Test Pilot: File #54, The Vampire Diaries

Test Pilot #54: The Vampire Diaries

Debut date: September 10, 2009

Series legacy: An exciting show that became so good it went from “criminally underrated” to properly celebrated in relatively short fashion

First impressions mean a lot in television, and that’s why writers, producers, studios, networks, etc. put more time, effort and money into pilots than they do just about any other episode that could possibly be made. Obviously though, not all pilots are good – most are just mediocre and many are terrible – but the ingredients for a successful series remain, bubbling beneath the surface. Some of television’s most curious cases see great series come from pretty tepid pilot episodes. In the next five Test Pilot entries, we will explore a few of these cases of Bad Pilot, Good Series and think about what important changes each series made from one step to the other.

Hello there. We have reached the end of our exploration of problematic pilots for eventually-good series and as always, I want to thank those who joined me. Props to David Loehr, Josh Spiegel, Thomas Wachtel, Les Chappell and today’s guest, Austin Morris.

In any event, we conclude this theme with a look at another one of the more notable and more recent examples of this phenomenon, The Vampire Diaries. The CW drama series began as an obvious—and frankly, quite shameless—attempt to cash in on the Twilight wave but quite quickly became something more and better. However, I think the struggles and transitions that TVD went through are part of its particular origins and existence and therefore make it a different case study for our larger discussion.

Joining me today is my buddy Austin Morris. He is a graduate of Indiana University’s Communication & Culture program and begins a MA in Film & Television Studies degree at Boston University this fall. He tweets about film, TV, and pop culture more generally at @amorris7012. Austin, take it away:

It’s easy for a cynical observer to have a lot of fun at the CW’s expense. After all, this is the network that made the misguided to decision to program entirely for an extremely narrow demographic (teen girls) for consecutive, largely disastrous development seasons and to sell its weekends off to occasionally hilarious but mostly embarrassing outsourced content. And then there’s the network’s notorious zeitgeist-chasing tendency; since The Hunger Games has become a megahit movie in addition to being a megahit book series, the CW is working on The Selection, a kind of Top ModelBacheloretteHunger Games hybrid based on the young adult (YA)-targeted novel of the same name. (The network is also rumored to be developing a series adaptation of Battle Royale, the seminal Japanese film in which kids fight to the death, but I can’t really take this rumor seriously because COME ON. NO.)

So flash back to 2009 with me and you’ll understand why no one was surprised when the CW greenlit The Vampire Diaries, based on a YA book series by L.J. Smith, well over a decade since the books were originally published. Why did it dust off this particular series? Oh, you know, just trying to capitalize on the Twilight frenzy (and the general trend of paranormal romances in the YA pop culture sphere, it should be noted). TVD premiered just before New Moon, the second film in the Twilight Saga series, was set to bow at the box office. It also came a year after HBO debuted the Alan Ball-helmed True Blood, a southern-fried vampire soap that—in its first season anyway—crackled with real sexuality, violence and menace. Who can blame the CW, then, for wanting its share of this supernaturally profitable phenomenon?

Of course, The Vampire Diaries has since become a dark horse critical and fan darling, holding its own and building its (small) audience (slowly; this is the CW we’re talking about) on a crowded Thursday night of TV. Not only have exec producers Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson populated the fictional town of Mystic Falls, Virginia with complicated characters and infested it with supernatural denizens, but they’ve made us care about them, no matter how many batshit crazy situations they find themselves in. And oh, the batshit crazy situations these characters find themselves in! TVD has become synonymous with audacious pacing, Ian Somerhalder’s cocksure smolder, and Nina Dobrev’s unexpected powerhouse turn as Elena and Katherine, doppelganger characters who could not be more different (except when one is acting like the other one!) thanks to her performance. This is a show that thinks nothing of flashing back centuries for nearly the length of an episode, or pulling off a first season finale bait-and-switch so amazing* you don’t even see it coming until it stabs you in the gut with a giant knife and then makes out with your boyfriend’s brother. Ahem.

*For the record, TVD’s S1 finale ranks for me in my top five finale moments ever. My reaction to it was similar to the reaction I had watching the S2 finale of Alias—jaw on the floor, itching to rewind and rewatch it like five times.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself, because this is a show that has evolved dramatically. It found its aesthetics within the first few episodes and gained the ability to surprise in about as many episodes. TVD was significantly better by the end of its first season than it had any right to be, but the pilot is at best forgettable, kind of slow, clunky and tropetastic.

