Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Vampire Diaries - "Growing Pains" Review

Take notes, Stephenie Meyer.

When you want to turn your lead character into a vampire, this is how you do it.

The Vampire Diaries is a show that can be put in the ever-growing category of "Good Show, Bad Pilot" that so many series fall victim of.  I stumbled into this series when it was already halfway into its first season, and I have to say, if I'd have watched it during its premiere, I would not be sitting here reviewing season four's premiere.

Cause the pilot was pretty terrible.  It was the typical Twilight ripoff with virtually no sense of original identity or interesting developments.  The characters were one-dimensional, and the plot was littered with cliché.  Normally, I'd have ditched the series right there, but it was a particularly bad night of insomnia, NinjaVideo was still around, and I needed something to try to fall asleep to, so I just kept on watching.

By episode six, the show began its transformation to the show you see today.  An original, smart, and feverishly entertaining program which manages to subvert cliché at every turn.  An ever-expanding mythos, fantastic sense of pace, and breakout performances by Ian Somerhalder and Candice Accola are just some of the aspects which make this show endlessly watchable.

"Growing Pains" continues all of those lovely traditions as we wallow in the aftermath of Elena's death from last season's finale.  Again, the transition was particularly well-done.  Unlike twilight, where the breathlessly vapid female protagonist would love nothing more than to die and abandon her loved ones and human life in favor of a cardboard cut-out, TVD tackled this with the trepidation it deserved, with Elena making the ultimate sacrifice in order to save her friend.  This sacrifice was also a visual representation of the "choice" that Elena had to make between the two brothers, ultimately choosing Stefan because he respects her and her choices.  The Vampire Diaries never forgets to add the proper weight and perspective to its plot elements, which is what keeps them from feeling trite.

Nothing about the love triangle felt forced last season, and even though that sort of plot line was the most vulnerable to cliché, they stayed true to the characters, which ultimately made it a success.  With Elena becoming a Vampire, her compulsions have now worn off, so her remembering certain moments between herself and damon adds a new wrinkle to things, but I really hope it just ends up making them closer friends, because I believe the competition between the Salvatore brothers has run its course.  It was an inevitable development (if you read the books), it was well told, and now it's on to bigger and better things.

Too many shows get caught up, and indeed are built around having to provide increasingly contrived excuses to drive a wedge between the two leads because therein lies the source of its drama.  I don't believe The Vampire Diaries needs this.  The show is so jam-packed full of characters and mythology that there are ample points to draw tension from that aren't romantic, and if they really need that kind of melodrama to appease their tweenie fan base, have it come courtesy of the supporting cast.

Some of the best parts of earlier seasons for me came in most part due to the fact that it seemed the writers were not looking to split Stefan and Elena apart.  They were a strong couple, and watching them work together to fight outside evils was a refreshing change of pace from the incessant whining and brooding over lost love that this show could've easily devolved into.  Seeing Stefan and Elena on that cliff together, I began feeling that strength again.  If the writers keep these two together indefinitely, they could be cable TVs next true power couple, even so much as recruiting their own scoobies to help their newfound family fight against the forces of darkness. Watching these two inside the Salvatore mansion adjusting to vampire family life is infinitely more interesting, and much less mined, a prospect than just figuring out how we can drive them apart for the umpteenth time.

Not to mention, the only real reason keeping the two apart completely evaporated with Elena's humanity.  So, yeah that's sad, but at least you have forever with the one you love.

Which brings me to my next point.  One of the chief failings of CW shows, particularly the Vampire Diaries, is that it many times dances uncomfortably close to abandoning all sense of stakes.  The show has introduced so many devices over the years designed to bring people back or undo terrible things, the very finality of death has begun to be called into question.  It almost seems, at this point, that upon death, you just move to a different astral plane, and, ya know, continue living forever unless someone decides to pick you up and give you another go.

It's also quite a tough sell for this show to convince me that being a vampire is a net negative.  Okay, so your technically dead.  And instead of craving sandwiches, you crave blood.  I guess that's inconvenient.  But you retain everything about yourself and who you are, gain superhuman strength and agility, control minds, and in Elena's case, remain beautiful with your one true love until the end of time.  Sunlight?  Ah just have your witch friend make you a ring.  That pro/con list seems a bit lopsided to me.

Luckily, the show knows when to take a step back from that cliff, case in point being this past episode. Watching Bonnie cross-over, I became extremely worried.  Had she brought Elena back from the dead, that would have been an all-time, grand-champion shark-jumping moment.  The end of The Vampire Diaries as we know it.  Nothing the show could've pulled from its ass would have saved it from narrative obscurity after that.  Good thing she didn't.

The breakneck pace that this show is known for seemed in full effect today.  The only thing hampering it was the inevitability of the story lines.  We knew Klaus was going to get his body back, and that Elena was going to become a vampire, so we basically spent the hour waiting for that to happen.  Damon was there to be Damon.  Matt was basically there this week to say "I'm Sorry" and get the shit kicked out of him, and Caroline was there to remind us that Klaus has a stiffy for her and Candice Accola is the unquestionable MVP of the supporting cast.  Come on, Michael Trevino, you couldn't put on at least a reasonably respectable british accent?  That would've given some much needed believability points.

Watching Rebecca in that cell was a subtle highlight for me. Poor girl just doesn't want to be alone.  It's those moments of three dimentionality, and the dedication to humanizing even the show's most devious villains that make The Vampire Diaries leaps and bounds ahead of its big screen counterparts.

I'm also not sure I'm on board with the whole "Bonnie gets possessed by dark magic" thing.  It's been done before (*Buffy Bell*) and I can't imagine the show being able to get much mileage out of it.  Hopefully Bonnie just has to deal with the aftermath of ruining Gram's soul or something.  That would be much better.  Either way, anytime TVD comes up with a less than stellar storyline, you can rest assured it will be over in a couple of episodes, because the show runs at an extremely fast pace.  Most plots that would be season long in other shows barely make it to mid season in TVD, which is arguably the show's biggest selling point, and the fact that it's able to retain its focus while juggling such a big cast is extremely admirable.

I didn't really know what to make of the Pastor and his followers, and apparently I don't need to. Did I mention this show runs at a fast pace?  I assumed they would be the big bad of this (half) season, but it would seem that something much more insidious will be taking those reigns. Hopefully it's not Klaus, that's getting old.  Sure, he can be in the series all he wants, have his infatuation with hybrids and Caroline, but it should be nothing more than background noise to what should amount to the major threat of the season.

So.  We've cleaned up the mess from last season, so hopefully next week can kick things into high gear.

70% = *** = "Good"


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