Five years ago, “The Vampire Diaries” was at its peak, and one of the hottest shows on television. Fans raved about its ability to launch and resolve fast-paced storyline after fast-paced storyline; it had a hot young cast spearheaded by Nina Dobrev playing both hero and villain; and its superb second season even garnered some critical acclaim, like a spot in critics’ year-end lists next to “30 Rock” and “Boardwalk Empire.” The latter was most shocking, at the time — while these days, the CW garners plenty of critical attention thanks to shows like “iZombie” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” as well as “Supergirl” and the DC superhero stable, back then its only contribution to the era of “Quality TV” was ruining Veronica Mars.
“Vampire Diaries” was 2011’s “it” show: A soapy, pulpy, sexy, fast-paced thrill ride burning through plot faster than was seemingly possible. It was part of a growing trend — “Scandal,” “Revenge,” even “Heroes,” and more recent early-peaking shows like “Empire” — with mixed results. Typically, after peaking in their first season or two, shows can run out of energy by the Season 3, leading to cancellation, backlash, or, in rare cases settle into a nice long decline.
While “The Vampire Diaries” is coming to a fairly graceful end — if mostly off the radar in the past few years, and not without some huge bumps along the way — it’s that surprising longevity that makes it such a great example of what to do (and what not to do) when you find the next big thing on your hands.
DO: Play to your cast’s strengths
“The Vampire Diaries” originally centered on a fairly conventional love triangle. Everywoman Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) is pursued by two vampire brothers: Good guy with hero hair Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley), and anti-heroic bad boy Damon (Ian Somerhalder). Coming at the end of the “Twilight” craze — but, never forget, based on books that went into publication 14 entire years before the first Meyer masterpiece — it could have been instantly dismissable…
Right up until the second Somerhalder started waggling his eyebrows, giving the spooky eyeballs, and stole the show as the show’s first villain — more than worth watching, as the rest of the show caught up and got good (around the fifth or sixth episode, for those of you eyeing a new Netflix project).
His peers quickly caught up. Dobrev consistently conveyed strong will — essential for a human hero caught up in supernatural drama — and such strength of compassion it quickly became something like a superpower. What’s more, her chemistry with Somerhalder was off the charts, giving the show an apparently neverending well of romance and story tension to draw on (to the point where the two stars even dated). Wesley, stuck in the fairly thankless Angel/Edward role of Good, Brooding Vampire Boyfriend, took a little longer. But as the show gave him more to do than just “be supportive and loving” — and especially once the show took notice of Wesley’s sly humor — he quietly turned into one of the best things about the show.
DO: Have a signature move
In of those early episodes that raised the quality in a hurry, Stefan’s best friend Lexi (Arielle Kebbel) appears on the scene, fundamentally changing the show’s mythology and balance: Lexi is a delight, bringing Stefan out of his shell and an entirely different, welcome energy to the show… And then suddenly, Damon shows up and drives a stake through her heart.
This isn’t how stories are supposed to work! The betrayal seemed like too much for the fraternal relationship to handle, and Lexi’s role as Stefan’s mentor was simply too important to toss aside. (And of course, it wasn’t — Lexi has returned consistently throughout the show’s run, in flashbacks or ghost form — because, well, she was just that good.)
This was one of the major deaths the show got going right away that contributed to its brand as the “OH MY GOD SURPRISE STABBING!” show. Because its vampires had enhanced speed, they were constantly rolling up on each other with a stake, a neck-snap or just casually ripping out hearts. We’ve learned to respect the “anything can happen!” vibe from lauded mainstream shows like “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead,” but at the time it was just another surprising part of the show’s fresh agenda.
The other thing that made early “Vampire Diaries” really work was its discovery of another new escalation: The double twist. Once the show agreed that killing off its characters regularly might lead to fatigue, they rewarded audiences with a new structural wrinkle: Instead of having one big twist per episode, it started dropping in two huge surprises for the biggest episodes.
In the Season 2 premiere, when the show goes from good to great, one shocking neck-snap lulls viewers with the seeming main event… Until a second surprise killing turns a beloved, but under-involved, recurring character Caroline (Candice King, then Accola) into an awesome, main-cast vampire.
DON’T: Try to work without quality villains
The second season of “The Vampire Diaries” turned the show from an “Oh no, this is actually good!” cult favorite into a phenomenon. The surprise stabbings helped, but the key was that it had a string of superb villains. First, Dobrev did double duty as Katherine Pierce, her century-old ruthless vampiric doppelganger. She was followed by Daniel Gillies as the honorable-but-brutal, seemingly unkillable “Original” vampire Elijah, and finally his brother Klaus (Joseph Morgan), the biggest, baddest villain in the entire vampire world.
Like most dramas, each season is assembled in three acts, which was the perfect match for the show’s hyperactive intensity: Each villain escalated into the next and stuck around for the critical events to follow. The downside of this being that — for long-running, serialized shows — the most likely mistake lies in recycled plots. For these fast-paced, anything-can-happen, burn-through-plots-like-no-tomorrow shows, this issue gets magnified. Stefan or Damon fall off the wagon and becomes evil regularly; local witch Bonnie Bennett (Kat Graham) leans some dangerous new type of magic: Already a hard sell, but also seems to come around times the show has slowed down anyway.
There are a couple ways around this. The biggest one: have strong villains who force the characters into new and difficult situations. This was fantastic in the superb second season, but what happened after? “The Vampire Diaries” fell in love with Klaus… And used him as its primary villain for the bulk of three seasons.
Morgan, who did a great job of projecting charming malevolence, certainly earned the respect, but his character Klaus was distressingly repetitive. The show’s three-act structure worked against it here: At least half a dozen times, the overarching plot becomes “find a new magic weapon that can defeat the unkillable Klaus and kill him.”
It wasn’t until the show’s sixth season that it found a new villain worth the attention — Chris Wood’s Kai — and it is not a coincidence that Season 6 is generally considered a highlight.