Think The Vampire Diaries is Just Lowbrow TV? Your Loss
by Norah Vawter
The Vampire Diaries, a so-called “teen soap” created by Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec, premiered in 2009 and is about to begin its seventh season on the CW. It may not be your cup of tea: no fictional story appeals to everyone. But before you write off this show as a waste of time, you should know that it’s well-written, carefully crafted television that has no illusions of being highbrow. This is not Mad Men or Downton Abbey (both great), and part of its appeal is that it doesn’t try to be. Critics and viewers often call TVD a guilty pleasure, but if you watch enough episodes you may find you have nothing to feel guilty about.
Loosely based on a series of young adult novels by L. J. Smith, the premise (human girl caught between two vampire brothers) risks sounding like a rip-off of Twilight. It’s not—Smith published the first Vampire Diaries book fourteen years before Twilightmania. For those who like a little bit more punch in their mythical creatures, Smith’s vampires are thankfully much less sparkly and much more dangerous.
When I started watching the The Vampire Diaries, I felt embarrassed to admit I was watching it, let alone that I liked it. I was 29, a grad student studying creative writing at George Mason University, and in the middle of writing a literary novel for my thesis. I was immersed in serious literature. I even made fun of friends who read trashy mystery novels or were addicted to Survivor. However, as a reader of Smith’s series when I was younger, my interest was piqued when I heard news of the premier. I told myself I’d just watch the pilot.
Then I decided I’d watch one more episode.
Pretty soon I was hooked.
My husband laughed at my new obsession. “It’s almost porn,” he said, once describing TVD as a high-school sex fantasy. (The show’s eye candy—and make no mistake, every man and woman acting on this show is astoundingly GORGEOUS—includes characters appearing on screen shirtless at every opportunity, and those opportunities are plentiful.)
I kept watching. The show was an escape and a pleasure, and also apparently the gateway drug of “bad” TV. Watching TVD led to me trying out other series, and my eyes were opened to all the amazing things TV writers can do with narrative, things that novelists can’t because the medium is simply too different.
The Vampire Diaries takes place in the small town of Mystic Falls, Virginia. Our heroine is Elena Gilbert, age 17, a sweet girl-next-door-type played by Nina Dobrev. At the show’s opening, we learn Elena’s parents have recently died in a car crash, and Elena is (reasonably) having a hard time coping. Elena begins dating the nice-guy-transfer-student Stefan Salvatore, played by Paul Wesley, who gives his character a solemn gravitas and also an edge. We realize he’s not always a nice guy. When Elena meets Stefan’s older brother Damon, played flawlessly by Ian Somerhalder, she’s drawn to his bad-boy charm and the experience of someone already several years beyond high school. Somerhalder used Cary Grant as inspiration for Damon’s character, wanting to channel “the effortless fluidity with which he speaks and breathes and moves.” Damon is sexier than his brother, and in the first seasons he’s more dangerous.
You can imagine Elena’s surprise, and quite legitimate fear, when she discovers that the Salvatore brothers are not actually her peers but were in fact born in the 1840s. Perhaps more concerning is that they died in 1864. Except… you know, they didn’t. Adding to the complexity of this plot is that the sultry vampire who turned the brothers immortal, Katherine, mysteriously looks exactly like Elena (and is also portrayed by Dobrev).
About halfway through the first season, I realized the show had become good.
The Vampire Diaries grew up over those first episodes. The entire cast is talented, and it’s clear that the chemistry between Nina Dobrev, Ian Somerhalder, and Paul Wesley is out of this world. Dobrev also shines when playing the manipulative and hilarious Katherine. Supporting cast stand-outs include Candice Accola as Caroline, Matt Davis as Alaric Saltzman, and Joseph Morgan, Daniel Gillies, and Claire Holt as three Original Vampires who were so good they got their own spinoff (The Originals).
Content and plot-wise: TVD is much more than a love triangle. The supernatural mythology is fascinating but too complicated to summarize well here. The town of Mystic Falls seems to draw supernatural beings to it, and you can argue that the show is about the town itself, with its various supernatural residents, vampire-savvy Founder’s Council, and a cherished history.
