocking happens that makes them integral, or they're knocked off. If a character doesn't plug in to a particular episode, they're generally not in it. It's not like there's a quota or something. Again, all killer; no filler.

Ignore the cover art; this isn't Twilight.

Okay, you have vampires and werewolves and star-crossed romances and love triangles and high school, but Twilight it's not, no matter how much the marketeers seem to want you to think it is. The soapier
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elements don't dominate The Vampire Diaries, and even when people stand around and talk about their feelings, the series' frenzied pace somehow manages not to grind to a halt. I don't get how that sort of thing is possible, but somehow, the writers nail it week in and week out. The dialogue that swirls around the romantic stuff can be kind of clunky, sure, but that whole thing winds up feeling kind of endearing, ridiculous, and fun. The same goes for the relationships themselves. "Elena is my sister's husband's brother's daughter, and her mother is my boyfriend's deceased wife." Jenna's right; you can't make this stuff up.

Of course, there are all sorts of other ways that this series is un-Twilight-esque. Edward is a controlling prick; Stefan is an unwaveringly good guy and never anything less than honest with Elena, even when he's doing something like...y'know, threatening to kill her hospitalized biological father. He's also not so much one for brooding, unlike every vampiric lead in every other TV show, ever. In a way, being such a reliable, likeable hero-type makes Stefan feel a little static, but...well, hopefully it's not too much of a spoiler to say that doesn't last. Oh, and while Bella is boring and submissive, Elena has her stuff together. Refusing to put her relationship above everything else in her life, friends, family, and...well, herself still rank dizzyingly high on Elena's list. Smart and resourceful, she could hardly be mistaken as a damsel in distress either. As frequently as Elena winds up in the crosshairs in season two, she's usually able to come to her own rescue.

The Vampire Diaries is really good at being really evil.

The body count this season is kinda stratospheric, and it doesn't hurt that the werewolves hinted at last year have started snarling their way into the series. Season two is teeming with all sorts of unrepentant killers, and the standout early on is Katherine. Nina Dobrev pulls double duty as the wholesome, responsible Elena and as the centuries-old scheming murderess Katherine (several very different incarnations of her, actually), and she's more than a little bit awesome in both roles. The series milks a few really great jolts from the uncertainty of who you're looking at, exactly -- if it's Elena or if it's Katherine playing dress-up -- and Katherine's sinister smirk after she's had her fun never fails to make me cackle. Katherine also subscribes to the theory that people don't amount to much more than Happy Meals on legs, and the swiftness, ferocity, and complete lack of remorse as she cripples and murders one random girl just to prove a point winds up being one of the season's standout moments. I do have to admit that later in the season, The Vampire Diaries' writers seem to run out of really compelling things for Katherine to do, and her appearances start to pack less and less of a wallop. There's a point to it, exploring a facet of the character that she'd just as soon refuse to acknowledge even exists, but it does seem anticlimatic with as much of a sultry, destructive force of nature as Katherine is early on. The Vampire Diaries more than makes up for Katherine's descent into shrugworthiness by introducing a couple of truly ancient vampires -- Klaus and Elijah -- who are charismatic, startlingly compelling, and also regal and appreciated change of pace from a show where the monsters are generally played by witty early-twentysomethings.

Ian Somerhalder still stands strong overall as the best thing about The Vampire Diaries, scoring all the snarkiest lines and clearly having a hell of a lot more fun than anyone else in front of the camera. Still, despite being so
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manipulative, exploitative, hot-tempered, and occasionally murderous, the show still finds a way to keep him completely likeable and sympathetic. Some of the shades of gray with Damon are erased this season, and he's much more overtly a dependable hero-type. I chalk that up as character development, natch, and the fact that he frequently does seem to approach becoming the man Elena wants him to be makes his slips back into monster-dom that much more tragic.

Geez, there sure are a lot of pretty people on this show.

