How The Vampire Diaries took on Twilight and became so much more

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Apr 27, 2017, 12:22 PM EDT (Updated)

The Vampire Diaries premiered on the CW on September 10, 2009, in the midst of Twilight mania. The first Twilight was released in theaters a year earlier, and the second film of the quadrilogy, New Moon, came out in November 2009, breaking box-office records. True Blood, having premiered just before the first Twilight film, was doing very well on HBO. Brooding, romantic vampire tales based on novels were hotter than ever, so it was unsurprising that the youth-skewing network picked up The Vampire Diaries to series.

When it premiered, I was working at the now-deceased The decidedly hardcore horror site didn't generally mess with Twilight nonsense, but when I got a screener of show, I figured I'd check it out, write up a review. The logline wasn't very interesting (love triangle between a human girl and two vampire brothers), but it was co-created by Kevin Williamson (Scream), so I figured there may be a few good kills. I was pleasantly surprised. Not only were there a few good kills, but the characters were well-rounded and had far more depth than I expected. It wasn't just about Elena choosing between Stefan and Damon. It was also about coming to terms with tragedy, dealing with both the highs and lows of high school, and realizing that which boy is going to take you to prom is not the most important thing in the world. I was hooked pretty much instantly -- by episode three -- and my coverage of the show on FEARnet became weekly. By episode eight, my husband admitted he was addicted, too.

From the outset, TVD almost consciously tried to not be Twilight. In fact, in Episode 4, Damon and Caroline have an entire discussion about why Twilight sucks (When Caroline asks why Damon doesn't sparkle, his response: "Because I live in the real world, where vampires burn in the sun." Later in the conversation, he tells Caroline that her Twilight books have it all wrong). Sure, there is plenty of saccharine, like scenes early on in which Elena and Stefan vacation at the lake house, or pretty much any scene with Bonnie and Enzo. But then there was a lot of horror, a lot of blood-letting, and a surprising amount of torture, ranging from vervain dripped into eyeballs to wooden stakes plunged next to a vampire's heart. There was one episode that had, I think, four separate hearts ripped from chests with bare hands.

One of the things that The Vampire Diaries did that virtually no other show has done was make every "big bad" not entirely "bad." Evil was never black and white. In the first season, Damon was introduced as the villain, killing everyone he ran across. Obviously, while he carried that smugness and the ability to do horrible things until the very end of the series, by Season 2, he was barely even rotten. Elijah was the "big bad" in Season 2 - until we realized that Klaus was way scarier and Elijah joined Team Salvatore. As we all know, the Original vampires turned out not to be so bad, and got their own TV show. The Sirens were conniving but every once in a while they helped out Caroline or Damon. Granted, it was usually for self-serving reasons, but their tragic backstory made them, on occasion, sympathetic. Even Katherine - whose appearance in the series finale suggests that the producers considered her the big bad of the series - at the very least had human moments (like when she was aging rapidly) and had a backstory that softened her sharp edges.

The show could not have lasted eight seasons if it didn't have insane storylines. Sometimes the stories were incredibly complex (like Klaus and his hybrids), and some were kind of dumb (the vampire hunters). Some stories fascinated me, like the Gemini Coven or the Heretics (and meeting Damon and Stefan's mother!); others felt tedious, like Silas or the Augustines. And while I don't necessarily expect a film series such as Twilight to get intense mythologies, The Vampire Diaries even outdid True Blood, the "best" storylines of which included a political movement against vampires, and fairies. Fairies!

Speaking of eight seasons, I feel I would be remiss if I didn't address the series finale. This whole final season felt like it was missing a certain amount of passion. I found the final episode to be severely problematic, but ultimately fulfilling, if that makes any sense. There was a lengthy, brotherly "No, let me sacrifice myself" scene that was dull, and the solution for "hellfire threatening to destroy Mystic Falls" seemed very pat. I did like the way they were able to bring back a lot of the "dead" characters, those who didn't sneak out of Hell (they were just subtly "there," watching over things). I liked that there was an epilogue. I always enjoy getting to see what the future holds for everyone: Caroline and Alaric got their school for magic kids set up (with a little help from Klaus!); Matt continued his role as sheriff; and Elena and Damon lived a perfectly normal, human life together. Not everyone was able to have a happy ending in life, but everyone found their happiness in death.

The Vampire Diaries had a blood-drenched birth into a world that was dominated by sparkly vampires and cuddly werewolves. It proved that vampires could still be ferocious monsters. While the show may have stayed on a year or two too long, it will still be missed.