The Vampire Diaries

Thursdays at 8 p.m. on the CW. Fourteen episodes into the second season.

The Vampire Diaries started out as a guilty pleasure for me because—sue me—I like vampire stories, and sparkly abstinent Mormon ones don’t count, and Sean and I don’t get HBO anymore. As time has gone by, though, I’ve begun feeling less and less guilty—and more and more sincere—about my appreciation of the supernatural drama. It’s smarter than it looks, for starters. The writers are clearly working to avoid the whole passive damsel-in-distress thing that tends to crop up when mortal heroines fall in love with blood-sucking creatures of the night, and they’ve been surprisingly successful in doing so. They’ve also avoided many of the pitfalls surrounding the good boy/bad boy dichotomy of teen dramas, muddying up the binary to entertaining effect and making both characters more interesting in the process.

But this is how snobs like me always try to prop up a guilty pleasure. We defensively point out how sharp and clever it can be, despite the trivial veneer, intellectualizing the thing into some stuffy paragon, and that’s not what I want to do with Vampire Diaries. The show is sharp and clever, but not shockingly so. It doesn’t transcend genre, and it makes no pretensions to—vampires are just vampires here, not symbols in an allegory. But you know what? That’s totally fine. There’s something to be said for a TV show that’s simply trying to use fun characters to tell a fun story: suspenseful and hot-blooded, emotional but never broody or (god forbid) maudlin, just plain fun.

The protagonist of the series is Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev), an orphaned teenage girl who lives with her younger brother, Jeremy (Steven R. McQueen—yes, grandson of that Steve McQueen), and her twentysomething aunt and legal guardian, Jenna (Sara Canning), in fictional Mystic Falls, Virginia, a small town with a particularly intense fixation on its history. It’s a big deal, for example, when Stefan (Paul Wesley) and Damon Salvatore (Ian Somerhalder), members of one of its founding families, return to town. It would be an even bigger deal if more people realized the Salvatores’ secret: they’re not descendants of the founding Salvatores; they are the founding Salvatores, turned into vampires as young men. Stefan and Elena quickly fall in love, but it’s complicated, of course. He’s a vampire, obviously, but beyond that, she looks freakishly like the vampire who “turned” both him and Damon: the dangerous, seductive Katherine Pierce (Dobrev again). Neither Salvatore has seen Katherine for more than a century (though we get flashbacks), but she casts a long shadow, and the Salvatores’ return to Mystic Falls creates its own problems. Before long, all manner of supernatural troubles are plaguing the town. Elena’s best friend, Bonnie (Katerina Graham), begins growing into her inherited powers as a witch; their classmate Tyler (Michael Trevino) discovers a disturbing inheritance of his own; Elena’s best frenemy, Caroline (Candice Accola), learns that not all vampires are as good-hearted as Stefan; and Elena’s ex-boyfriend, poor, sweet Matt (Zach Roerig), somehow manages to remain in the dark about all of vampires, werewolves, and other beasties that are roaming about.

I have a weakness for mythology-rich material like this, and overall Vampire Diaries has indulged me. Not only did it affirm my favorite element of vampire lore—that a vampire must be formally invited into a private residence to be able to enter—it explored the intricacies and loopholes of the interdiction, sometimes to spectacularly creepy effect. (Speaking of vampire lore, if you’ve never checked out Wikipedia’s in-depth chart comparing vampire traits in various fictional worlds and folk traditions, you are missing out because it is hilariously exhaustive and awesome.)

Of course, this is a CW teen soap, so the emphasis is ultimately less on the minutiae of vampirism, lycanthropy, and witchcraft than on the complicated webs of love, hate, friendship, lust, loyalty, and resentment among its cast of pretty young people—but what fabulously entertaining webs! Take the relationship between the Salvatore brothers. Setting up a love triangle involving a “good” guy and a “bad” guy is old, old, old, but Vampire Diaries finds ways to give it new life. Typically, the good guy in these scenarios is a humorless saint, but Stefan doesn’t qualify. He has a dark, wry sense of humor, and he’s no martyr. He might be willing to sacrifice himself for Elena, to whom he is devoted, but he’s not a tormented, self-hated vamp eager to atone for old sins. (And there are plenty of those—the Salvatores’ “good” and “bad” labels have shifted over the years.) For Stefan, the past is past. He wants to live, and he wants his brother to live, and he’s willing to be fairly ruthless to ensure that that happens. This has the dual benefit of being a more-nuanced-than-expected take on the “good” boy and hell of a lot more fun, as self-flagellation becomes incredibly dull incredibly fast.

Ironically, Stefan’s relationship with his brother tends to bring out the darkness in him and the best in Damon. As for the “bad” brother, Damon, he can be pretty damn bad and also, of course, impetuous and roguishly charming with a secret sentimental streak—an oldie-but-goodie cliché, as these things go. Somerhalder, bless him, takes the meaty role and plays it to the hilt, gleefully tipping into camp at times (he does crazy things with his eyes) and still making the essential emotional notes ring true.

And he’s not alone there. The CW has a bad habit of casting young actors with good looks but no talent—in some cases virtually no affect whatsoever—but Vampire Diaries somehow escaped the curse. I’m not saying they’re all future Oscar winners (and they’re certainly good-looking), but they do all dig into their parts with real commitment, turning out sincere, vulnerable performances that make the show genuinely compelling. After a shaky start in the earliest flashback episodes, Dobrev is now nailing her double role: Elena and Katherine are immediately distinguishable in their eyes, their smiles, their bearing, making their different hairstyles (the telltale trait) unnecessary. Trevino has earned his greater prominence in the second season by bringing out new sides and shades of Tyler, and Accola, similarly, has made Caroline’s second-season evolution both dynamic and affecting.

In fact, Vampire Diaries can be surprisingly affecting amid all the supernatural melodrama—it managed to make the recent demise of a tertiary character a perfect little heartbreaker—but it rarely pushes too far, jerking too forcefully on viewers’ tears. It’s way too energetic and droll and lively to let itself get stuck in a mawkish bog. That’s probably what I like best about it. The show moves briskly. All the characters—even, shockingly enough, the girls—get to be real characters, with minds and agency of their own, and as the labyrinthine plot unspools, they pull and tug against it, refusing to be mere plot points.

Is The Vampire Diaries profound or groundbreaking or challenging? No, not at all, but it’s far better than it has to be—rollickingly enthusiastic, unapologetic, exciting, hilarious fun. I refuse to feel guilty about such a gooey-delicious pleasure.