Vampire Diaries, The: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray / DVD)
Reviewed by Debi Moore
Starring Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley, Ian Somerhalder, Steven R. McQueen, Katerina Graham, Candice Accola, Zach Roerig, Michael Trevino, Sara Canning, Matthew Davis
Created by Kevin Williamson
Distributed by Warner Brothers Home Video
If you're one of the many horror fans who dismissed "The Vampire Diaries" as a Twilight-type TV show aimed solely at the tweener crowd (and their mothers), then you couldn't be more wrong. Yes, it does have a little of the same "angst" factor due to star-crossed lovers Elena Gilbert (Dobrev), a wise beyond her years high schooler, and Stefan Salvatore (Wesley), a 162-year-old vampire, working through their issues; but most of that is resolved after the first handful of episodes. And, damnit, people DIE on this show -- characters that you'd never expect to in fact. Plus, there's the incredibly charismatic and engaging Ian Somerhalder as Stefan's older, meaner brother (who's also a vamp), Damon, in a performance that verges on being over-the-top but never crosses the line into campiness. It's quite something to see.
Even with that ringing endorsement, I can still hear the naysayers muttering, but might I remind those of you who said similar things about "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Supernatural" how quickly you changed your tune once you gave those shows a chance. Now, I'm not saying "The Vampire Diaries" is quite as rich in mythos and depth as those two series (at least not yet), but I am saying that it deserves a shot at opening your minds and proving you wrong.
If, on the other hand, you're one of the lucky (and smart) ones who watched "The Vampire Diaries" from the "Pilot" episode all the way through to its multi-cliffhanger season finale, "Founder's Day", then you already know most of what I'm going to say next and can skip down a few paragraphs to the special features discussion.
As mentioned, "The Vampire Diaries", which takes place in the fictitious town of Mystic Falls, Virginia, primarily revolves around the budding romance between Elena and Stefan with Damon running interference and putting up roadblocks every chance he gets. You see, there's more than meets the eye here as Elena is a dead ringer for Katherine, the vampiress beloved by both Salvatore brothers who turned them back in 1864, and she's none too happy when she finds a picture of her predecessor among Stefan's things before he's had a chance to explain the situation. That's the cause for a good bit of the on-again/off-again nature of their relationship, but once Elena gets on board with working with Stefan to finally get Damon off their backs by helping him release Katherine from the tomb in which she's imprisoned (along with a big batch of other bloodsuckers from the good old days), things really pick up and "The Vampire Diaries" begins coming into its own as a viable offering for genre fans.
Added into the mix are Elena's BFF's Bonnie (Graham), a budding witch who has a bone to pick with the Salvatore brothers, and Caroline (Accola), who gets tangled up with Damon early on in the season; Elena's younger brother, Jeremy (McQueen), who really doesn't have much to do until he, too, falls under the spell of a vampire with ulterior motives of her own for opening the aforementioned tomb; and two more male members of the group, Elena's ex, nice guy Matt (Roerig), and his friend Tyler (Trevino), son of the mayor of Mystic Falls, who has a family curse of his own to deal with. Lest you think this is a kids-only saga, there's also Elena and Jeremy's Aunt Jenna (Canning), their legal guardian following the death of their parents a year or so prior, who becomes involved with substitute teacher Alaric Saltzman (Davis), an enigmatic character with a connection to Damon -- and Elena -- that's not fully revealed until close to the end of the season. As Season One winds down, the town gets a visit from Uncle John Gilbert (guest star David Anders), who has history with just about everyone, including Katherine. Other recurring roles are filled by the always welcome James Remar as Papa Salvatore, Mia Kirshner (who does a fine job of making us love to hate her), Kelly Hu, Malese Jow, Arielle Kebble, and Jasmine Guy, although I wouldn't look for all of them to return in Season Two if you catch my drift. (As an aside, some sort of vampire history has probably been made what with Kebble also appearing in "True Blood" and Vampires Suck - talk about a toothy trifecta!)
So as you can see, it's a tangled web that executive producers Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec have woven from the Young Adult novels written by L.J. Smith (six so far with number seven due in March of 2011), and while it was a slightly bumpy road from Episode 1 to 22, the way was filled with enough carnage and character development to keep it from getting anything close to too uncomfortable or unexciting to continue. What's more, considering how amped up the action was by the time we rolled around to the final half dozen eps, this reviewer already has the DVR set for September 9th, when Season Two debuts. Based on what we've seen so far, things can only get better … and Williamson has already promised a werewolf transformation or two. There's a shitload of evil in Mystic Falls, and we've only begun to tap into it!
