Sunday, March 31, 2013

Cultural Productions V: 'The Vampire Diaries'

How do some shows get a bad reputation (as opposed to a good one)? Sometimes it's just the cover: when I saw The Vampire Diaries (2009-) in the shop, I thought it would just be a cheap Twilight or True Blood knockoff. It didn't help that it was set in a high school. I don't like American teenage / high school films very much: maybe it's because I don't like teenagers, or, more likely, I can't suspend my belief when I watch the American high school dramas - I think all the "teenagers" look about 25 or thereabouts. But I read that Vampire- was based on a series of novels by a Lisa Jane Smith, and so decided that maybe the show wouldn't be all that bad. Films and TV shows tend to be a little more substantial when they're based on a series of novels; by substantial, I mean with more developed characters, a bigger story and more thought-out imagined universe. Just think of Game of Thrones, True Blood, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Beautiful Creatures... I don't think these would be as successful, artistically and commercial, if they hadn't been adaptations of novels. The Twilight films are, objectively, terrible, and I can understand the opprobrium which has been heaped upon them. But, all the same, they are oddly enjoyable and watchable simply because the underlying material is so strong.

What of Vampire-? Is it is badly acted as Twilight? I think much of it is badly acted, directed, misconceived. There's a lack of underlying realism there which is quite disconcerting. You know, from watching the Twilight series that the story really is set in the rain-soaked, cloudy town of Forks, Callam County in Washington state: that is, the town, and the people, seem real enough. The same thing with True Blood's town (way on the other side of America) of Bon Temps in Renard Parish, Louisiana. But Vampire- is set in Mystic Falls in the state of Virginia, and this town doesn't ring true at all. Virginia is the birthplace of the confederacy: shouldn't everyone have a southern accent? But no-one in the show does.

The other thing too is that everyone seems to live in beautifully furnished, expensive mini-mansions or designer apartments. In nearly every character's house and there's a baby grand piano in the corner, some wonderfully arranged flowers in a vase, an expensive rug... Whereas everyone in True Blood either lives in a trailer home or a dilapidated Southern mansion and even the homes in Twilight (e.g., the shack the Native American Indian character Jacob lives in) seem realistic. Mystic Falls, however, must be the richest town in the USA, if not the world. The school frequently puts on social events like Civil War re-enactment parades, 1960s-themed dances, a special Gone With the Wind themed school day, in which all the pupils wear extravagant, beautiful costumes. (The sound stages, floats, etc., are incredibly elaborate and expensive as well). Some high school! It's a level of extravagance and display of wealth which is more befitting some Arab or Central Asian oil-rich country.

On top of that, there's the racial angle. The heroine of the show, Elena Gilbert, is played by a Bulgarian actress, Nina Dobrev. She's a small, mousy, dusky woman, who doesn't look like a Southerner: there's an explanation for this - she is somehow the astral twin of a Bulgarian vampire woman, Katerina Petrovka - but her un-Southernness really sticks out. On top of that, there are frequent flashbacks to the Civil War and antebellum period, and we get to meet a band of vampires from that time - including a character called Pearl, a Chinese immigrant, whose Chinese-ness isn't noticed by the white characters, and a Mestizo or two. I don't know if these "diverse" vampires were in the book or not: perhaps the producers added them to give the show a little of spice, or to fill some affirmative action quota. (I know that the character of Laurent in the Twilight novels was a white, but was then changed into an Afro-American for the film: the characters in Twilight are mostly white (except for the Native Americans) and so the producers, presumably, changed Laurent's race in the interests of "diversity", and to hell with staying true to the novel).

A writer at the American Renaissance site commented, on returning to his home town in Florida, how all the TV advertisements showed skinny, coffee-coloured black women with kinky Afro hair (usually dyed brown); whereas, out in the shopping mall, the black women in reality tended to be obese, dark-skinned and had artificially straightened hair. From this account, and others, I suspect that the black people depicted in True Blood were quite true to life: whereas, in Vampire-, the black people are what I call designer Afro-Americans, like those who appear in the TV advertisements shown in Florida: e.g., the witch-girl Bonnie and her grandmother (who are descended from a long line of African-American witches coming from Salem, Massachusetts! Why aren't they white? Or, if they are black witches, why don't they come from the Caribbean?)

