The Vampire Diaries (The CW, Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET) is based on a series of novels by L.J. Smith. If you are tempted to give the show a chance, then I must recommend avoiding the home page of the author’s Web site, which attacks the viewer with an illustration featuring the author and a unicorn friend wearing matching set of lapis lazuli jewelry. The experience doesn’t do justice to the far more appealing vulgarity of the adaptation, a tolerably flavorsome ball of crimson bubblegum.
When I heard that the setting was the fictional town of Mystic Falls, Va., I started getting excited that the series would exploit the eerie tidiness of the planned communities of Fairfax County for their nightmarish potential. Or, better, what if—upping the ante on the Southern-gothic metaphorizing of True Blood—it toyed with stereotypes of Appalachia and set its bloodsucker cowering before the xenophobic pitchforks of yokels? Surely similar shows will come to pass; tales of the undead, endlessly flexible, just keep on not dying, and Hollywood has interpreted the screeching of Twilight-heads as a cry for more. But this is a Kevin Williamson production, and like the Woodsboro, Calif., of his Scream films and the Capeside, Mass., of his shamefully addicting Dawson’s Creek, Mystic Falls is located in an idyllic corner of American pop mythology. The trees are pretty and the personality is purposefully generic. Mystic Falls is a blank canvas for the primal emotions of adolescence—confusing lust, simmering angst, sibling-rivalrous spite, and the aching quest for self-reinvention.
Our heroine, Elena Gilbert, is played by Nina Dobrev, whose long neck seems inviting enough, and who has further mastered the trick of trembling innocently while simultaneously shuddering with desire. Elena is an orphan, and she grieves as deeply as a network teen soap can allow her too. That is, she is delicately glum, merely this and nothing more. In trying to disguise her grief, she is equivalent to every other high-school girl anxious about being normal. And if the show got all heavy about her loss, then the target audience might not be so quick to tap into the wish fulfillment fantasy the scenario presents. Who among us did not dream, every now and then, of having her parents off her back for good?
Our hero, Stefan Salvatore, is played by Paul Wesley and his de rigeur James Dean-as-Jim Stark hairdo. He is the mysterious new kid in town. Now, I don’t think it would actually be that rough to be a teenage vampire. The tales of medieval Romania would seem to be the stuff of a knock-out college-admissions essay, and you could ace the extracurricular-activities part of your application by starting a club devoted to intramural brooding. But centuries-old boys will be boys, and Stefan does his brooding solo. Having lost the love of his life ages ago, he does his brooding on his own time. Where Elena writes positive affirmations in her diary, Stefan, thinking about the young lady, confides to his, “I am simply not able to resist her.” When Elena skins her shin in his presence, he starts twitching like an extra in a heroin movie and curling his lip like Joaquin Phoenix in anything.
Our antagonist, Damon Salvatore, is played by Ian Somerhalder, whose job is to display a disgusting suavity. He is this show’s answer to Gossip Girl’s Chuck Bass, that oily lech, heavy eyebrows and all. Damon is Stefan’s older brother, but all they have in common is superhuman strength and an appreciation for black leather jackets. Not content to leave taunting his little bro at wedgie-giving, Damon torments Stefan for being a goody-goody and threatens to nip his burgeoning romance with Elena in the bud. Also, he seems to have given one of Stefan’s classmates a very bad hickey.
The brothers make for a storybook pair—the satanically handsome rake and the virtuously smoldering sensitive type. Presenting contrasting takes on the cravings of young men, they offer their young female viewers a fun opportunity to get tangled in the mess of disease and desire that any decent vampire story serves up. If they are looking for clues as to why boys are so weird, they would do particularly well to study Stefan. Vishing that he did not vant to suck Elena’s blood, he struggles with his fangs the way that his mortal schoolmates do with their erections.