I don’t watch much television these days, but one of the four or so shows I make time for every week is The Vampire Diaries.
It’s not edifying, sophisticated entertainment, but it is a textbook example on how to do the vampire thing properly. Picture: a group of executives sat around a table, talking. “OK, so we all loved The Lost Boys as kids; we thought Buffy season 6 rocked whenever it wasn’t drowning in waterworks; we think Twilight would be a good idea if it wasn’t so bloody ridiculous; so why not take the best bits from all of the above and leave out all the whiny crap?”
The Vampire Diaries works because it took notes while watching other shows. It even takes pointed digs at the likes of Twilight, because it knows perfectly well what doesn’t work about that series, and resolves not to make the same mistakes. It’s learned those lessons well, and is much the better for it.
1. Lesson from Spooks: “No character is safe”
I remember when Fred was written out of Angel, and I wasn’t remotely moved by it because I didn’t believe that they would kill a character off like that. There had been so many false moves before that – moments when you believe a character has died, only to see them a few episodes later, that the series had cried wolf one too many times. The moment had lost its impact.
When Spooks set up its leading cast in the opening episode and then – in episode two – had one of those main characters’ heads plunged into a deep fat fryer, it shocked the audience in a way that polite BBC drama just hadn’t done before. If no character is safe, then the danger becomes real. They really might kill off that character you like in any episode, so suddenly that tension and drama is increased.
I’m not expecting them to kill off Elena or Stefan any time soon, but as for the others, all bets are off.
2. Lesson from Buffy: “Like your characters”
If there was one single reason why the original Buffy movie failed, it’s because the characters were hard to like. Buffy was shallow and vain. Her vampire boyfriend was wet and whiny. The villains were too silly and safe. There just wasn’t much to get your pointy teeth into.
When the series began some years later, they made those characters a bit more complex. Sure, they were broadly sketched to start with, but little brush strokes filled in the detail in each episode, until they were little Mona Lisas.
Thus it is with Elena – the anti-Bella, who refuses to wallow in her grief; and with Stefan, the guilt-ridden vamp-boy; and with all the intriguing supporting characters. If you get a show where you like the people on it, it’s much easier to care what happens to them.
3. Lesson from Batman: “You need a great villain”
The real star of The Vampire Diaries isn’t Stefan or Elaina; it’s Stefan’s eeevil brother, Damon. He’s Spike without the gorblimey mockney accent – all sly quips and swaggering. He gets all the best lines, all the sex, and is a thoroughly caddish bastard – but is strangely hard to hate. A lot of that is because they show enough humanity behind his cruelty to make us believe he’s a lot less evil than he thinks he is. He might even be redeemable – which is an intoxicating premise for a screen villain.
It shows how well-written he is when, after his motives are revealed, even his nastiest deeds seem understandable – though they never give him the easy option of being fully likeable, either. He’s monstrous without being a regular monster.
4. Lesson from Angel: “Keep it light”
If there was one thing Buffy and Angel did very well (other than seasons 6 and 4, respectively), it was using quips to lighten what would otherwise be cumbersomely soapy moments. This is something the scriptwriters have borne in mind for The Vampire Diaries, so moments that should by all rights have led huge tearful confrontations are followed instead by well-timed jokes and eyerolling. Too much misery makes for unsatisfying television – we ultimately just want to be entertained.
5. Lesson from Dexter: “Keep them guessing”
Ultimately, TVD’s strength is that you don’t know what’s coming next. Anything can happen, and sheer curiosity can go a long way in television. It’s not an important or genre-defining show like Dexter or Star Trek, but it is criminally underrated solid entertainment. You should give it a go.