But the real heart of the show?
Damon and Stefan Salvatore.
The theme of “family” comes up frequently in TVD, with each character defined by lost family members as well as ones still alive, ones who can still be protected. The Salvatore brothers fight like hell but will do anything for each other, perhaps because they’ve been brothers for so long. Elena sums up their bond in Season Three, when she and Damon are trying to rescue Stefan from self-destruction. (Bloodlust is often treated as addiction in this show; Stefan’s a problem drinker.) Says Elena, “I think you’re going to be the one to save [Stefan] from himself. It won’t be because he loves me. It will be because he loves you.”
That’s what the Salvatore brothers have really been doing since 1864: trying to save each other from their dark sides.
The show’s dialogue and overall tone is a mixture of biting wit and heartbreaking (yes, at times overwrought) emotion, as the writers struggle to maintain balance between comedy and drama. Without the comedy, the show would be either melodramatic or depressing (as one might guess in a show about vampires, there’s a lot of violence and death). Without the drama and action, it would be fluff. Instead we get a show that can break your heart, go to commercial break, come back, and have you laughing your ass off as the group struggles to bury a body in the woods.
Critics and academics aren’t strangers to the way TV shows are forms of art on par with movies and literature. But critics making those arguments aren’t interested in The Vampire Diaries (though Buffy the Vampire Slayer does get some brief mentions). They’re talking about shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, Madmen, House of Cards, and Breaking Bad.
Here’s the thing: Not everybody wants their TV serious and deep. I adored Mad Men from the pilot to the finale, but it’s not exactly light viewing. That highbrow stuff can be exhausting and sad. Those shows tend to paint a bleak picture of the human psyche and the world in general. Don Draper may be a fascinating character, but he’s a terrible human being, and so are most of his cohorts. Damon Salvatore does terrible things (I mean, at least Don isn’t a serial killer), but he’s somehow more redeemable because there’s also a purity about him, a genuine goodness that presents itself in unlikely ways. Both types of shows have value—it’s snobbish to assume the only purpose of lowbrow programs is to provide us with “guilty pleasures.”
There are plenty of other dramas on TV now that combine lowbrow entertainment with artful storytelling, and they’re actually damn good shows. Among them are the CW’s Supernatural, Jane the Virgin, and Reign, ABC’s Nashville and Grey’s Anatomy, and ABC-Family’s Pretty Little Liars.
So what if a show like TVD contains fluff—so many shirts coming off, teen-love melodrama, too much angst? And so what if we have to suspend disbelief every time the town throws an event, party, or school dance (of which there are many) because every freaking time the event ends with mass casualties?
Even with the campiness, there’s a genuine sadness that permeates The Vampire Diaries. Most characters are actual teenagers: the show is a study in innocence lost. I’ve sobbed over TVD, particularly during the third season’s finale. There’s a relatability here for viewers that not all shows, even the highbrow ones, are always able to achieve.
Television programs are a relevant part of our cultural lexicon in a way great books unfortunately don’t always get to be. TV’s narratives are consumed by the masses. Many of these stories become stories we all know and share, a type of modern folktale. (Harry Potter and The Hunger Games might see this type of relevance, but there are plenty of deserving book series that never reach a broader readership). Ultimately, television dramas like The Vampire Diaries—both artful and lowbrow—can be democratizing. They can bring good stories to the masses. You don’t have to be an intellectual (or in an intellectual mood) to partake of their art.
You can’t read Tolstoy all day long. You have to throw in a little Grisham or Jodi Picoult. You can’t watch Mad Men for an entire weekend. You have to throw in a little bit of Ian Somerhalder, open-shirted and dancing on a railing, drunk on blood and Bourbon.
Norah Vawter has an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and a BA in English from the College of William and Mary. Her writing has been published most recently in Agave Magazine, Posh Seven, Extract(s), and The Nassau Review. An excerpt of her novel-in-progress, “The Rainstorm House,” was shortlisted for the Ropewalk Press Editor’s Fiction Prize. Norah lives with her husband and toddler son in the DC area.