Smart Girls; Or, Why Do People on TV So Rarely Act Like We Would?

April 12, 2010
By | 9 Comments

I like vampires as much as any other slightly romantically inclined middle aged female. I’m definitely more a Whedon than Meyers girl, but I certainly understand the appeal the latter has to my kid’s female classmates and their moms. So I tried The Vampire Diaries for its sexy vampires but I stayed for its smart plotting and believable characters. As Annie Petersen describes in her “Vampire Diaries: The Best Genre Television You’re not Watching“, its appeal is not in spite but because of its generic qualities. Moreover, it is a genre show that embraces narrative complexity and revels in its quick pace, introducing and killing off characters ceaselessly, yet giving most of them enough of an identity to make us care.

There are two characteristics Annie doesn’t address that stand out to me: the depiction of women and the way problems aren’t artificially caused or perpetuated. All too many shows these days may feature strong female characters, but they often do little more than talk about or for the men. The Vampire Diaries has a set of surprisingly complex and even more astoundingly likeable characters who consistently are depicted as real friends. They fight and disagree; they forgive and make up. As thelana describes in her excellent post on Female Friendly Shows: This is the show that had an entire episode just dedicated to the three main female characters sitting down together, catching each other up, apologizing to each other and then having a seance together. Most importantly, they actually talk to one another about their lives and worries and do not constantly keep things hidden from one another.

Which brings me to my other point, namely, the way misunderstandings or plain ignorance often get used as plot points. While foreshadowing may be a useful device and narrative irony certainly has its place, I often grow frustrated with shows when the entire plot depends on a misunderstanding or a refusal to be open and honest, when there is no storyline except for people acting less aware and smart than we know them to be and than we expect adults (or even near adults) to behave. Admittedly, there are certainly instances of that here: if you know there are evil bloodsucking vampires around town, it’d behoove you to warn your family not to invite strangers into the house.

And yet, the show doesn’t rely on using character ignorance to create drama, allowing me to watch without rolling my eyes or yelling at the screen. When Elena’s young, pretty aunt gets hit on by what we know is an evil hungry vamp, she not only doesn’t fall for it but also has been protected by her niece with the necessary herb. When Elena does not get invited into a home she accurately deducts that this person might indeed know about vampires. When the viewer starts to suspect that Elena’s birth mother might be random history teacher and vampire hunter’s dead wife, the characters figure it out as well and, as a bonus, actually share that information.

Also, unlike more episodic genre shows that are built around the secrecy that often comes with otherness, such as Buffy or Smallville, The Vampire Diaries refuses to return to the status quo of general ignorance. Instead, when Elena’s brother is confronted with weird behavior and strange faces and drained bodies, he actually Googles vampires and confronts his quasi girl friend. Or rather, and I’ll end with this more unsettling example of intrusive product placement, he Bings it. So where the show itself manages to make me belief in these characters because they act and think like real people, it is that commercial intrusion which, as Rebecca Tushnet argues, destroy[s] suspension of disbelief more than the presence of vampire diaries.


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9 Responses to “ Smart Girls; Or, Why Do People on TV So Rarely Act Like We Would? ”

  1. Erin Copple Smith on April 12, 2010 at 11:25 AM

    Great post, Kristina! I love Vampire Diaries, and have often marveled at all of the aspects you point out here. I appreciate that the plot moves quickly enough that we don’t have seven weeks in a row of, “When will Elena realize that Stefan knows that her birth mom is Alaric’s dead (or ‘dead’?) wife?” It all keeps moving in a very believable way.

    Add to that the fact that Stefan keeping that knowledge from her doesn’t cause Elena to freak out and vow never to speak to him again. Rather, she sees it for what it is–his attempt to find the truth before bringing it to her and upsetting her unnecessarily.

    Likewise, in the double date episode, we get to see characters getting upset about things NOT related to vampires (on a VAMPIRE show, no less! Who’d’ve thunk?). Rather, we see one character having problems with his rather derelict mom and another worrying over whether her boyfriend is over his ex-girlfriend. This is refreshing, I think.

  2. Kristina Busse on April 12, 2010 at 12:07 PM

    Yes, that exactly, Erin. I mean, it still does some things where I want to yell at the screen (and I wrote this before last week’s episode or I’d have caveated some more), but in general, everyone’s behaving like real people do: exchanging information, explaining, and understanding.

