Vampire Diaries: The Best Genre Television You’re Not Watching

February 11, 2010
By | 10 Comments

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!

Elena’s doppleganger, Katherine, circa Civil War

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.

3.) Intertextuality.

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.

4.) Innovation.

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?


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10 Responses to “ Vampire Diaries: The Best Genre Television You’re Not Watching ”

  1. Rachael on February 11, 2010 at 1:26 AM

    Really. It looks so cheesy?

    Oh well, I hope it’s as good as you’re making it out to be.

    • Anne Helen Petersen on February 11, 2010 at 9:37 AM

      I mean. it’s totally cheesy. But it does cheese so well, and so straight-faced, with such high production values. Maybe I should modify this comment — if we think of cheesy as something that’s super earnest but poorly done, enough to make it laughable, then no, it’s not cheesy. It’s just earnest, and doing exactly what melodrama should do.

  2. uberVU - social comments on February 11, 2010 at 2:18 AM

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by AntennaBlog: New blog post: Vampire Diaries: The Best Genre Television You’re Not Watching

  3. Giada on February 11, 2010 at 7:52 AM

    If you speak Italian, look for an essay on “The Vampire Diaries” on Ol3Media, the online journal of Cinema, Television and Media Studies of the “Master Cine&TV” of the University of Rome3:

  4. Erin Copple Smith on February 11, 2010 at 11:09 AM

    Thanks for a great post, Annie. This highlights so many of the things we love about Vampire Diaries at my house. (Yes, my husband is just as big a fan as I am.)

    One of the things that really works for this show is that the melodrama actually seems like a reasonable response to the narrative events. Yes, there was a rather tiresome “will-they-won’t-they” going on between Elena and (good vampire brother) Stefan. In every episode, they would be together, then split, then get back together. But as much as that’s a staple of both melodrama in general and teen melodrama in particular, in this particular instance…it makes sense. Think about it–if you found out the object of your desire was a vampire, you too would have doubts about whether or not you should stay together. And, if you were a good vampire, you would worry about your ability to keep the (non-vampire) object of your desire safe, right?

    And perhaps that’s why vampires and melodrama and teens go hand-in-hand: all of their conventions align so neatly!

  5. jade on February 11, 2010 at 8:13 PM

    i think vampire diaries is so awesome. although they did kind of copy twilight. the human is in love with a vampire. so totally like twilight. but, i do like it. i think stefan is hot but i am starting to fall for damen even know he is a mean jerk he can be nice when he wants to be. so i don’t think it is cheesy.

  6. Bärbel Göbel on February 16, 2010 at 4:57 PM

    Afraid I gave up on it after my set three minimum episodes, but I see your point and it is well taken. Thank you for making me see reason in my students’ choices. (c:

    On the ‘copying twilight’ thing though… Twilight copied too. 😉 Originality is a whole different can of worms with so much that is out there.

  7. greeney28 on February 21, 2010 at 9:57 AM

    I am getting caught up about half way through, and I’m pretty into it–but I love teen shows and most things vampire. My concern, as always, is with the female lead. I think you give her more credit than she deserves–the power inequity in human-supernatural relationships always proves troubling. That is why Buffy and Angel remain so important to many fans–they loved on an equal playing field. She needs to take charge of her life and figure out for herself why she resembles Katherine. She needs to offer Stefan something to love besides her face–and then maybe audiences will love her, too.

    I’m surprised that you don’t mention much the thing all critics have noted–Damon (Somerhalder) is the reason many people watch this show. We may find a real Joey-Pacey thing here–with fans deciding Damon brings out the fun in Elena in ways mopey Dawson…er, Stefan, cannot.

  8. Bean on March 17, 2010 at 11:23 AM

    Not a single mention of the author, L. J. Smith who wrote the series of books long before Twilight was around? Anyone concerned about ‘copying’ (what are we? first graders? it’s called derivation people!) should do their homework and realize that Twilight is derivative of all these older forms of Teen Vampire Romance – and a poor one at that.

    As for Elena, she’s flawed and a bit weak at times, but isn’t that realistic? How many of us would have been equal to someone ten times our age when we were teens? How many of us had bad relationships as teens? At least Elena has room to grow. (Bella on the other hand only stagnates).

  9. Tony on April 3, 2010 at 3:02 PM

    I think Vampire Diaries,Twilight and True Blood are all in capitalizing on there niche. Vampire Dairies has more of a following with the whole family. True Blood the whole family cannot watch due to nudity. Twilight will keep putting the movies out as long as people keep going to the box office. I expect the new Twilight movie to be huge.