Okay, I'm shallow. Everyone's insanely good looking, which you'd kind of expect from a show on The CW, but they're all genuinely talented actors too. There's not a single weak link on the bill, and I'm really glad to see several members of the supporting cast -- Steven R. McQueen, Candice Accola, and Michael Trevino, in particular -- get a chance to really showcase their talents this season. Seriously, if you ever griped about Jeremy, Caroline, or Tyler during season one, you'll be taking it all back after tearing through this Blu-ray set.

There's not a single episode this season that misfires.

The Vampire Diaries' first season admittedly got off to a rocky start but almost immediately found its footing. The writers demolished the learning curve faster than just about any genre show I've ever tuned into, and season two roars out of the gate pretty much perfectly. I'm someone who has a long, proud history griping about everything, ever, and I still wouldn't slap fewer than three and a half stars on any of the couple dozen episodes this season. Most of them would score four or four and a half stars, a batting average that beats pretty much everything else I'm watching these days. I know reviews of TV-on-DVDBD sets like this usually spout off lists of the standout episodes, but I honestly can't pick a favorite this season.

You don't have to think of it as a guilty pleasure.

The Vampire Diaries is just a hell of a lot of fun to watch, screaming ahead at a manic pace and never settling into any sort of comfortable routine. It's shockingly well-acted, there's hardly any filler or unnecessary distractions, and The Vampire Diaries probably gets the nod as the most infectious and consistently entertaining drama I'm watching these days. Even the soapier stuff and the over-the-top melodrama winds up being more engrossing than I ever would've thought possible. I know a lot of people out there shrug The Vampire Diaries off as a guilty pleasure, but...well, what is there to feel guilty about, exactly? I'll freely admit that The Vampire Diaries is one of my favorite shows on TV right now, and I'll even say it in bold, italicized letters too: Highly Recommended.

Not that I'm telling you anything you don't already know, but The Vampire Diaries is a knockout in high-def. The digital photography is remarkably sharp and detailed when appropriate. Whenever the series flashes back to the distant past -- more than five full centuries at one point! -- the cinematography gets a lot more stylized, casting the screen in a deliberately soft, diffused glow. Unlike most genre series, which prefer to look dark and dreary, The Vampire Diaries isn't afraid to keep things bright and vivid, especially under the light of day. The season finale in particular is dazzlingly colorful. Video noise doesn't seem to creep in as much in the second season as it did before, largely limited to the stylized flashbacks, and I'm sure that's just a factor of the way those sequences were shot. The occasional artifacting I noticed in the first season set is less pronounced in season two as well. The video here has been encoded with AVC, shifting away from the VC-1-encoded first season, so maybe that has something to do with it. I was generally thrilled with how great the first season of The Vampire Diaries looked on Blu-ray, and season two is at least a notch or two above that.

The first season of The Vampire Diaries kinda got the short end of the stake on Blu-ray, limited to lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 audio only. Season two, meanwhile, has scored
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an upgrade to 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio. That's not to say that this Blu-ray set sounds all that much better, but it's still great to see Warner finally going lossless with their TV-on-BD boxes.

The Vampire Diaries grabs hold of the surrounds pretty frequently, but it's generally to reinforce music -- even more gloomy covers of '80s pop songs this time around -- and to establish a sense of atmosphere. Because the series doesn't put all that much of an emphasis on action, the rear channels are used sparsely for all the supernatural stuff. Sure, there are a few standout moments -- eerie chants from the spirits of dozens of dead witches, a snarling wolf encircling its prey, and cracks of gunfire -- but the sound design is weighted pretty heavily towards the front channels. The subwoofer gets a hell of a workout, though, and The Vampire Diaries is constantly unleashing thunderous waves of bass. Even when the sub is booming, dialogue consistently remains clean and clear throughout. I'll admit to being underwhelmed by the sense of distinctness and clarity when it comes to sound effects. I'll try to step lightly around spoilers here, but there's a fiery siege on the Mystic Grill at one point. So much havoc is being wrought, and yet it all sounds kind of muddled and dialed down way too low in the mix. It's one of the most intense sequences in the season, and yet it's dragged down somewhat by unexceptional audio. The Vampire Diaries sounds perfectly fine on Blu-ray, but since it seems like it's mixed primarily with plain-jane stereo in mind, audiophiles should keep their expectations in check.

