The Vampire Diaries - Fresh blood for teenage vampire lovers

If you thought that the viewing public’s blood lust had been sated by ‘Twilight’ and ‘True Blood’ you’d be wrong. Sarah Hughesreports on ‘The Vampire Diaries’, the dark new show from the US

It's set in quirky small-town America and features brooding teenage vampires and a girl torn between her heart's desire and her brain's natural caution. So far, so familiar, but while ITV's new teen drama, The Vampire Diaries, might seem to be little more than Twilight: The TV series, in reality it's a different sort of beast entirely.

Described by People magazine as the "perfect middle ground" for "fans seeking something darker than Twilight but less graphic than True Blood", the show, with its good-looking young cast and intriguing willingness to kill off major characters, was one of the surprise hits on US TV last year. But does it really offer anything new?

After all it sometimes seems as though the whole world has gone vampire crazy, with seemingly every second person either reading Stephanie Meyer's angst-ridden novels or penning odes to the film franchise's strangely coiffed star, Robert Pattinson. Even those who hate Twilight appear to have caught the vampire bug, with audiences tuning in to both Channel 4's graphic and witty True Blood and BBC3's dark but quirky Being Human.

With the genre approaching critical mass, can The Vampire Diaries really offer anything worth turning on for? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is yes. It might not be the most groundbreaking show on television right now, but it's a well-crafted, interestingly developed series, which really kicks up a gear after an anodyne opening episode.

So what makes it stand out? First there's the source material. It might seem as though The Vampire Diaries is another example of TV bosses attempting to belatedly cash in on a teen trend but L J Smith's novels were published in 1991, long before Edward Cullen was a sparkle in Meyer's eye. And, while it's true that The Vampire Diaries would never have been made into a TV show without the army of Twihards who have turned Meyer's anaemic vampire novels into a full-blooded phenomenon, it's also true that Smith's novels are entertaining in their own right with an often creepy small-town atmosphere that is more True Blood than Twilight.

"The premise is the same – girl meets vampire – but once we're past that it does diverge," admits Kevin Williamson, the show's co-writer and executive producer. "Really quickly we move on to telling stories about the town and looking at who this vampire is who comes there and stirs everything up."

Secondly there's Williamson's involvement. Hailed as the king of teen in the 1990s when he reinvented horror movies with the Scream franchise, and then unleashed talkfest Dawson's Creek on an unsuspecting world, Williamson was always the go-to guy for snappy, irony-laden dialogue, and news of his involvement in the show was enough to get both critics and fans buzzing.

Yet interestingly the only person who wasn't quite so sure about getting involved was Williamson himself. After a lean decade which saw him strike out both on film, with infamous horror flop Cursed, and on the small screen, with swiftly cancelled shows Hidden Palms and Glory Days, he admits that he was initially wary about using The Vampire Diaries to mark his return to the small screen.

"In the beginning when I read it, I didn't want to be involved with it because I felt it was a sort of Twilight rip-off, no matter which came first," he says. "The premise was exactly the same: girl falls in love with vampire, and I felt that it had been done and that nobody was going to do another vampire story. But then Julie [Plec, Williamson's co-writer] kept telling me to keep reading the books and then I began to realise that it was a story about a small town, about that town's underbelly and about what lurks under the surface."

Add to that the fact that lead character Elena has lost her parents in an accident, and that vampire brothers Stefan and Damon both mourn the woman they loved and lost, and it's easy to see why Williamson, who has always enjoyed mining his characters for despair, got involved.

"What I responded to is that every character in this book is dealing with loss," he says. "They're dealing with death, they're dealing with life. There are some big issues for some really young characters and that's what I tried to do with Dawson's Creek. Everything I write is pretty much death and loss and hopelessness. Which is a really good thing because the only way to write a story about hope is to write about hopelessness."

If that all sounds as though the earnest Williamson of the perennially angst-ridden Dawson's Creek is more dominant than the razor-sharp Williamson of the Scream franchise, the writer is quick to set the record straight, telling a US website in September that. "This is its own show; it's not Scream dialogue or Dawson's Creek's heightened psychobabble. We're staying true to the book and to its characters, but at the same time these characters live in the real world. They go to the movies, they turn on the TV at night."

And because of that the show's creators are not above taking pot shots at their famous rivals. In some of the show's funniest scenes, bad-boy vampire Damon Salvatore (played with some gusto by Ian Somerhalder) takes on Twilight, attacking Edward Cullen as a wimp and pointing out to his love-struck teen admirer that he doesn't sparkle because he lives in the real world "where vampires and sunlight don't mix".

In fact self-confessed vampire-fan Somerhalder, formerly known as Lost's pretty (and pretty vacant) Boone, is a revelation. Clearly relishing the chance to play a bad boy, he devours his lines, making the most of the show's more kitsch elements and turning a potentially one-dimensional role into the best thing on the show. Whether it's his gleeful desire to seemingly corrupt every person in the small town of Mystic Falls, male or female, young or old, or his knowing use of camp props such as crows to signify his bad intentions, Damon comes across as a vengeful vampire version of Gossip Girl's Chuck Bass and in doing so proves that while any teen show needs a good love story, they're nothing without a good villain to keep the plot moving along.

That's not to say that the central love story is a bad one. The show's heroine, the recently orphaned Elena, is more complicated than she initially appears and her refusal to simply accept her vampire boyfriend, Stephan, fangs and all, marks a welcome return to the idea that vampires are actually dangerous creatures rather than beautiful sparkling embodiments of every teen girl's desires.

"We are dealing with morality in the sense of right and wrong and control and betrayal and trust and friendship," Williamson says. "We want to tell all those great coming-of-age themes but with life-and-death stakes."

The pun may or may not be intended, but it's worth noting Williamson and Plec's recognition that a world with vampires in it should not ever be too cosy recalls not Twilight but that other great icon of teen vampire stories, Buffy. Williamson agrees. "What I loved about the L J Smith books was the folklore they created," he says. "We wanted it to be a modern-day, sort of sexy soap opera. The town of Mystic Falls has a lot of things that go bump in the night, and it's not just vampires. It's got a little bit of Buffy where there's that mythology that goes beyond vampires. There are all sorts of creatures of the night yet to emerge."

'The Vampire Diaries' is on ITV2 on Tuesdays

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