I’m going to make a rather bold statement: If you are not convinced “The Vampire Diaries” is a drama worthy of your time, then I am not convinced you have ever actually watched “The Vampire Diaries.” I know. It’s about vampires, it’s on the CW, it’s advertised as a teen drama full of love triangles and beautiful people. But don’t let the promos — which are created by networks to generate viewers and don’t necessarily convey the true nature of the shows they represent — fool you. “The Vampire Diaries” features strong writing and dynamic characters portrayed by a cast with impressive range.
Many people like to refer to “The Vampire Diaries” as a watered-down version of HBO’s “True Blood,” but this is an unfair claim. “True Blood” takes place in a world where people know vampires exist. The concept is intriguing and decently executed in the first season, but beyond that, “True Blood” is nothing but self-indulgent, mindless television. The writers never seem to know where they’re going, and none of the characters ever undergo significant change or show any multi-dimensionality.
The main thing “True Blood” had going for it at first was that the show featured an overarching, thinly veiled metaphor for gay people in our society. This allegory worked for a while but became overstated with heavy-handed lines like “God hates fangs” and vampires “coming out of their coffins.”
Three episodes into its third season, “The Vampire Diaries” proved it could beat “True Blood” at its own game. In a wonderfully constructed subplot, Caroline (Candice Accola) is kidnapped by her ironically gay father (Jack Coleman, “Heroes”), who tortures her in an attempt to cure her of vampirism. The metaphor is much more subtle than it is on “True Blood” and the finesse makes it all the more powerful.
Caroline’s mother, Sheriff Liz Forbes (Marguerite MacIntyre), who only recently accepted her daughter’s vampirism, saves her. And in another beautifully subtle moment, she explains to Caroline that not all vampire-hunters are monsters — it’s just the way they’ve been taught. This furthers the allegory, suggesting that not all homophobes are inherently bad people, but products of their time. If I ever saw something this poignant on “True Blood,” I’d be shocked.
“The Vampire Diaries” succeeds on many other fronts that “True Blood” can’t seem to pull off. Most notably, the characters are always growing. The good-versus-evil dichotomy is fascinating, as no one is completely evil or purely good. Each new villain initially seems like a monster but quickly develops relatable, human flaws. Even Klaus (Joseph Morgan, “Immortals”), who has been the show’s main villain since the end of last season, shows a moment of vulnerability in a recent episode when his sister Rebekah asks him if his loneliness is his primary motivating force. These characters may be supernatural, but they have very real, mortal problems.
“True Blood” has received critical attention for its actors, but those performances are one-note. On “The Vampire Diaries,” Nina Dobrev has managed to balance playing two divergent characters, succeeding to the point where I almost forget Katherine and Elena — the Petrova Doppelgangers — aren’t played by two different actresses. Ian Somerhalder has effectively conveyed Damon’s inner turmoil and existential crises. Candice Accola always leads me on an emotional roller-coaster and Paul Wesley has convincingly embodied Stefan in his innocent days and his transition into a psychopathic killer this season.
“The Vampire Diaries” is the only show that has been able to continually shock me episode after episode. The “WTF” moments lead to great payoffs. “True Blood” tries to be shocking, but instead relies on gore and gratuity to get the job done, rarely incorporating satisfying twists that play into the character arcs or plot. And even when the writers do try this kind of plot twist, they end up lost in their own mythology.
I used to call “The Vampire Diaries” my guilty pleasure show, but why should I feel guilty for watching a series that has few flaws and proves that genre television can be thought-provoking and emotional? When it comes down to it, this is a show about family, not teen love or vampire adventures. “The Vampire Diaries” will be around for a while, even if it never receives the critical attention it deserves.