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4.0 out of 5 stars It's not Buffy, but it's not Twilight either, 8 Dec. 2011
This review is from: The Vampire Diaries - Season 1 [DVD] [2010] (DVD)
I started watching this show about 6 months ago. I had abstained from it for a long time, I ignored the hype and the rampant online discussion, but eventually I caved and I watched the first episode. I wasn't impressed. But then a little while later, I decided to give the show another chance and I watched the next few episodes. And I found I actually liked it. I've now seen every episode broadcast so far, and I would consider myself a fan of The Vampire Diaries.

I went into this show not expecting a lot, but it surprised me in many ways. I'm going to clear this up straight away: it's definitely not like Twilight. It will inevitably draw comparisons with Twilight - vampire in high school falls for teenage girl - but in reality it's nothing like it. The lead female is not bland and weak-willed, but a strong, intelligent role model. Her vampire boyfriend is a) genuinely likeable rather than domineering and creepy and b) behaves like and actual vampire (i.e. they properly deal with the whole "has to drink human blood" issue). Vampires DO NOT sparkle, in fact they are mostly badass predators. It is also not like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (personally one of my favourite shows of all-time). It's not episodic, it relies much more on an overarching plot than any individual "monsters". It doesn't imitate the fast-paced, witty, pop-culture-reference-laden speech patterns of Buffy, and nor should it try to (because it would probably fail).

So what IS it? Well, I'll start by outlining the series. Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) is a 17-year-old girl who lives in the small town of Mystic Falls, Virginia. Her parents died in a tragic car crash that she survived, leaving her and her younger brother Jeremy (Steven R McQueen) under the care of their Aunt Jenna (Sara Canning). With Jeremy off the rails and turning to drugs, and young Jenna struggling with the sudden responsibility, it falls to Elena to keep herself and her family going. It is then that she meets Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley), a mysterious new student. She falls for him, and him for her, but she doesn't know that he is actually a 150-year-old vampire. Things are complicated further when Stefan's hedonistic brother Damon (Ian Somerhalder) breezes into town and proceeds to make everyone's lives (and mainly Stefan's) a living hell - but he may be not as far removed from his humanity as he pretends to be.
I'm not going to go too far into spoiler territory, but there are many plotlines that emerge and develop throughout the season. Elena's best friend Bonnie (Kat Graham) discovers she is a witch, Stefan struggles with his lust for human blood, we learn more about the founding families of Mystic Falls and the Council - an vampire-hunting organisation that has existed in the town for decades - we learn the identity of Elena's real father, and most importantly Damon's true motives for coming to Mystic Falls are revealed, setting up the main plot arc for the season.

So what is The Vampire Diaries? It's a supernatural drama that balances the focus between supernatural and drama very well. It is a show full of eye-catching and likeable characters, portrayed by an exceptionally talented cast. Despite a slow start, the plot picks up and becomes very engaging. The tendency of the show to end each episode with another "twist" is reminiscent of `Heroes', and does a very good job of making the viewer want more without the plot feeling contrived or needlessly complex.

Taking a moment to talk about the romantic aspect of the show: one thing that should be made clear that the Stefan-Elena-Damon triangle, which is often used to promote the show, is not nearly as central as you might think. While the romantic aspect is notable, it still takes a back seat to the main plot. In fact it's very easy to enjoy the show despite disliking both pairings, as I have found the case. I personally found the Stefan/Elena relationship to be a cheesy, dull and chemistryless, and I find it difficult to support Damon/Elena before Damon undergoes a LOT of character development and redeems himself fully. But there are a lot of fans for both relationships - likelihood is you'll enjoy one of them, and even if you don't, the show has a lot else to offer.

Probably the best part of this show is the acting. The cast all around is very strong, but stand-outs are Ian Somerhalder, Candice Accola and Paul Wesley. I'll go into more detail as I talk about the other main strength of the show: the characters.
The show essentially has three leads, the main being Elena. She is basically an ordinary high school girl. But beyond that, she is a very strong person. She is intelligent, responsible, level-headed and very loving. She is just a girl trying to look after her friends and family as she is thrown into a supernatural world, but she avoids seeming too "generic high school girl", mainly thanks to Nina Dobrev, who plays her with a world-weary toughness that highlights her strength. As the character herself points out she's "not the kind of girl whose world stops turning because of some guy" (we're looking at you Bella Swan!). Dobrev also has a magnificent turn as deliciously manipulative Katherine Pierce - a vampire who both Stefan and Damon fell for 150 years ago, and somehow looks exactly the same as Elena. For those Buffy fans reading, Dobrev's skilful balance of the two very different roles will bring back memories of David Boreanaz and Angel/Angelus.

