Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Five reasons The Vampire Diaries is better than True Blood

Left: Nina Dobrev on The Vampire Diaries. Right: Rutina Wesley on True Blood.

Spring has officially ended, and the good TV shows have gone the way of non-sweltering weather and the snowdrops outside my old apartment. (On a side note, I have a new apartment now, and my move from the one to the other is what has kept me from blogging. It takes a long time to assemble an entire apartment's worth of Ikea furniture.) Game of Thrones finished off its phenomenal second season with a threat from the perpetually icy North, and was replaced on HBO's Sunday night schedule with the considerably muggier atmosphere of Bon Temps, Louisiana, and the baffling fifth season of True Blood

At this point in its lifespan, True Blood mostly exists as a reminder of how much I miss the CW's infinitely superior supernatural thriller The Vampire Diaries. (Also as a way to see Alexander Skarsgard nude.) So, to honor the return of Bill, Eric, Jessica and Sookie's magic fairy vagina, let's take a look at a few of the many, many things that The Vampire Diaries does better than True Blood. (Note: SPOILERS for the third season of The Vampire Diaries and every season of True Blood abound.)

No irrelevant side plots that distract from the action

True Blood's first season (which seems so long ago) was almost entirely focused on a single storyline: the serial killer targeting women who had sex with vampires. Yes, there were digressions here and there where Sookie lost her virginity to Bill and Jason got addicted to V, but the action was all driven by the main plot and the problems it posed to the residents of Bon Temps. Not coincidentally, the first season was the high point of the show, which has since degenerated into a shapeless mass of unrelated stories stitched together into a tonally incoherent mess.

The Vampire Diaries, on the other hand, has a talent for pulling every side story, no matter how irrelevant it may seem, into the main thrust of the action. You might think that Tyler becoming a werewolf has nothing to do with the threat of the Originals, but then Klaus turns him into a hybrid and a whole new, emotionally compelling storyline is born. Elena's concussion might have seemed like a cheap way to build tension, but it paid off in spades when she drowned after being cured with vampire blood and turned into a blood-sucker. Speaking of which...

Establish rules, and stick with them

The twist of Elena becoming a vampire worked because, once all the pieces fell into place, it made sense within the world of the show. After all, it's the same way that Caroline was turned: on The Vampire Diaries, if you die with vampire blood in your system, you wake up undead.

Tara's transition in the first episode of True Blood's season was not bound by any sort of similar adherence to rules. We've seen a vampire - Jessica - turned before, and it was an elaborate ritual that involved the teenager being drained of blood (while still alive), and buried in the ground with Bill overnight. Tara, on the other hand, was never drained (at least not that we saw); instead, Pam skipped directly to the second step. Also, there was the rather glaring plot hole of Tara having been dead for a fairly lengthy amount of time before being turned, not to mention the chunk missing from the back of her head. If you're going to kill off a character only to bring her back to life in the next episode, you at least need to follow the rules that you set up as to how that works.

On a related note...

Let some characters die already

True Blood's cast grows more unwieldy by the day, a problem that is compounded by the fact that the writers refuse to kill anyone (other than the obvious villains) off. Ever. Tara gets her brains blown out and comes back as a vampire. Eric starts burning in the sun, only to be pulled back inside by Sookie. Rather than killing Russell Edgington, the immensely powerful vampire with delusions of grandeur and a hatred of humans, Bill and Eric bury him in some concrete. Just because. Not only does the refusal to kill the major characters off lead to the profusion of unrelated side-plots discussed above, it leads to massive logical flaws that make the characters seem like idiots (which, to be fair, many of them are).

While The Vampire Diaries is certainly no Game of Thrones when it comes to characters deaths - you can be sure that Elena, Damon and Stefan, at the very least, are always going to survive - the writers' willingness to off secondary characters like Anna, Jenna, Rose and Alaric keeps the cast from getting too large. It also adds a sense of danger that is sorely missing from True Blood; there's no reason to worry about any of the main characters when you've shown over and over again that they will always survive somehow. On The Vampire Diaries, the knowledge that Tyler, Caroline, Matt or Elijah could very well end up six feet under makes the action that much more involving.

