It’s a teen show, it’s vampire-based, you might think it’s derivative Twilight crap.
But Vampire Diaries is doing something particularly skillful with a scenario that could as flat as the rest of the product that passes for programming on The CW. And here’s why.
1.) The Set-Up:
Vampire Diaries tells the tale of a beautiful teenage (orphan) girl who attracts the affections of two century-old vampire babe brothers. They love this girl, Elena, because — GET THIS — she is a dead ringer for the ancient vampire, Katherine, who turned them into vampires — but that they both loved!
2.) It’s pure genre.
Genre television works within a (relatively) established paradigm, draping its narrative on the fact that it is pre-established as a “procedural,” “a sitcom,” etc. Which isn’t to say that genre television is bad; but that there are expectations that show challenges or confirms to various extents. Vampire Diaries is teen television and follows many of those codes, but it is also melodrama.
Let’s not consider melodrama a genre, but, as per Linda Williams, a “mode.” Thus it’s a way of expressing a certain genre, and Vampires Diaries is a teen television expressed in the melodramatic mode — which means that it employs a high level of seriality coupled with intense, skyrocketing emotions.
There is a lot of mooning and looking into the distance and a complex web of exboyfriends, secret hook-ups, and frenemies. There’s ample use of an earnest indie soundtrack, manifesting the melos that accentuates the moments when speech simply fails.
Yet the show manages to pull off this who-loves-who, who’s-a-witch and who’s-a-vampire, who-are-our-heroine’s-real-parents business with a straight face. Therein lies the key to Vampire Diaries‘ genre success: it revels in its very genre-ness. Vampire Diaries takes the melodrama to 11.
But it’s also not camp, which is crucial. We like to think that teenagers only want snarky or satirical texts, but sometimes we all want emotions to be worthy and legitimated. Which highlights another crucial function of the melodrama: it makes the world seem, even for one moment, morally legible. In the end, our vampire hero loves and cherishes our human heroine, and all is right with the world.
Vampire Diaries is the child of no less a teen auteur than Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek). Even as the text oscillates between flashbacks of the antebellum South and an absurdly quaint contemporary Carolinian town, it also manages to acknowledge and play upon its antecedents.
In one of my favorite moments of this show, the “bad” vampire brother leafs through Twilight, exclaiming “What is up with this Bella girl? Edward is so whipped!” What’s more, the good and bad brothers are clear ‘descendants’ of Buffy’s Angel and Spike, and the text regularly highlights its knowledge of the vampire genre, explicitly manifesting and debunking aspects of vampire lore. Vampire Diaries is earnest and straight-faced, but it’s also smart, like that cute nerd in high school.
As a pre-sold, Alloy Entertainment Product, it could rest on the laurels, riding the cultural wave of Twilight and True Blood.
But Vampire Diaries regularly employs intricate flashbacks to another century. Costumes! Teen vampires meets narrative complexity! It’s also crafted a heroine who is no Bella — she’s smart, has her own volition, and speaks her mind. She has sexual desire, and isn’t meant to be some cipher for the return to the cult of true womanhood, as is made so disturbingly transparent in Twilight. The show refuses to be abstinence porn (Twilight) or soft-core erotica (True Blood). There’s a coven of vampires locked in a vault beneath a seemingly peaceful Southern hamlet. Can you get more obviously, beautifully allegoric?
I realize I may have made the show sound like a blood and thunder soap opera — The Perils of Pauline meets My So-Called Life. Good. That’s exactly what I was hoping for. Both of those ‘programs’ demonstrate, in very different ways, the pinnacle of melodramatic plotting. And Vampires Diaries deserves its place amongst them – not to mention your viewership. So why aren’t you watching?