Next up is Stefan. He's your average friendly neighbourhood vampire. He has abstained from drinking human blood, instead feeding solely on woodland animals, and tries to regain his humanity by living among them, starting with going back to high school. Some of you may think he sounds a little boring, and he can seem that way at first, but as we see more of Stefan, we see more of his charming, funny and relaxed side, which rounds off the brooding and as such the character starts to come to life. Even more so when the show eventually deals with Stefan's blood-lust. Because before Stefan turned good, he was known as a "ripper", one of the most vicious, blood-thirsty vampires in the world. And when Stefan accidentally gets a taste of human blood again and we see glimpses of his dark side returning, Paul Wesley really brings his acting chops and the character is brought to another level.

Damon Salvatore is an incredibly polarising character. Depending on who you ask he's either the best thing about the show or the worst. If you ask me, he's both. Often simultaneously. Certainly the show would be nowhere without him: he provides the conflict. He shares none of the moral scruples of his younger brother, choosing instead to enjoy the vampire lifestyle, enjoying eternal youth and bedding as many women as possible (and then killing them afterwards). He is a force of chaos, breezing into town and killing anyone he pleases for the pure sake of alleviating his own boredom. Many will love him for his attitude and his witty snark; Damon gets the best lines of the show and Ian Somerhalder delivers them all with perfect timing and charm. Others will love him more as his sympathetic past is revealed and he starts to show more of his human side. Some hate him because they are uncomfortable with the show romanticising a serial killer and feel that he never faces any consequences for his actions. Like I said, Damon is a matter of great controversy among fans, but it is undeniable that Ian Somerhalder himself is one of the gems of the show.

Beyond these three characters, there is a multitude of strong secondary characters. The stand-out would have to be Caroline Forbes (Candice Accola). Caroline is Elena's friend, Queen Bee and neurotic control freak. She seems a little two-dimensional at first, but as her insecurities, and well as the insane amount of effort she puts into her life, are revealed, she gradually becomes one of the most fascinating and lovable characters of the show. It helps that Accola plays her with the perfect amount of bubbly sweetness, making a potentially annoying character incredibly adorable. Also notable is Elena's brother Jeremy (Steven R McQueen), the school stoner who has a big heart but struggles to cope after the death of his parents. He is instantly sympathetic, but even more so as he is put through hell throughout the season.

Rounding of the cast is Bonnie Bennett (Kat Graham), Elena's best friend and possessor of magical powers, an alright character who has moments of badassitude but is far too often employed solely as a plot device; Alaric Saltzman (Matt Davis), history teacher by day, vampire hunter by night, avenging the death of his wife, one of the best characters on the show but sorely underused; Matt Donovan (Zach Roerig), Elena's childhood friend and former boyfriend, a regular joe just trying to make his way, he's the weakest of the cast, perfect humble nice guy at first, but in later episodes he regresses and comes across as jerkish while the show acts like he's Mr Perfect; Vicki Donovan (Kayla Ewell), Matt's wayward druggy sister who Jeremy falls for; Jenna Sommers (Sara Canning), Elena's Aunt, put it charge of two teenagers but is still in college herself, she struggles to cope, a good character but also underused; and later, Anna (Malese Jow), mysterious but perky and adorable.

So, what can I saw about the writing of this show as a whole? Well, don't expect Shakespeare. There are some good lines but it's not as witty as Buffy. Most notably, the show starts off quite weak. The first four or five episodes are slow, predictable and unimaginative, even clichéd in places. However, the events of episode six and seven kick the show into another gear. We and the characters learn a lot more about the mythology of the show, and stakes are raised massively with the death of a main character. From then on, the show improves massively and becomes genuinely entertaining. It never reaches truly great heights, but it turns into a very solid, well-structured and surprising show. It is definitely worth sticking with. This shows strength is in its cast and characters, and they all need to be given a chance to develop and show what they can do.

I've given the item 4 stars. Perhaps 3-and-a-half would be more appropriate. Honestly, the show's best work comes in season two, though season one sets down a lot of the backstory, so it would be difficult to jump ahead. I say at £12 this is a bargain, get this series, try not to go in with pre-conceptions, stick with it and you will be pleasantly surprised.
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