Controlled madness: On The Vampire Diaries, Nikita and narrative pacing

This summer, I made my way through the first season of Nikita, a series I liked in the early part of last season but one I ultimately lost touch with because I was already watching 71 other things at the same time. Thursday nights are tough, you all know this. Generally speaking, I very much enjoyed Nikita and thought it ended up being better than I expected. Maggie Q, Lyndsy Fonseca and Shane West (I know, I can’t believe I’m saying this) all bring a solid amount of gravitas and depth to their roles and I think the series did an excellent job with locations, sets and set-pieces despite what is clearly a limited budget. I believe I said this once or twice on Twitter this summer, but Nikita does feel like a fine replacement for those people who still miss 24 in their lives. It’s less violent and less expansive, but arguably has more depth to it.* In short, I’m definitely excited to watch Nikita on a weekly basis this season, especially since it’s on the much-easier-for-me Friday.

*I don’t want to say that 24 wasn’t deep, but the construction of really any character not named Jack Bauer didn’t go too well. Most other characters didn’t really matter in the 24 world, they were killed off too quickly or just generally mistreated by the mediocre writing staff. Nikita is more interested in exploring the psyches and intentions of most of its leads, which is definitely also a byproduct of not having the budget to blow stuff up every week like 24 had the benefit of doing. Anyway.

But as the headline of this post suggests, I’m not here just to talk about Nikita, although my viewing experience with it certainly spawned the initial idea for this post. The element that stuck out to me the most about Nikita is the way in which its narrative developed over those first 22 episodes. I loved how Nikita made great use of its seasonal breaks, created a very specific act structure and didn’t screw around with what was a relatively implausible original set-up in Alex’s position as the spy within Division.

Series like this love to use the mole/spy/inside person crutch a lot and Nikita of course didn’t shy away from that, but it also didn’t keep the equilibrium the same for too long. By the middle of the season, Alex was out of the depressing Division training facility, removing the goofy computer hacking chats she and Nikita were having. By the three-quarters mark, Michael had discovered most of Nikita’s plans and was forced to pick a side. And by the end of the season, Alex and Nikita’s relationship was severely fractured and Division was sort of in shambles.

I’ve described Nikita season one very succinctly and clearly there were a number of fantastic twists and turns throughout, so the series did burn through a hell of a lot of plot in just 22 episodes. And you know what? I think that’s super-smart and actually kind of impressive. Just as I think the way The Vampire Diaries handles plot development in a very similar and probably even more rapid fashion is super-smart and impressive. I mentioned 24 earlier and it is obvious Nikita patterns itself after that series in some respects, but I think it is similarly apparent that the Nikita team looked at how TVD fashioned its first season and subsequently deployed an equally explosive narrative.

These two series don’t screw around with their narratives. They are both set in high-concept worlds where really anything can happen and the writers are not afraid to take advantage of that aura. Nikita is slightly less insane with its narrative progression, but it also can’t kill all the characters and then bring them back to life because they’re supernatural entities or something. Additionally, I think both series do a fantastic job of avoiding repetition or consequence-free storytelling. Secrets are held on to for too long, people are always dying and/or switching allegiances and everything continues to move forward without hesitation. In my past discussions of Vampire Diaries, I’ve noted that this storytelling approach disregards massively in-depth character development, but neither series allows it to completely do so. Both Vampire Diaries and Nikita have three lead characters that are strongly fleshed out and supporting players who aren’t just one-trick ponies as well (though TVD is much further along in this regard). These series deploy a narrative that is manic and fast-paced, but purposefully so. The madness is seemingly under control and well-constructed.

When I think about this sort of fast-paced storytelling, my mind always turns to the first season of The O.C. That series is the poster-child for blowing through multiple seasons of story within its glorious and elongated first season. Even the biggest O.C. fans would admit that the series struggled to replicate the intensity, emotion and energy in subsequent two seasons before it re-discovered its footing in the final swan song. I’ve seen a few random people mention TVD in the same breath as The O.C. and there’s a sense that eventually, the former is going to run out of narrative gas just like the latter did. While I completely see the trusted logic behind a statement like that, I think series like The Vampire Diaries and Nikita differ from The O.C. in one important way: their story engines/genres. As a teen drama/soap, The O.C. only had a certain finite number of stories it could tell before things turned repetitive.* No matter how much Seth Cohen wit or self-reflexivity you douse season three in, it’s still mostly driven by more terrible Ryan-Marissa nonsense.

