I watched the premiere of The Gates last Sunday, and caught up with the off-season repeats of The Vampire Diaries as well.
The Gates, which airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC, barely kept me locked in. As a guilty pleasure to screen on a hot, lazy night, well, it’s more guilty than pleasure — not quite the melodramatic mash-up of Twilight and Desperate Housewives those making it might have hoped for, but probably engaging enough to keep anyone who enjoyed Eastwick coming back for its limited run.
Its pilot has a former Chicago police detective, Nick Monohan, relocating his family
to a planned community called The Gates. He’s the new police chief of this private, protected, picturesque exurbia, naturally trying to rebuild his career and family bonds but stirring up controversy from the jump by getting suspicious about a missing person last seen at his new neighbors’ house. Those neighbors, Claire and Dylan Radcliff, are vampires trying to assimilate for the sake of their daughter, and they’re not the only townsfolk with secrets: Rival herbalists who respectively run a day spa and medical practice appear to be witches; the Monohans’ son Charlie rubs football star Brett Crezski, a closet werewolf, the wrong way when he starts spending time with Brett’s girlfriend Andie Bates, whose charisma (says ABC’s promo material) may not be entirely ordinary.
Although I’d not remembered a single one of those characters’ names, my head for
such things isn’t what it used to be, plus which I ran a mini-marathon of The Vampire Diaries for myself following the Gates premiere. The best-known cast member is probably Rhona Mitra, of the film Hollow Man as well as stints on Boston Legal and Nip/Tuck, while the rest of the ensemble is peppered with familiar TV faces like NYPD Blue’s Chandra West, 24’s Marisol Nichols, and utility player Frank Grillo. It does seem to be a real ensemble, too, despite the marketing push featuring Mitra, but the split focus on home life and high school felt as hodgepodge as the half-hearted injection of supernaturalism into soap opera. Mixing adolescent angst with parental and professional problems can absolutely work, as exhibited by Once and Again or, a bit more fancifully, Gilmore Girls; similarly, black-magic brooding has served as an apt background for serial sudsiness since the days of Dark Shadows. Yet such tension on multiple axes made The Gates feel rather all over the place, especially since the Monohan family, our entry into its occult environs, are evidently the unwitting Cousin Marilyn on the block.
So I guess what I’m saying is that The Gates, while stoking mild curiousity about where certain storylines might lead, mostly reminded me of other shows. The Vampire Diaries did the same, but with more focus and more style.
I gave up on Vampire Diaries after its premiere, which some friends and trusted critics have since indicated was a mistake. The CW has blessedly kept its elders’ largely lapsed tradition of straight-through summer repeats alive, however, so I’ve been taping it Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET (along with Life Unexpected, whose pilot I reviewed in January, at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays; meanwhile, if you’ve taken my advice from April to check out Supernatural on DVD, you should be recording the latest season 9 p.m. Fridays so you don’t have to wait for it to hit stores in September). Given that I’d recently devoured the enthralling first season of True Blood via Netflix when Vampire Diaries premiered and I couldn’t help but compare it to the fangtastic Buffy the Vampire Slayer (lauded here two weeks ago), I decided not to set myself up for disappointment.
The good news is that, four episodes in, Diaries has turned out to be at minimum the kind of frothy diversion that The Gates wishes it were — although, to be fair, I’ve seen as little of The Gates as I did of Diaries when I decided my plate was full enough without it last fall. Developed by Julie Plec and Dawson’s Creek’s Kevin Williamson from a series of prose novels, it appears to borrow equally from Dawson’s as from Buffy, with lots of Smallville in the mix as well. Since I’ve never actually seen Creek or read the Diaries books, I can’t judge what on the screen is original to the novels as opposed to coming from Williamson’s creative staff or leaning into the general WB/CW template.
What Diaries clearly shares with Buffy is the creep factor of centuries-old men in youthful, hunky, paranormally augmented bodies mooning over minors. The premise has vampire brothers Stefan and Damon Salvatore returning to their hometown of Mystic Falls, Virginia, posing as their own descendants. Stefan arrives first, enrolling in high school and beguiled by Elena Gilbert, the spitting image of a woman from his past named Katherine. Damon has followed Stefan to be a thorn in his side (better than a stake through his chest); he’s disgusted at Stefan’s rejection of human blood and the indulgent life he could be living if he embraced the fullness of his abilities. Elena’s parents recently died in a car crash that she miraculously survived, bringing her young aunt, Jenna, back to Mystic to serve as guardian for Elena and her brother Jeremy. Stefan and Elena bond in the graveyard one night over their personal losses, reserved natures, and soulful journal-writing, but Damon’s manipulation and Stefan’s own reticence to share his past with Elena keep their burgeoning relationship precarious. Jeremy is involved in a love triangle absent unearthly dimensions so far, while Elena’s attraction to Stefan worries her best friend Bonnie Bennett, who appears to have turned psychic, then pyrokinetic, and is disturbed after feeling death when touching Stefan’s hand.
Several members of the Vampire Diaries cast looked familiar, due mostly to my heavy visual association. Zach Roerig, Kayla Ewell, and movie legend Steve McQueen’s grandson Steven R. McQueen all resemble other actors I’ve actually seen before. Lost’s Ian Somerhalder, who as Damon chews his lines with only slightly more restraint than his character chews his victims’ necks, had the lone mug I recognized as his own. That old truism of the villain being greater fun to play seems to hold; Somerhalder gets to act the louche hedonist while Paul Wesley is stuck trying to smolder as self-disciplined Stefan. Nina Dobrev’s smoky voice, deep eyes, and genuine acting talent help her bring zest and believability to what could be a bog-standard role as the feisty but vulnerable Elena.
The Vampire Diaries hasn’t trod much new ground, yet that may be part of its appeal. Damon Salvatore gets a tweak at Twilight in when he responds dismissively to a conquest asking him why he doesn’t sparkle; he and Stefan would burn in the sun, but are protected by magic rings — the height of elegance compared to Claire Radcliff’s magic SPF-500,000 moisturizer in The Gates, which must take hours to fully apply since nary a fold in her left ear sizzles in daylight. Diaries also decrees that a plant called vervain can thwart vampires’ hypnotic powers and in sufficient potency weaken them physically, although it’s bloodlust that makes their veins darken visibly through their skin in an echo of Clark Kent’s exposure to kryptonite on Smallville.
Set amongst misty graveyards, forestry, and Southern architecture on the Eastern seaboard, Diaries has a gothic look in more than one sense, and the handful of episodes I’ve seen have already moved focus away from school-oriented shenanigans to the Salvatore family’s complicated history with Mystic Falls. Its fourth installment ended with a promising turn that, capping as it did scenes set during the annual Founder’s Day celebration, pleasantly echoed the intrigue of True Blood’s Bon Temps, Louisiana. The acting isn’t uniformly strong, and the soundtrack is usually either marketing predictable, generic pop rock or killing the mood with a bargain-brand Andrew Lloyd Webber synthesizer score, but the plotlines are drawing me in. While delivering what you’d expect of a teen drama titled The Vampire Diaries, it’s at least giving the concept some bite.
[Update: After the first half-dozen episodes, The Vampire Diaries’ repeats jumped ahead to much later in the season, but the DVD set is scheduled for release Aug. 31st and if you’re really hooked you can always pay per episode via Amazon or iTunes.]
Images © 2010 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. and © 2009 The CW Network LLC.
Related: My Buffy Summer • Gods and Monsters • Red Letter
• The Vampire Slayer Diaries • House of the Rising Moon