    The non-vampiric plots are interesting, because they don’t necessarily mirror vampiric metaphoric ones nor do they necessarily complicate them. They are standing on their own, which might be why the characters feel so developed–they get to exist and mean beyond their relation to Elana and the brothers.

    And I keep on thinking about sf/horror genre shows that contain that much soap opera like qualities and am coming up empty. Would we have to go back to Dark Shadows or am I just missing more obvious examples (maybe BSG might fit, but that’s more serious drama than the melodrama we see in TVD).

    • Erin Copple Smith on April 12, 2010 at 3:16 PM

      I haven’t seen last week’s ep yet, so maybe we can caveat together later? 🙂

      I agree that the non-vampiric plots seem to give the characters greater depth. It certainly makes them more interesting, and gives the show a feel more akin to a traditional teen drama than SF genre series a lot of the time. Maybe it’s just because Melinda Clarke is on the series at the moment, but a lot of these recent eps have reminded me so much of The OC, etc., with the traditional teen drama that gets complicated by vampires…rather than the other way around.

      As for SF/horror and soap qualities–what soap qualities do you mean, exactly? The seriality? The melodrama? The romance? I think Buffy had all of those elements, at various points…

  3. Kristina Busse on April 12, 2010 at 9:10 PM

    Yes, I agree that it often feels like teen show with vamps, but i think that’s a good thing. It allows for more than just the OMG we’re killers and forever young angsting 🙂

    I think all of these, clearly seriality and romance, but probably mostly the melodrama. and while I loved Buffy to pieces, I think there was a self-consciousness and awareness of the central tropes and metaphors that I don’t feel in TVD, which is both more naive and more earnest maybe?

    I’m just glad I’m not the only one here enjoying her not-so-guilty pleasure!

    • Erin Copple Smith on April 13, 2010 at 9:29 AM

      Oh yeah–I definitely agree that the “teen show with vamps” is a great part of the series, and part of why I love it so much. 🙂 The “OMG we’re killers and forever young angsting,” as you so aptly put it, gets a bit old for me in franchises like Twilight. 😉

      • Kristina Busse on April 13, 2010 at 11:22 AM

        Right. In fact, one thing I like about both brothers is that they manage to play the good vamp/bad vamp with surprising complexity and ambiguity. We move very quickly from the dichotomy established in the opening episode to more complicated presentations. And I think that’s important for Damon, who otherwise would probably only be redeemed in fanfic, but also for Stefan, who could easily become all too boring. I mean, it’s the classic Spike&Angel setup (with natural familial ties this time around rather than just vampiric ones), but I like the way they very quickly moved into middle terrain…

  4. Annie Petersen on April 12, 2010 at 10:09 PM

    I screened Vampire Diaries for my class today on television and melodrama, and it was greeted with raucous laughter. Of course, part of that reaction may be linked to the high levels of cheese in the pilot, but I’m also curious as to why, or how, viewers not much older than those depicted in the show — e.g. teenagers — react so differently than those of us ‘viewing down.’ I know that TVD has a solid teen following, but similar to Buffy, a solid contingency is adult females. How might this influence our reception of its ‘realism’?

    • Kristina Busse on April 13, 2010 at 11:34 AM

      Interesting question. I have to admit that I actually watched the pilot and then shelved it, until friends convinced me to give it another try and I mainlined most of the season…but your question hits on something I’ve noticed before: why do we view up and down so much?

      Part of it could simply be that many of us don’t enjoy watching our own lives (i.e., Thirtysomething was a great show until I tried watching it AS a thirtysomething with kids and mortgage :); part of it could be that especially females may not dare to admit these guilty pleasures until they are older, less dependent on peer opinion, maybe even being able to justify it via graduate degrees and PhDs; but I think you’re right that we may consider realism differently than younger women do.

      Maybe we focus on different aspects of general human nature rather than details? I’m thinking of David Simon’s defense of the realism of Treme this week where he talks about details and quotes Picasso, saying that art is the lie that shows the truth. Now, comparing TVD to Treme might be like comparing Treme to Picasso 🙂 But the underlying idea that it may not be the details of teendom but the truths about relationships and familial ties and compromises it addresses. And I think I’ve totally talked myself into a corner here, because I’m not sure these are at all the reasons why your students didn’t like it, and I’m not even sure I could support these lofty claims about the show…

      So…instead of deleting, I’ll just throw it out there…maybe you can make sense of it? (Read my mind, so to speak : )

  5. Mona on April 14, 2010 at 2:57 PM

    Well said! 🙂