*Unless they dramatically altered the make-up of the series of course. I, for one, would have loved if The O.C. turned into a procedural buddy series with Ryan and Seth solving petty Orange County crime. It could have been like a precursor to Terriers with more homoerotic subtext and slash-fiction attention. I digress.

On the other hand, series like Vampire Diaries and Nikita have the benefit of higher concept baselines and more sprawling directions for storytelling. Both of these series can just keep piling on more mythology (hopefully in a smart way) and keep forcing the characters into situations where they have no choice but to kill or be killed, switch allegiances, reveal a secret or whatever other easy story pivot point you want to throw out there. And this doesn’t even include all the story ground these series can cover based on the more obvious romantic drama that The O.C. had to rely on so heavily. Perhaps at a certain point, Vampire Diaries and Nikita will pile on too much mythology, rely too heavily on frivolous and stake-free consequences and run out of new sexual partners for each character to have. But they have so many options to explore and cards to pull that both series should be fine as long as the execution stays strong.

Of course, this is all about execution. Although I think The Vampire Diaries and Nikita are somewhat innovative in the way they approach narrative progression, it is not like either series is reinventing the wheel. Episode-ending cliffhangers and unforeseen twists are not new wrinkles to television storytelling. However, I do look at these two series as makeshift responses to the previous five or six years of television that came before. Lost was defined by its cliffhangers and twists, but was also derided for its perceived inability to follow those up with sufficient pacing (among other things, but we won’t get into that). Heroes then came along and charmed everyone with a package that appeared to offer the Lost formula plus improved pacing, but we all know how that marketing-constructed ruse worked out. And 24 delivered all three (cliffhangers, twists, pacing), but really nothing else. General 21st audiences, especially those watching broadcast television, don’t want to be jerked around, but they also want to be satisfied along the way. They want answers, but they want to be surprised. We live in an impatient, give-it-all-to-me-now-but-also-give-me-more-of-it-next-week culture and The Vampire Diaries and Nikita feel like early and well-constructed responders to that culture.* It helps that both series are a network that targets young people, the group presumed to be the most impatient.

*The worst? Duh, True Blood. Its cliffhangers are terrible, its twists are empty and its pacing is simultaneously ADD-worthy and lethargic. Ugh, True Blood.

The Vampire Diaries and Nikita could fall apart this season, suffer O.C.-like problems and peter out into a repetitive cycle of pointless twists and sexual encounters.* But instead of looking at them like roller coaster rides that are bound to run off the tracks, I think we might want to consider that they offer something slightly different from what we’ve seen before on broadcast television in recent years.

*See: Blood, True.

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4 thoughts on “Controlled madness: On The Vampire Diaries, Nikita and narrative pacing

  1. Your review was great to read. I haven’t watched the OC because it’s promos struck me as something akin to the Days of Our Lives or The Bold and The Beautiful, I despise those shows.

    But yeah, I’m a TV addict, so I have seen both Nikkita and TVD, personally I’m a big fan of Damon Salvatore. Nikkita on the other hand, I like, but the thing is Nikkita’s character wallows a lot, almost in each episode she’s wallowing about something, and that I find unattractive in a character or a story line. I like her much more when she’s playful specially if she’s up to no good.
    I wish the writers would stick to that. As for TVD I have nothing negative to say, I love the show, I just hate their promotion.
    They always promote the show as a Love Triangle, but on the show only a single love story plays out, it’s been this way for two seasons and personally as a Delena fan I don’t see my character’s love story going any where this season either. So I asked the writers to stop promoting the show as such until they’re ready to truly allow a love triangle to happen. I mean they can do love triangles, if you just look at the whole Matt/Caroline/Tyler business. That is a love triangle right there.
    I’m done venting. Thank you thins is a great website for people like me.

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