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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2009-2010 season. Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on either a cut screened to us privately or a copy supplied by a third party NOT a screener provided by the network in question. All were received or screened prior to the networks' official mailings that went out in mid-June.]
THE VAMPIRE DIARIES (The CW)
(Thursdays at 8:00/7:00c starting this fall; TRT: 44:33)
The network's description: "Four months after the tragic car accident that killed their parents, 17-year-old Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev, "DeGrassi: The Next Generation") and her 15-year-old brother, Jeremy (Steven R. McQueen, "Everwood") are still trying to cope with their grief and move on with their lives. Elena has always been the star student; beautiful, popular and involved with school and friends, but now she finds herself struggling to hide her sadness from the world. As the school year begins, Elena and her friends are fascinated by a handsome and mysterious new student, Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley, "Army Wives"). Stefan and Elena are immediately drawn to one another, and Elena has no way of knowing that Stefan is a centuries-old vampire, struggling to live peacefully among humans, while his brother Damon (Ian Somerhalder, "Lost") is the embodiment of vampire violence and brutality. Now these two vampire brothers - one good, one evil - are at war for Elena's soul and for the souls of her friends, family and all the residents of the small town of Mystic Falls, Virginia. Based on the series of books by L. J. Smith, THE VAMPIRE DIARIES is from Alloy Entertainment and Bonanza Productions Inc in association with Warner Bros. Television and CBS Television Studios with executive producers Kevin Williamson ("Dawson's Creek," "I Know What You Did Last Summer"), Julie Plec ("Kyle XY," "Wasteland"), Leslie Morgenstein ("Gossip Girl," "Privileged") and Bob Levy ("Gossip Girl," "Privileged"). Marcos Siega ("Dexter") directed the pilot."
What did they leave out? Believe it or not, "The Vampire Diaries" was originally published back in 1991, 14 years before "Twilight" was released.
The plot in a nutshell: We covered the broad beats a few months ago in our script review, but here goes: "For over a century I have lived in secret, hiding in the shadows, alone in the world... until now," explains Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley) in the show's opening narration. "I am a vampire... and this is my story." And with that we meet a young couple driving home in the middle of the night on a foggy road. And like all people driving home on foggy roads at the beginning of horror stories, they accidentally hit someone - only to meet their own untimely (and violent) end after stopping to check on the unseen figure. Meanwhile in nearby Mystic Falls, Virginia, 17-year-old Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) pens her latest diary entry as she gets ready for school. Orphaned less than a year ago, she and her younger brother Jeremy (Steven R. McQueen) live with their Aunt Jenna (Sara Canning) and are trying their best to adjust to the new status quo: she's shut herself out from most of her friends while he's resorted to doing drugs and wearing black nail polish.
At school then we meet the rest of our heroes (and antagonists): Elena's best friend Bonnie (Katerina Graham), who's convinced she's psychic; Elena's ex Matt (Zach Roerig), a jock who still carries a torch for her; his sister Vicki (Kayla Ewell), who spent the summer deflowering Jeremy but now won't give him the time of day; Tyler (Michael Trevino), the resident douchebag who's claimed Vicki as his own; and Caroline (Candice Accola), Elena's sunny friend who quietly envies the attention she gets. All of their lives however change with the arrival of the latest transfer student: Stefan, who's almost supernaturally drawn to Elena. Pegged as a threat by Matt and Tyler and a "HAWT-E" by Caroline and Bonnie, Elena nevertheless finds herself intrigued by him as well. Together they bond over their mutually tragic stories while forces conspire to derail their burgeoning relationship: namely the arrival of Damon (Ian Somerhalder), Stefan's brother, who promptly attacks one of the aforementioned group. You see, Damon doesn't share Stefan's take on vampirism: he likes to kill and doesn't apologize for it. Even worse, he's set his sights on spoiling things with Elena, for reasons both obvious - punishing Stefan - and opaque - a sketch of what appears to be a dead ringer for Elena... from 1864.
What works: I'm sure this show will have its audience...
What doesn't: ...but boy am I not among them. The final product proves to be just as predictable and cliche-filled as we expected, a fact that's more than hampered by the surprising lack of spark between Wesley's Stefan and Dobrev's Elena. They, like just about everyone else here, come across as pretty porcelain dolls trying to emote to an endless array of top 40 needle drops. It's the kind of thing that may play well in five-minute trailers but not in actual 44-minute chunks. Stefan and Elena are together only because the script dictates them to be, rather than any kind of organic chemistry. Other wrenches in the machine include Damon's decidedly silly fog effect, which looks like something you'd see on a doorstep at Halloween; Stefan literally showing up behind every door Elena opens and around every corner she turns, which were he not so pretty would be called stalking; and a limp misdirection about who was behind the opening murders doesn't even remotely connect. More troubling however is that Williamson's wit and Plec's earnestness from the script (which we spotlighted previously) both kind of get lost amongst the sea of mopiness ("When someone asks 'How are you?', they really don't want an answer," Elena emotes into her journal) and predictability (Stefan shows up the history teacher with his knowledge, because he was there!). All in all, "Diaries" at best plays like a 44-minute music video for a much more interesting show and at worst a lifeless clone of...
The bottom line: ...things we've seen done before, and done much better.