Speaking of tapping into something, the amount of special features Warner Brothers has provided fans represents a near embarrassment of riches. The only thing keeping them from meriting a perfect 5 out of 5 knives is the lack of a commentary (or two) with assorted cast members, especially Nina, Ian, and Paul. Maybe next year.
Things kick off with the lone commentary that is provided, which is for the first episode and showcases Williamson and Plec (who shared writing duties on "Pilot"), accompanied by director Marcos Siega. They start right in with tidbits about Stefan's opening voiceover, leading into a winning dialogue that covers all the right bases from the score to the actors' chemistry, how they came up with the "vamp out" special FX (no passé black eyes on "TVD"), the locations, the editing, even the aspect ratio -- we're talking the whole nine yards. It's honest, fresh, and fun, exactly what you'd expect if you've caught any of the numerous promotional videos Kevin and Julie have made. Their chemistry is just as palpable as that of their stars, and Marcos does a good job playing off them. Definitely worth a listen.
The nine deleted scenes that are included don't, per usual, add much except for one (from Ep. 17, "Let the Right One In") that shows us something about a character that wasn't revealed during the regular season. Whether or not it'll ever be addressed again is anyone's guess. Next comes the meat of the extras: the 25-minute Into Mystic Falls: Bringing Vampire Lore and the High School Experience from Page to Screen, a look at the origins of the show and how it evolved from concept to "Pilot" to full-fledged successful series. It's an above average day-to-day peek behind the scenes of "The Vampire Diaries" that all the hardcore fans are going to love.
It's followed up by When Vampires Don't Suck!: The Popularity of Vampires and the Fans Who Love Them, an 18-1/2-minute analysis of how "TVD" fits into the current vampire craze among other topics like the effect of new media such as Twitter and Facebook on the show, the fans, and even the cast and crew. I've certainly read more than a few tweets from Dobrev, Williamson, Plec, and the equally socially active and hilarious Somerhalder. When Vampires Don't Suck! also includes some well deserved appreciation for the Internet fansite Vampire-Diaries.net, which is not only a great resource for information but also provides a means for fans of the books to connect with fans of the TV show and interact. Not surprisingly the sex appeal angle of why vampires are so admired is addressed here as well but thankfully not beaten into the ground.
The four "A Darker Truth" webisodes pop up next on the menu, and they're probably the weakest link of what's offered. They serve as a prequel and follow a guy, Jason, who's tracking Stefan because he knows what Stefan is and thinks he killed his sister. Nothing to write home about but an okay time killer. Luckily things improve immediately when the Second Bite gag reel starts rolling. It's not quite a "Supernatural" quality gag reel (after all, they set the bar pretty high), but it's a fast and funny four-minute segment that shows potential to only improve over the coming years.
Like audiobooks? There's an option to download author L.J. Smith's The Vampire Diaries: The Awakening, the first entry in the franchise, and hear how it all began. As for how the cast members began what many of them say is the highlight of their careers, there's A New Breed of Vampires -- Casting the Series, which describes the casting process and shows audition footage of just about everybody. It's certainly worth a look, but by far the highlight of the package is Vampires 101 – The Rules of the Vampire, an almost seven-minute multiple choice quiz-type feature that lays out the laws and natural order of the vampire world constructed in "The Vampire Diaries". Definitely a case of saving the best for last.
I should note that this review is based on the four-disk Blu-ray set, which of course looks and sounds fantastic. Better even than watching the series the first time on The CW's HD Channel. The extras are identical in the five-disc DVD box so at least you won't be penalized if you don't have the tech for high-def.
Whether or not I've convinced anyone to give "The Vampire Diaries" the benefit of the doubt, it's been a helluva good time revisiting its freshman season and checking out all the bonus materials. After churning out 22 episodes, Williamson and Plec have this show down to a science and know what it takes to keep the quality -- and ratings -- high. I predict a long, healthy future for "The Vampire Diaries", especially as the word spreads and the party poopers of today become the cheerleaders of tomorrow. It's simply inevitable.
4 out of 5
4 1/2 out of 5
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