Over the past few seasons, while True Blood became HBO’s #1 show and serialized storytelling hit creative highs with Breaking Bad, Justified, and Game of Thrones, one network series has quietly become a go-to for fans of intelligent, well-made serialized genre television. The Vampire Diaries may not be a perfect show, but it carefully avoids the pitfalls that plague many series of its ilk. Here are a few of the many things this series gets right that so many others get wrong.
The Vampire Diaries…
In character as well as story, this series runs towards change rather than from it, giving the show a far higher degree of realism. The audience is able to watch the characters and their world grow each week, leading to a stronger connection to the world and a higher investment in it. Many “high stakes” series quickly lose the audience’s trust and interest through their unwillingness to kill off characters, drastically alter relationships, or in other ways shake up the status quo- change only loses viewers when it’s poorly executed. When it’s done well, it attracts an audience.
Unfortunately, this is still something of note in American media. There are also strong male characters on the show, it feels important to mention, but the women are equally powerful, independent, and badass. Also significant is that none of these women’s strength correlates to their femininity- princesses, tough girls, and tomboys alike kick ass and take names and while they occasionally do need saving, they spend at least as much of their time as saviors to the men.
Very few series come out of the gate without a few wobbles, and this is no exception. With heavy narration and an overreliance on its high school trappings, viewers could be excused for confusing The Vampire Diaries’ early episodes with any of the myriad cookie-cutter teen soaps. However, the PtB quickly recognized and resolved these issues, all but dropping the titular diaries and toning down the more stereotypical high school elements. Many series have first season jitters- few course-correct as quickly and adeptly.
In their attempts to make supernatural occurrences believable, many shows load up on visual wizardry and all too often lose sight of the why. Put that task on a budget and things can go from a little rough to utterly laughable. The wise route is to simplify. The vampires here don’t utterly transform or poof when staked- some contacts, fangs, a little visual effects under the eyes, and a strong performance are all that’s needed to sell the transformation. As for the witches and werewolves, much is left to the imagination, with which no effects house can compete, freeing up time and budget to be spent in more significant areas.
In the American network television model of 22+ episode seasons, even the most action-packed series usually flag at some point during the year. Not so here, where plot developments feed on each other and push the story forward, providing energy to the series. The writers know when to tease or preview a future plot point, but mostly the show focuses on one or two mysteries at a time, committing to them fully, and providing reasonable answers as appropriate. By condensing, rather than stretching out, these plot points, viewers don’t have the chance to build up impossible expectations towards the answers, allowing a sense of satisfaction with each reveal and keeping the audience breathless for more.
One of the most common problems with genre characters are plot-driven personality traits. A particularly frustrating example is the utter unwillingness so many show to sitting down and having a truthful conversation or catching others up to speed. Here the characters ask questions, usually right as the audience is wondering about the same things themselves. The teens act like teens and, shockingly, the main couple, despite their occasional brooding, gets out there and has fun together, showing the audience why they’re a couple in the first place.
In an attempt to court new viewers, many series conveniently forget or disregard those characters and plot elements not essential to the story at a given time. The trouble is, that’s not how life works, particularly when, as in so many genre series, crazy happens and friends or family end up in the crossfire. The characters on The Vampire Diaries reflect this- characters long gone are still fresh in their minds and events from the earliest episodes resonate throughout the series, giving more depth to the world and rewarding attentive fans.
Genre fans will buy into most anything if they know the rules. Suspension of disbelief can be a powerful tool, but too many series play fast and loose with it and expect the audience to swallow whatever they sell. The rules for The Vampire Diaries are, for the most part, straightforward and were established early on. These basic tenets have stuck and, though the world has expanded and the rules have changed since the pilot, importantly, nothing’s been particularly contradicted, allowing the viewers to feel they understand the world and are on a level playing field with the writers.
This series doesn’t go half-way. When they start down a thread, they continue with it, no matter what that may mean for the show. The evil characters are evil, the questionable ones are seriously questionable, and just because a character, or the audience for that matter, may not like where something is headed doesn’t mean that anything is going to change. More than anything, this provides dramatic stakes and forces characters to deal with the consequences of their decisions, giving the audience yet another reason to invest in these people and their lives.
By centering the series around a few core characters and using its mythology to provide insight into them, rather than the other way around, The Vampire Diaries remains a fairly intimate series. Nearly every larger question has a small, personal answer relating it in some way to these people and their world, resulting in a lot of satisfying, emotionally significant reveals that, rather than shaking up the world, change the people within it.
What do you think The Vampire Diaries gets right? Which shows would benefit from taking a page from their playbook? Post your thoughts in the comments below!