Lots of bare boobs and sexual excess do not a dark show make – here’s where I argue that glossy and shiny though it may be, The Vampire Diaries is actually the darkest vampire show on TV.
When True Blood came out way back in 2008, it was an utterly refreshing take on the vampire myth, and was pretty much hailed as a masterpiece, at least by those who could get over the fact that some of the characters had fangs (eek! Fantasy shows!). Vampirism as metaphor has been done before, of course, but mixing ‘God hates fangs’ religion and politics, gruesome gore and lots of sex in a sweaty, Southern setting made the show utterly fresh and compelling.
In contrast, when The Vampire Diaries debuted around a year later, derision was thick in the air. Coming from the pen of Kevin Williamson and featuring a bunch of vampires in a small town and a mainly young/faux teenage cast, the ‘Dawson’s Vampires’ tag was pretty much inevitable, but in the early days the show seemed to embrace it full on. The action rarely strayed from the school (which seemed to host a never ending stream of parties, undeterred that they inevitably led to carnage – seriously, even Sunnydale was never this bad) and no emotion went unacted, no drama unwrung, no scene unscored by haunting emo music that just ached for us to Feel The Pain of the beautiful people, who suffered attractively without ever mussing up their hair. It should have been bloody awful – but instead it quickly morphed into a must watch guilty pleasure, assisted by an attractive and talented young cast, whip smart writing and an attitude to gratuitous shirtlessness unmatched even by the Great Shirt Famine of Bon Temps. In short, it’s enormous fun, without the sometimes wearying ‘look at us being outrageous!’ antics of its HBO competition. But it’s also actually an incredibly dark show, and one with a surprising moral vacuum at its core.
Love triangle with really sharp corners
For those not in the know, at the heart of the show is a love triangle. Vampire brothers Damon and Stefan Salvatore, having fallen out over the same woman in the past, now find themselves at odds again over that woman’s doppelganger, Elena. Stefan is the moody, tortured but loyal one, the traditional Vampire Atoning for a Dark Past, while Damon is the snarky, unrepentant bad boy, Spike to his Angel, Eric to his Bill, turning up and causing chaos and generally being devilish and evil and much more fun, and we’re allowed to like him doing it because he’s really Secretly Sensitive deep down.
Unrepentant bad guys – and they’re the good guys!
The problem with this set up, though, is that inevitably to make Stefan half as interesting as his irreverent brother, he has to Go Dark and his Terrible Past as a Ripper and has to be revealed. The issue the show had by then, though, was that it was hard to be shocked by his terrible misdeeds when we were regularly expected to forgive Damon large amounts of motiveless killing. Because almost everyone in the show, right from the start, takes an incredibly blasé attitude to slaughter, unless it directly affects them (and sometimes even then). Damon starts off by being the scary, lethal, uncontrollable vamp who must be stopped but morphs quickly into slightly naughty member of the gang – without any letting up in the violence and killing. Instead, his merry rampage of murder seems to be treated as a mildly irritating personality quirk; sure, it’s annoying constantly having to hide all those dead bodies, but hey. In other shows the bad guy usually has to undergo some sort of personality-fixing epiphany – here, Damon’s behaviour is rapidly absorbed into the group.
Your hero, the rapist
Rarely have I had to watch a show with my inner feminist switched off, fingers in its ears going ‘la la la’. Because – while it’s conveniently skipped over now that Damon is being set up as every bit as tortured and love struck as his brother, in the early days he spent an awful lot of time compelling women to sleep with him. Which is, y’know, basically rape by mind control.
Oops, you’re dead…
The Vampire Diaries has an attitude to killing off key characters that would have Joss Whedon and George RR Martin going ‘hang on, maybe that’s a bit much?’ Seriously, you’ve got a better chance of survival in The Walking Dead. Characters are introduced as major new players only to be dead before the ink on their contracts is dry (inexplicably, Matt, the show’s dullest character – and now token human in a town where supernaturals seem to outnumber the normal people – seems to constantly emerge unscathed. Now I’ve said that, of course, they’ll likely bump him off this week).
…But nobody cares
The true moral vacuum at the heart of The Vampire Diaries isn’t a body count that makes you wonder how there is actually anyone left in the small town of Mystic Falls, it’s the almost universally casual attitude the characters have to mass slaughter. This show is the All About Elena party – both as focus of the Salvatore affections and as the ‘doppelganger’ who has mysterious supernatural properties others wish to harness – and the show, and indeed the characters, seems to take the view that no evil is too unpalatable if it’s done in her cause. Allies are sacrificed, strangers slaughtered, but few people even dare to suggest that, hey, you know, this might not be OK (even if they knew and cared about the people who got crushed on the way to Saving Elena, they’re expected to suck it up and move on after a brief allotted period of emo-scored grieving).
Take a recent episode, where a whole café full of people were killed and turned into vampires as target practice for Elena’s brother and nascent hunter Jeremy (I won’t go into the details of why this was part of the Save Elena campaign – it involved a magic tattoo, say no more, but trust me). Admittedly this was done by the (actual) bad guy, but everyone else’s attitude to this little piece of mass murder was little more than ‘hey ho.’ Elena herself, supposedly so often the voice of conscience, only objects to death when it’s about her family and friends – and the show is totally complicit in the idea that outside the core group, nobody else matters. At least in True Blood, opposing voices are allowed – when Lafayette and Tara criticise vampires they’re allowed a voice (and the show doesn’t forget they were both abducted and tortured by vamps), and when Pam raged against Sookie’s magic fairy vagina, we were supposed to have some sympathy with her complaint. Here only Elena is allowed to mourn losses and avenge slights – everyone else is expected to treat the death of friends and family as an acceptable loss. Bonnie the witch, the one character who consistently refuses to be Team Damon because, you know, of the murder and the mind-rape, is treated like a tiresome bore for not getting with programme and her character is consistently side lined as a result.
All of which, I realise, makes it sound like I really object to the show, and I don’t – like I said, it’s a guilty pleasure, especially if you don’t examine it too closely. I’m just baffled as to why so many people allow themselves to be fooled into thinking it’s fluff by the shiny hair and the high school setting. This isn’t Dawson’s Creek, people – it’s River’s Edge. Williamson, remember, is the brains behind the Scream franchise – which is basically about amoral teens killing for kicks. In the Vampire Diaries, the mask gets ripped off, and we’re on the side of the killer, just because they’re pretty and they tell good jokes.