In the fall of 2009 I, against my better judgement, watched the pilot what I had suspected was just an attempt to cash in on the Twilight craze: The Vampire Diaries. The basic plot revolved around the burgeoning relationship between a vampire named Stefan and a high school girl named Elena, said relationship being threatened by the appearance of Stefan's more ruthless vampire brother, Damon. While the pilot wasn't as terrible as I had feared, neither did it do much to dispel my belief that it was going to be a straightforward teen-centric vampire romance.
So although my policy is to give any show that doesn't immediately cause me physical pain a full three episodes to catch my attention, the fact that my TV viewing schedule was already over-flowing, and that The Vampire Diaries was up against Survivor and Flashforward, another new show which had struck me as much more promising, led to my discarding the show from my schedule after one episode.
Jump ahead 3 years: Flashforward remained in people's minds largely as a punchline or cautionary tale that surfaces each fall when some new show feels poised to become the "new Lost", whereas The Vampire Diaries , deep in its 3rd season, maintained a vocal following praising its breakneck pacing and willingness to take risks-- a following that included several TV critics whose opinions I generally respect. So, when Netflix obtained the rights to stream the past seasons of all current CW shows, I decided one weekend to retroactively give The Vampire Diaries at least the three episode trial I had deprived it of back in 2009. What I quickly discovered was that if I had given it a full shot back in the day, I probably would have been hooked by the 2nd episode, which had started to flesh out the character of Damon to something deeper a more complex than just "generic evil vamp," and definitely hooked by the 3rd, where Damon's unpredictability and impetuousness created the first of what would be many "holy crap, did they just do that?" moments in the series.
I spent the whole weekend mainlining the first two seasons, and was sad that I would probably have to wait until August or September to catch the 3rd season, if for no other reason than I knew that avoiding spoilers was going to be difficult. Indeed, by the time Netflix had the episodes available to watch, I already knew of one major character death and one major character un-death. But thankfully, the show is filled with more than enough twists and turns to make even this foreknowledge trivial in my enjoyment of seeing exactly how it all unfolded.
Watching The Vampire Diaries in a marathon format was equal parts exhilarating and exhausting: exhilarating due to its relentless forward momentum, and exhausting due to the relentless shifting allegiances between characters. But even though one of the show's greatest strengths is its willingness to change the status quo at the drop of a hat, even that wouldn't be enough to keep me invested if the show wasn't populated with characters that I care about. Sure, there are a couple of character I wish would take the dirt nap sooner rather than later, but on the whole the series has managed to take characters that started off as broad, teen soap stereotypes and develop them into complex, likeable people. And by making me care about characters like Caroline and Tyler -- two of the aforementioned broad stereotypes who have grown into two of my favorite characters -- the show manages to squeeze even more tension out of every dangerous situation. Because if three seasons of the show have taught us anything, it's that while the core trio of Stefan, Elena, and Damon aren't going anywhere, the same can't be said of anyone else.
Because so much of the enjoyment of The Vampire Diaries is tied up with twists and turns and surprise deaths and rebirths, it's difficult to get into too much detail about what I do and don't enjoy. But I can say that the show has definitely transcended the "vampire teen romance" label and I am eagerly awaiting the 4th season premiere next week.