2010-2011 season wrap: The Vampire Diaries

With the 2010-2011 television season officially over, I’ll be taking some time over the next week or so to look back on how some of television’s best and worst fared this season.

General thoughts: I burned through the first season of The Vampire Diaries in very quick fashion last August in preparation for the second season. When I wrote a few thoughts on that viewing experience, I was certainly positive, but in the back of my mind I wondered if the context of watching 22 episodes in two days severely altered how well I thought TVD was plotted and how quickly it moved. For the most part, watching television in a fast-paced catch-up mode like that always makes series seem lighter on their feet and oftentimes, better.

But as season two of the series unraveled with its shockingly fast-paced high-wire act, I realized that watching The Vampire Diaries on a weekly basis feels just like watching most series in a batch on DVD, DVR or whatever else. I talked about it all season in my reviews of individual episodes, but the kinds of things that this series pulled off on both a weekly basis and for the whole season was just insane.

What is most impressive, however, is how purposeful the aggressive plotting and pacing is on TVD. There are other series out there that burn through plot and developments at stupid-fast rate, but none of them really do so with much overall direction. Something like True Blood comes to mind in that instance. The HBO series throws as many twists, turns, deaths, gross sex scenes and cliffhangers into as many episodes as possible, but so many of those “developments” feel like they exist for no real reason at all. Things just “happen” on True Blood and it never really seems like the characters feel the weight of all that insanity. The people certainly change and make new decisions (sort of), but even though that series’ three seasons have taken place over only a handful of months, we don’t really see the impact of that on Sookie and company. Similarly, the plot threads don’t always hold together or lead to anything. It’s frustrating and annoying for sure.

On The Vampire Diaries, it’s a different story. This second season had a lot of balls in the air from the very beginning with the introduction of Katherine and the true introduction of the werewolf mythology, but it never dropped any of them. Instead, the series continued to throw more balls into the air, adding in more vampire mythology, introducing the Originals and all the MacGuffin-y weapons that came with them and still found some time to deepen the character relationships enough to make these people feel like more than plot devices. Kevin Williamson, Julie Plec and their team figured out how to provide short-term resolutions that didn’t delay the momentum, but instead built it up even further, while also still keeping an eye on the season’s big thread (protecting Elena from whatever evil is out there [Katherine, Elijah, Klaus]). It never felt like the season was stalling for big sweeps moments or throwing in twists just because; everything felt as organic as possible for a series about vampires, werewolves and witches.

Perhaps most importantly, it all had a purpose. By the time the season’s penultimate episode, “The Sun Also Rises,” arrived, 20 episodes of discussion about how to protect Elena and those closest to her had complete relevance. Everyone, from Damon and Stefan to Elijah to Bonnie, had big ideas on how to keep the doppleganger safe and for the most part, they were all wrong — and Jenna paid the price. On True Blood, we are never worried that any of the major characters is going to die. On TVD, I’m terrified that anyone but the primary trio could die and it would make total sense. Season two ratcheted up the sense of dread and evil that is hanging over these people, and that kind of straight-faced darkness is much more appealing than the campy smut that often defines something like True Blood.* When Jenna died in the penultimate episode, it was brutal. Not because Jenna was a massively important character to us at home, but because the series’ never wavered from how important she was to Elena and Jeremy, no matter how little she was actually around. The aftermath of her death was one of the most moving sequences I saw on broadcast television all season.

I’m sorry to keep comparing the two, but it is an easy and useful comparison. 

It is the series’ ability to make its storytelling pacing matter that makes me hopeful that Vampire Diaries will be very good for a long time to come. I am not sure that Williamson, Plec and company can keep up the insane momentum that so defined this sophomore season, but the purposefulness of that momentum can be applied to slightly slower-moving stories as well. If the series burned through plots and characters without using or developing them on a regular basis, I would be a bit more worried. But the way this season built to two powerful episodes at the end of the season tells me that this creative team knows what they are doing with more than just shocking twists and cruel deaths.

And although I would never say that character development is The Vampire Diaries‘ strong suit, I will say that the series does an expert job at creating small moments for nearly everyone on the cast. In a general sense, these people are the same individuals they were when we first met them, but there has been enough additional shading across the board. Elena is no longer afraid of the world. Damon is more human and outwardly vulnerable. Stefan is more assertive and leader-ly. Caroline is more grounded and rational. Jeremy is much more mature and intelligent. Bonnie is no longer afraid of who she is or what she can do. Tyler is infinitely less douchey. Depending on the episode or plot, these character can slip back into their worst qualities (see: Damon feeding Elena his flood), but that’s how normal people operate. They aren’t going to change overnight, and hell, maybe they won’t really change at all. But even though this is a plot-driven series, it works because the characters are three-dimensional and regularly intelligent, circumstances be damned.

All in all, season two of The Vampire Diaries was literally as good as I would have ever expected. It expanded the universe, deepened the mythology, developed the characters enough and stayed true to its 100-miles-per-hour plot pacing. This isn’t a series that strives to be high art. The Vampire Diaries knows exactly what it is (middlebrow entertainment) and it simply strives to be the best of that kind of television series. Thankfully, in season two, it was.

Season grade: A-

Seven best episodes: “Masquerade,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “The Last Day,” “By The Light of The Moon,” “Know Thy Enemy,” “Daddy Issues,” “Klaus”

Worst three episodes: “Kill or Be Killed,” “Plan B,” “Bad Moon Rising” (but none of these are bad)

Standout performer: There are a lot of fun performances to choose from, including Ian Somerhalder. However, I think I’ll give some love to Daniel Gillies, who was just wonderful as the multi-faceted Elijah. I really, really hope he returns in season three.

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