Also included is a Dolby Digital stereo dub in Portuguese. The long, long list of subtitles includes streams in English (SDH), French, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Finnish, Swedish, and Norwegian.

There aren't a
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lot of extras, but every last one of them is well-worth a look.
  • Audio Commentary: The same as last time, there's only one commentary track, and none of the cast are in front of the mic for it. Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson's commentary this time around is on "Masquerade", the end of the first big chapter of season two. Considering this is one of the best episodes of an already strong season, it's kind of fascinating to hear just how quickly it was thrown together. There are also some teases about territory that might be covered next year, some chatter about the very different course season two was going to take with Bonnie, and how Katherine -- a fixture in many of these episodes -- was originally only going to pop up a couple of times. It's a fun track that's teeming with personality, and it's probably more accessible than the inside-baseball commentary on the pilot was in the last set.

  • Deleted Scenes (18 min.; SD): Nine episodes this season score deleted scenes: "The Return", "Brave New World", "Bad Moon Rising", "Memory Lane", "Masquerade", "Rose", "Katerina", "By the Light of the Moon", and "Daddy Issues". For the most part, they're just little snippets of dialogue that wouldn't really have rattled the world of The Vampire Diaries if they'd been left in. There are a few standouts, though: a heart-to-heart between Stefan and Jeremy about vampires being able to flick the switch off on their emotions, the vampketeers getting filled in on what triggers the werewolf curse, and a reveal about another connection between Elena and Katherine.

  • Gag Reel (3 min.; SD): ...and this is a really good one too.

  • Her Own Worst Enemy...Elena, Katherine, and Nina! (9 min.; HD): The first of The Vampire Diaries' featurettes this year is a look at Nina Dobrev pulling double duty as two very different characters...and, well, since Katherine has changed so dramatically in her five-hundred-someodd years skulking around, it's not tough to argue that Dobrev is actually playing four distinctly different roles this season. "Her Own Worst Enemy" tackles the challenges that go along with this from every perspective: writing, acting (including Dobrev acting against herself), costuming, editing, and even the technical logistics of pulling
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    all this off.

  • The Perfect Love Triangle: Vampires, Werewolves, and Witches (9 min.; HD): Um, this featurette is basically one of these, only spelling out the hojillions of relationships and romantic entanglements in The Vampire Diaries. It's kind of a blast to watch since even the writers, producers, and actors have a tough time keeping all the soapy stuff straight.

  • Pages of the Wolf (20 min.; HD): Finally, there are three werewolf-centric featurettes that are all grouped together. "The Myth and the Mystery" (6 min.) delves into lycanthropic lore, including the collisions between werewolves and vampires. "Building the Beasts" (5 min.) takes a look at the living, breathing wolves on the set, augmenting those real-life beasts with visual effects, and throwing in some completely CG wolves when needed. The last of these featurettes is "Howling at the Moon" (7 min.), and it focuses on the physically grueling transformation into a that's oriented mostly around performance and augmented by visual effects rather than just a bunch of spastic CG.

The second season of The Vampire Diaries comes packaged on Blu-ray in a thin slipcase, and the episode guide that's tucked inside steps very nicely around spoilers...something that's awfully tough to do with an intensely serialized show like this, so kudos there.

The Final Word
My kneejerk reaction when I finished watching season one of The Vampire Diaries this time last year was "geez, how are they gonna keep that up?" Between the manic pace and seemingly half the supporting cast being dragged off in body bags, I was kinda skeptical that The Vampire Diaries could keep screaming forward with that kind of steam engine momentum. The good news...? It does. Everything season one nailed so brilliantly is pulled off every bit as well the second time through. So, when I say that the second season of The Vampire Diaries is more of the same, I mean that in a very, very good way. Highly Recommended.
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