'The Vampire Diaries' Made Bloodsuckers Great Again

Looking back on how the CW drama surpassed 'True Blood' and 'Twilight' to become the next great vampire series.

by Alida Nugent
Mar 10 2017, 5:23pm

The CW

The first Twilight movie came out in 2008. It was glittery, had almost no blood or gore, and featured Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, two vampires our 45th president would later tweet about over a dozen times. That year also brought us True Blood, the HBO show that featured human breasts and a lot of vampires exploding into sacks of blood. There was no doubt about it: Vampires, asleep in their coffins for as long as we let them, were back. And they were different. They were younger, taller, brooding in a pop-punk kind of way, dressed in tight leather jackets, and a little hotter.

If you liked vampire shows before 2008, you were probably disappointed. These new guys were softer, almost kinder—they fell in love easy, they used a lot of pomade, and they rarely got staked. Where was the show that could stand up to Buffy? To Interview with a Vampire? Hell, at least to Blade?!

That next year, a show called The Vampire Diaries premiered. There are a lot of things that work against The Vampire Diaries, beginning with the title. Then there's the fact that it sounds like teen drama nonsense—a genre that's often maligned, though you're definitely missing out.

The show's plot, however, was not as easy to explain to critics. It's about a high school girl named Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) who is caught in a love triangle with two vampire brothers: Stefan (Paul Wesley) and Damon Salvatore (Ian Somerhalder), which sound like two men I would encounter if I lived inside a Victorian-themed softcore porn. Elena lives in Mystic Falls, Virginia, a small town with one diner that is seemingly cool enough for every centuries-old vampire to want to hang out in. Her friends are Bonnie Bennett (Kat Graham), a witch, and Caroline Forbes (Candice King), a cheerleader. Just by describing this show, it seems like everything the new vampire shows were going to be: light, saccharine, and bereft of the violence and gore that made vampires so fun to watch in the first place. It seems predictable. 

But it wasn't. It's nothing like the vampire shows you remember. It encapsulates all the complaints people would have about "new" vampires. But in its depth, its longevity, and its complete commitment to immerse you in its world, it's better than all of its television and film peers. After all, it ran for eight seasons. In fact, that is its core strength, the one thing that few modern vampire shows or franchises have been able to do: It lasted. It evolved past the constraints of a teen vampire craze, all while embracing the things that drew this generation's teens to vampires. In that way, it appeals to both the old and new vampire lovers.

The Vampire Diaries is filled with the mythology of how vampires came to exist, and there's plenty of folklore and fun supernatural stuff—the stuff that barely existed in Twilight, got too overwhelming in True Blood, and was perfectly executed in Buffy. It focuses mostly on the classic fight between werewolves and witches and vampires that's practically canon at this point. There are vampire hunters; there are hybrid vampire-werewolves. The show even introduces some new creatures to play with: doppelgängers that are connected over centuries under the guise that they look exactly alike (and hot!), vampire serial killers called rippers, and Klaus, the first vampire ever. (Klaus has a spinoff called The Original, a ridiculously fun show that you should only watch if you ever want to see a melodramatic man talk about how much he loves Bourbon Street.)

Of course, like most supernatural shows, The Vampire Diaries invents much of its own rules. Vampires can drink and eat—and they mostly drink bourbon from decanters. They can be in the sunlight if they wear gaudy rings forged from witches, which mostly look like the cheesy ones given to High School seniors. When they feed on human blood, their eyes turn black and their skin gets covered in veins.

And feed they do. There's plenty of violence, in case you were worried that you won't see hearts being ripped out of chests, innocent waiters being fed on, necks being snapped, or whole families being murdered. The fun part of this show is that plenty of people die, even if they are your beloved characters. Nobody is safe, something that even True Blood couldn't bring itself to do until the very end.

The reason is simple: The Vampire Diaries doesn't focus too much on the humans. It's about vampires first, and their relationships with humans. It focuses on a vampire's idea of humanity and how that affects the humans (and the audience) they interact with. It's the idea that you could like characters that are mass murderers, and that those characters can be somewhat good, or evil sometimes, or somewhere in between. Sometimes it means your favorite character is a vampire and a girl-next-door—which is most of the fun of watching. It focuses on the reasons we like vampires in the first place: They're immortal, they're a little evil, but they still could be redeemed. Can you imagine? A show about immortal vampires that doesn't really focus on how great it is to be a boring human?

The Vampire Diaries lasted a long time for a reason. It embraces its silliness. It goes deeper, occasionally, but it certainly knew its audience. And because of that, it's sexy, a little campy, often ridiculous, and just the vampire show you didn't know you needed, right to the very end. 

Follow Alida Nugent on Twitter.