Make your characters change for the better, not the worse

As a Vampire Diaries viewer who is completely invested in the romance between Caroline and Tyler (except when I'm invested in Klaus' fascination with Vampire Barbie), it's easy to forget that, when the show first premiered, Tyler and Caroline were both pretty terrible. She was a spoiled, self-centered cheerleader stereotype; he was a douchebag jock and attempted date-rapist. These days, however, Caroline is a smart, ass-kicking vampire whose relationships with her parents, Tyler, Klaus and Elena are wonderfully nuanced and often terribly sad, while Tyler is a tragic figure who embraced being a hybrid because it would spare him the pain of transforming into a wolf, only to almost lose everyone he loved.

Caroline and Tyler are hardly alone in their evolution. Stefan used to be noble to the point of boredom, but his ripper adventures with Klaus and their bloody aftermath left him trying to pick up the pieces of his old self. Rebekah started out as a bratty teenager who happened to be an ancient, invincible vampire, but the revelations of her complicated history with Klaus deepened the character until she became one of the show's more sympathetic characters. And Klaus himself went from being an embodiment of pure evil to a desperately lonely man trying to make himself a family the only way he knows how: through violence and coercion.

The characters of True Blood, on the other hand, have become less interesting and less coherent as the show has gone on. Sookie went from a spunky, likable Southern girl to an incompetent mess who constantly needs to be rescued. Hoyt used to be an endearing sweetheart, but is now acting like a dick to everyone. Tara started out as an angry, irritating victim and has only gotten worse. And don't even get me started on the complete retcon of Eric's personality in last season's ill-advised amnesia storyline. With the exceptions of Jessica, who has gotten more fascinating as she grows into her powers, and Jason, who remains charming even as the writers trap him in increasingly awful plots, the denizens of Bon Temps get stupider, more annoying and more nonsensical with every episode.

Plot should come from characters, not the other way around

Of course, it would be easier for the writers to craft coherent, likable characters if they weren't constantly making them do stupid things for the sake of moving the plot forward. There are many moments in True Blood where you can practically see the writers moving the characters around in an attempt to force plot developments. When Sam picks a fight with Luna over the best way to raise her daughter it contradicts everything we know about his character, but it (presumably) has to happen to get him out of the house. Similarly, Terry's recent attacks of PTSD negate any progress he has made as a character, but they convince him to team up with Patrick to hunt down an old, possibly psychotic army buddy (or something). The writers are so desperate to move the plot forward that they're willing to let character development and narrative coherence fall by the wayside.

While The Vampire Diaries is certainly not light on plot, the stories work much better because they come from the characters. Klaus is a threat to Elena and the others not just because the show needs an antagonist, but because his isolation has made him desperate for a new "family" of hybrids, and Elena's blood is (well, was) the only thing that could keep those hybrids alive. Esther isn't trying to kill her children because she needs something to do, but because of her conviction that she did the wrong thing by turning them into vampires. The plot of The Vampire Diaries is, when you look at it objectively, about as ridiculous as the plots on True Blood (well, not as ridiculous as the inbred were-panther plot, or the maenad-driven orgies, or Sookie's trip to fairyland, but the vampire and werewolf stuff is on about the same level), but it doesn't seem ridiculous because it is always driven by the characters, their desires, and their relationships.


The Vampire Diaries might have a ridiculous name, air on the CW, center around teenagers who are all (probably) failing out of school at this point and spend as much money in a whole 22-episode season as True Blood does in a single installment, but it has the HBO soap beat in all the places it counts. The plot is streamlined and constantly moving, there's a real sense of urgency and a (somewhat) coherent mythology, and the characters evolve convincingly while driving the action of the show. I never would have thought it, but a teenage vampire series that airs on the same network as Gossip Girl is schooling a series on a network whose name is synonymous with quality, and schooling it in every possible way.

Well, except for the nudity. True Blood is still winning on that count.

2 comments:

  1. Nice review, can you review The Gates as well and why it lasted a season. I love the Gates. The casts acting are way better playing vampires due to their experience in acting.

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  2. Awesome comparison, everything I don't have the words to say, True Blood bored me and made me cringe in the worst ways. TVD on the other hand blew me away with how interesting Vampires can be. I only decided to watch the first couple of episodes to see Somerhalder in a different role and a leading role because I was actually still am a LOST junkie lets face it you never stop being a LOST junkie. But it was his hilarity thet kept me watching and then just like that the story and other charcters sucked me in. True Blood is a bunch of vampire politics with no plot. not to mention Elijah and Klaus make Russel Edgington look like a child having a temper tantrum.

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