These are gaffes in casting. The biggest of all, however, is the casting of Damon Salvatore. The plot of Vampire- revolves around two brothers - the improbably named Damon and Stefan Salvatore - one good, one evil, and both competing for the hand of the one woman. Stefan (Paul Wesley) is the good one, and is appropriately cast. He's a skinny young man with a James Dean hairdo, and looks like a young Boris Karloff. But the actor playing the evil Damon - Ian Somerhalder - is one of the flamingest homosexuals in the history of TV. He flounces, pouts, flips his wrist, in just about every shot. Which isn't to say that he can't be menacing - far from it; only that it's hard to take his heterosexual passion for Elena seriously. It's a lot like Bold and the Beautiful, which has at least three heterosexual characters - Rick Forrester, Thomas Forrester and Bill Spencer - played by actors who are obviously gay (Jacob Young, Adam Gregory and Don Diamont respectively). But then, Bold- can't be taken seriously: it's high camp, high comedy. Vampire-, on the other hand, sets out to be a drama. (I think, had they made Damon a gay character, it would be quite interesting: gay vampires do work in shows like True Blood, and can be quite menacing and scary, despite their comic gay mincing and so forth. But had they made Damon gay, that would have taken the show too far away from its theme, which is sibling rivalry, in this case, over a woman).

Vampire- is quite a bloody show: it has the highest body count of any show I've seen. This is quite a bad thing, I think, from a dramatic point of view. You can't keep on introducing key characters, major characters, in one episode and then kill them off two episodes later! But that's how Vampire- works. In fact, it's like WWI: one character is sent to the front, perishes, and another is sent, and another, in a big human wave... Something that bothered me was the affectlessness of all that killing, especially in the first season. The evil Damon would slaughter a few people, and his good brother, and Elena, instead of condemning him, would worry themselves over his feelings - they would feel sorry for the "sensitive" Damon because of some slight (usually romantic) that he had suffered. After all this has gone on for a few episodes, you end up asking: if Damon is such a bad guy, a killer, on top of being a pestilential nuisance with annoying homosexual mannerisms - why doesn't the good Stefan just find a way to kill him off? Usually the bad guy - and Damon is set up as the bad guy at the start - is finished off by the end. The show gets out of this quandary by introducing bad guys who are even worse than Damon. And there's a succession of them: super-bad guys who are even more powerful, and more homicidal and ruthless, than Damon is.

It sounds as though I don't enjoy the show very much, but that's not true. I find it more watchable and compelling than a respectable drama like, say, Lost (2004-2010), which is an example of great, well-written drama but not compelling drama (there's a big difference). Vampire-, in fact, is a triumph of screenwriting. It is spectacular in that regard: I don't think I've seen anything like it. The twists and turns, the transformation of good guys into bad guys and vice versa, of enemies into friends, and so forth, will leave you reeling. You can't predict what will happen next and every episode ends on a real cliffhanger that leaves you wanting more. As a result, the show is addictive. As I said, a triumph.

People ask, 'Why are vampires so popular?'. The answer is that they are superheroes. In Twilight, True Blood, Vampire-, they have super-strength, can run at super-speed, can fly or leap tall buildings in a single bound, are invulnerable - just like Superman. What's more, like Superman, they have their fatal weaknesses: in their case, it is sunlight. (A few of the vampires in the show walk in the sunlight, because they wear magic rings which were made for them by a witch). In these TV shows, we have, not only vampires, but werewolves, witches, shape-shifters, faeries, maenads and all manner of supernatural beings and creatures, who have super-powers as well. Such supernatural beings have their roots in our collective unconscious, and it's perhaps for this reason that they are so convincing, so much more acceptable to us, than it is for conventional superheroes who more often than not are the product of science (e.g., Superman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Spiderman, the X-Men).

So expect a show which is a cross between Twilight and Smallville (Damon even looks a little like Tom Welling, who plays the young Clark Kent in that show), with a lot of unnecessary killing, but also a lot of incredible plot twists which make for a compelling narrative. I've seen two seasons so far and it will be interesting to see, in the next three, if the writers and producers are capable of maintaining the (literally) breakneck pace.