Much as I’m loathe to invoke Twilight in any conversation, there is no escaping its shadow while watching TVD’s pilot. Not only is it a vital context for the show’s development, but it also works as a lens through which to understand some of the choices made by the writers in the pilot. No, the tropes I’m going to discuss with regard to TVD’s pilot did not originate with Twilight (with the exception of Fifty Shades of Grey and the careers of Rob Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, there is nothing sui generis about Twilight the book or film), but the tropes exist there and they exist in TVD’s pilot and it’s difficult not to see them in light of each other for reasons discussed above. It’s also relevant because in early episodes, the show makes fun of Twilight’s sparkly vampires.

Adherence to the major tropes of paranormal romance—the brooding, dark and mysterious male main character is drawn to the oblivious female main character for mysterious and possibly dark reasons! Oblivious female main character is oblivious despite all kinds of red flag signs that the male main character is maybe probably dangerous! and so on—is the main reason this pilot feels out of sync with what the show has since become. That and a “Dear Diary” voiceover element that wears out its welcome posthaste. In the first sequence after the cold-blooded murder open, Stefan—reading his words back to himself as he writes in his diary, we come to understand—“has to know Her.” And who is this mythical Her he must “know”? Cut to Elena, writing in her own diary, proclaiming it a new day. Stefan’s attraction to Elena is set up before we even meet her, which is the kind of star-crossed lovers tomfoolery that often plagues these sorts of romances in teen soaps.

Elena is set up as The One before we even come to know what that means, and as a result, the main romance feels inert for the first few episodes; we already know what to expect from this story, and we want to get to the part that comes at the end, when Elena puts the pieces together and figures out that her new boyfriend—prone to disappearances and sudden reappearances, and also getting all dark and squinty-eyed—is a mythological creature previously though to be fictional! In the meantime, though, we get Elena being not creeped out by Stefan showing up just after creepy fog and a creepy crow scared her out of the cemetery proper AND showing up on her doorstep after disappearing from the cemetery at the sight of blood. Oh, and don’t even get me started on Elena’s casual acceptance of portentous Stefan-isms like “You won’t be sad forever.” Because who says that? The Supernatural Suitor With A Heart of Gold, of course! I’m not saying that Nina Dobrev and Paul Wesley don’t have chemistry, because they do, but the way the show frames the romance plot definitely hinders that chemistry from registering onscreen. It doesn’t feel organic in the pilot in the way that it soon will.*

*There is one legitimately surprising moment of storytelling in the pilot, and it highlights something that the show would soon be adept with: lingering on a particularly powerful or insane moment to really let the audience absorb what’s happening. Here it comes when Stefan pulls an old journal out of his armoire and finds the picture of Katherine, who looks exactly like Elena but apparently lived in 1864. It does explain a little of the “I have to know her” from earlier, but it’s also a gigantic WTF, and the dramatic irony of Elena learning in later episodes about Katherine but not knowing, as the audience does, that Katherine looked exactly like her is a great storytelling move.

To be honest, the TVD pilot might have gotten away with this plotline by virtue of the aforementioned cold open. A pre-credits sequence has Stefan intoning that he’s a vampire, and that this is his story. Cut to a vampire totally killing a couple on a leisurely Virginia night drive. Could it be that Stefan killed those people? It’s a valid question for approximately three seconds while the titles play and then we get softly backlist Stefan writing in his journal. No fog, no crow, no killer vampires here. Nope, he’s a nice vampire who writes his self-loathing for wanting to drink Elena’s blood in the cemetery into his diary. See? Supernatural Suitor With A Heart of Gold! With him eliminated as a suspect, all tension is evaporated from moments that could easily have been fraught with danger were Stefan rendered more mysteriously, including Elena and Stefan’s first meet-cute on her doorstep and Elena almost inviting Stefan in before going with him to the Mystic Grille.

We know that there must be another vampire on the loose because of this, and that he must be the evil, tourist killing yang to Stefan’s zen, bunny-drinking yin. This is an exceedingly conventional mode of storytelling, and also just so boring. Fortunately, the show quickly realized that this moral dialectic was a bad thing for the Salvatore brothers and a bad way to tell stories in general. By the seventh episode of the first season, when good girl Elena makes a decision for Jeremy that isn’t hers to make, it’s clear that the writers have a better grasp of how to create drama between its characters—by giving them all edges, and letting those edges grind against each other. That approach leads to some unequivocally brilliant storytelling in the show’s second season.

Speaking of characters, one thing TVD’s pilot does well is establish a colorful, interesting cast of supporting characters around the leads. And I’m not just talking about Damon, though Ian Somerhalder does have the most command of his performance in the pilot. He’s a breath of laconic, bad boy fresh air in a pilot that was desperately needing a bit of fun. For reasons I’ve already discussed, he feels a little too convenient in the pilot, but he’s a great character because Damon does things, and Somerhalder translates that into a performance that suggests Damon might just do anything, no motivation necessary.

Caroline Forbes, the queen bee of Mystic Falls High, is another character who’s startlingly well-drawn in the pilot. We don’t know a lot about her, but she’s boy crazy and crazy jealous of Elena’s in with new guy Stefan, which leads to a hilarious (drunk) monologue to Bonnie at the Grill that’s as much about the real differences between her and Elena as people as it is about the differences between their types as characters. It’s a self-reflexive bit of writing that really works because the girl who delivers it is aware of social hierarchy.

There are a whole lot of characters introduced in this pilot, and they actually make memorable first impressions: Matt is Elena’s kind of dopey ex-boyfriend; Bonnie is Elena’s long-time best friend and maybe a psychic of some kind; Tyler is a guy that’s used to getting what he wants; Vicki, Matt’s sister and the drug-using mess that Tyler currently wants, is coming out of a summer fling with Jeremy, Elena’s brother and fellow druggie. There’s also Elena and Jeremy’s aunt, Jenna, who’s trying to become a parental figure to her niece and nephew without knowing how to do that, exactly.

As TVD fans are well aware, the central romance of the show would soon become a love triangle of sorts, with Elena pining after Stefan and fending off the advances of his brother, Damon. For the most part, the show has handled that triangle remarkably well, and the roots of that can be seen here in the pilot with the Tyler/Vicki/Jeremy triangle. Jeremy saving Vicki from Tyler’s attempted sexual assault is probably handled a little too lightly, but it demonstrates the very human stakes of relationships, especially when Vicki nevertheless rebuffs him. (Kayla Ewell really inhabits Vicki’s prickliness and damaged soul well, and Vicki was gone entirely too soon in the first season.) Even in a relationship that’s full of supernatural drama, the writers have also found the human roots of that drama within its relationships, and that’s powerful stuff.

So while it was easily to initially be cynical of The Vampire Diaries, I was surprised to find the pilot sort of holds up better than I expected it to, even though it’s way slower and much more sunlit than the show would become—a gloriously dark, furiously-paced supernatural thriller.

Cory, how’d you find your return trip to pilot-era Mystic Falls, VA?

–AM

People who read this site or who have read my work around the internet know that I rarely give up on shows. I am not saying this to sound cool or heroic, because as you may know, watching lots of bad television just because you are unable to not watch. However, the weird thing about The Vampire Diaries is that it is one of the few shows where I watched the pilot and immediately decided that I never wanted to see another episode. I did not even come back for episode two. For frame of reference, I believe that I watched more than half of Whitney’s first season and I have seen almost every episode of Gossip Girl.

In any event, TVD’s first episode, at the time, drove me nuts. Context is everything. I had already grown pretty weary of all things Twilight, I was annoyed that Ian Somerhalder couldn’t get better work and it frustrated me that this thing was the presumed cornerstone of the CW’s future. Of course then, I probably wasn’t the best person to watch and accept this pilot, though to be fair, very little in this episode did much to prove me wrong. It’s quite tepid.

Paul Wesley is either trying way too hard or was given some poor directorial advice, making Stefan seem like exactly what haters then and now assumed he was: Diet Edward Cullen. Nina Dobrev isn’t much better, even if both of those performers are somewhat hamstrung by the overly-expressive voiceovers. And the fog. Goodnight, Warner Bros. must have pushed Kevin Williamson to kill off a character in the first string of episodes solely to get some of the money back they spent on the 1,900 fog machines used here. There’s a daylight scene mid-way through the episode that features more fog than I’ve seen in my real life. The whole affair is—and I hate using this word but there is no other viable option—is tremendously emo. It is, without question and without again diving too much into that comparison, a weak television version of Twilight with better actors.

I have a really great memory and I can honestly still remember sitting in my living room watching the VD pilot and literally laughing out loud and all of the things I just described (but mostly the voiceovers and the fog). My girlfriend at the time was in the other room and I recall her asking me what NBC comedy I was watching – that’s how much I was laughing.

The point is: I was out on TVD after just one viewing of the pilot and that’s something I never do. It took me until the summer between seasons one and two, mostly based on recommendations from people like you Austin, to catch up with a show that I thought I hated and quickly realized during that viewing that I actually loved.

Going back to the pilot episode again, for what is probably my third or fourth viewing, I have to say that my opinion hasn’t really changed that much. I think that you make some really good points about the way that the pilot establishes what is a fairly large ensemble of characters and their relationships with one another, but Kevin Williamson’s and Julie Plec’s script also deals in obvious stock characters so those relationships are almost inherently established anyway. In light of his seriously great work in season three, Wesley’s performance looks even worse. Other than Somerhalder (who is probably at his hammiest here, somehow) and Candice Accola, the performances aren’t that strong across the board. Visually, the show has gotten better with its use of lighting, whereas this pilot somehow is both too dark and too bright at the same time. And of course, THE FOG.

Nevertheless, one of the reasons I wanted to talk about The Vampire Diaries in this space is because this pilot (and really, the first half-dozen episodes of season one) reflect a number of the struggles that come with both adapting a series of novels for television and producing a series that is more or less designed as zeitgeist-chasing material and therefore, I think the series’ early struggles are more curious than they are entertaining or watchable.

The primary thing that struck me about TVD in its first season is how emphatically Kevin Williamson kept talking about how pilot episode did not reflect the series that was to come. Now, we are certainly used to the premise that series shift and change after the pilot or even after the first full season. It takes time for the cast and crew to gauge what works and what does not. Nevertheless, Williamson fostered this idea pretty early on that TVD would dramatically change almost from the beginning, a publicity decision I found quite compelling. Not only do articles like this one (of which there were many in the fall of 2009, if my memory serves me) make it seem like Williamson didn’t care for the finished pilot product but it also suggests that he thought less than fondly about the source material as well. Disregarding what Williamson’s words meant for Warner Bros. and CW publicists, his disinterest in the book’s stories is telling. From what I understand, the series never really followed the plot of L.J. Smith’s works and even the pilot isn’t that close of an adaptation.

With that in mind, I don’t entirely know why Williamson and Plec felt like they had to start the way they did. On the narrative front, I comprehend beginning with the Salvatore brothers’ return to Mystic Falls, yet there’s no real purpose for the pilot and the next four or five episodes to be entirely generic, mopey and boring. The way it plays out, it’s almost as if a switch goes off once Vicki dies and TVD becomes an entirely different, better series. I know Williamson went to great lengths to suggest that there needed to be a certain amount of set-up to get to that moment, but most of that set-up wasn’t worthwhile anyway.

Which brings me to my second point: The zeitgeist-chasing. I don’t recall Williamson or anyone involved with the series coming out and saying that TVD had to be or look a certain way in the pilot stage solely to get picked up by the CW and/or appeal to Twilight fans, but it’s not too difficult to imagine that being 100 percent true. The CW didn’t pick up a decade-old novel series about vampires just for kicks and so it surely made sense to them that it was a necessity for their Twilight rip-off to actually be a Twilight rip-off.

And if you buy and follow that theory, it is really easy to see why certain choices were made with this pilot and the other early episodes. The bad voiceover, which is a weird device that tries to compensate for the books being told from certain character’s respective perspectives, makes sense in that light. The mostly lifeless meet-cutes and force kismet between Elena and Stefan makes sense in that light. Finally, by golly, the damn industrial-sized fog machines make sense in that light. From the beginning, The Vampire Diaries was a pilot and series at war with itself, its source material and its contextual expectations. And weirdly, Williamson outwardly admitted all of that from the beginning, and somehow still produced a half-dozen episodes that played into all the expected clichés and tropes, for some reason.

When the series did actually become what Williamson said it would become, TVD made Twilight and really anything else its generic orbit look silly. The narrative grew to be twisty, complex and full of consequences, as opposed to the plodding, traditional teen-centric stories being told at the jump. The characters quickly began to undercut those stock types, starting at the top with Elena, one of the strongest, most admirable female characters on all of television and perhaps of all-time when talking about teen dramas. In a lot of ways, The Vampire Diaries became a legitimately great series, like all the series we have talked about in this theme. But unlike some of the other peers in this theme group, Williams, Plec and the TVD team appeared to know what the problems with the series were even before it finished a second episode. Instead of shifting to meet fan reactions or growing more comfortable with the cast or the writing staff, Williamson predicted almost every issue that his series would face beforehand, rode it out and then just jumped into the story he wanted to tell, the way he wanted to tell it.

–CB

Conclusions on legacy: What is now–and has been for a good while–a great series does not negate a pretty rough pilot

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