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.

Downton Abbey

Series I finale aired Sunday, January 30, on PBS. All episodes streaming at pbs.org through February 22.

I opened my first draft of this post by describing the British TV series Downton Abbey—which I enjoyed tremendously—as a soap opera for Anglophiles. The phrase was meant to be self-deprecating (and not entirely serious), but the more I thought about it, the less I liked that glib remark. The show has its share of melodrama, certainly, but the term soap opera didn’t sit right with me.

The distinction, I believe, is this: soap operas demand not only heightened, exaggerated plot turns but also heightened, exaggerated emotions and characters. And for the most part, that description doesn’t apply to the saga of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants. One particularly jaw-dropping plot twist might be bizarre and lurid (and damn, is it ever), but the fallout from it feels very human, very true, and that’s typical of Downton Abbey. Creator Julian Fellowes isn’t above indulging in a few melodramatic flourishes, but the underlying storytelling always feels grounded in characters too substantial and sincere to allow the show to be dismissed as soap opera.

The Walking Dead

Sundays at 10 p.m. on AMC. Four episodes into the first season.

As monsters go, zombies aren’t particularly interesting. Zombies don’t reason; they don’t remember; they don’t have any kind of motivation beyond a mindless drive to eat your brains. Exceptions abound, of course—one classic deviation immediately leaps to mind—but in general, zombies are simply ravenous monsters pointlessly and inexorably overwhelming the human race.

The interesting thing about zombie apocalypse stories (if there is an interesting thing, which there sometimes isn’t) is the way the non-zombies react, how they handle the collapse of society, the formation of small, fragile cells of survivors. Zombie stories tend to be depressing, but zombies aren’t the half of it. The depressing thing—the riveting, dramatic thing—is how quickly civilization disintegrates, how rapidly the surviving humans lose their humanity.

The Walking Dead, AMC’s new TV adaptation of the intensely dark comic book series, is consistently good at dramatizing zombies. The depiction of living people is a little more scattered—sometimes heartrendingly powerful, sometimes downright obtuse—which is a problem because the survivors, the actual characters, have to be the legs of the show. There are definitely more right notes than wrong here, and the production values are incredible, but the wrong notes are still discordant enough to give me pause.

Sherlock

Series I finale aired Sunday, November 7, on PBS.

Sherlock Holmes would be nothing without John Watson. It’s easy to forget that, what with all the attention-grabbing deductive shenanigans and outrageous displays of arrogance, but stalwart Watson is not only the frame by which the stories are told (the conceit of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fiction is that Watson is recounting his friend’s adventures); he also, more important, is practically the only story element that humanizes the iconic detective. Without Watson, Holmes would be unbearable and incomprehensible; even with Watson at his side, he’s a pill.

So Watson is key. He can’t just be a dumb loyal dog trotting after his master—that gets old fast—but there still has to be a reason that he puts up Holmes’s abuse. Holmes only has to make sense in relation to Watson, but Watson, as our portal into the story, has to make sense in himself.

What I love most about Sherlock, the BBC’s clever modern-day take on the detective (recently broadcast in the United States on PBS), is that it seems to understand that: the odd, prickly relationship between Holmes and Watson is central to the show and vividly dramatized. Watson might not be able to keep up with Holmes’s mental gymnastics, but he’s not a passive sounding board. He talks back, and he learns, and in his own way, he’s just as alienated from society as the great detective—an interesting, provocative take of the familiar Holmes-Watson dynamic. The show has its weaknesses in other areas, but with this pair at its center, it can’t help but be a smashing success.

Community

Thursdays at 8 p.m. on NBC. Five episodes into the second season.

The standard knock on metafiction (storytelling that self-consciously addresses the conventions of fiction, never letting its audience forget the essential fictionness—the falsehood—of the tale) is that it’s empty and insincere, refusing to commit to the emotion or the characters of its story and instead indulging in arch, self-congratulatory naval-gazing, cleverness for its own meaningless sake. That can be true, no doubt—to understand a work as fiction, you always have to take a step or two back, and it’s easy to reach too far a remove—but it’s not necessarily so. The best metafiction finds meaning in the idea that stories are true even in their falsehood, and to me, at least, that’s a tremendously powerful, affirming idea. (I’m the sort of person who cries through much of Adaptation and Stranger Than Fiction.) Good metafiction also provides rich ground for humor, mining the nonsense of storytelling even as it embraces the story. (Arrested Development was brilliant at that.) The balancing act is precarious, and it will never be to everyone’s taste, but done well, metafiction can be startling and provocative and downright hilarious.

Community, an under-performing tongue-in-cheek sitcom in its sophomore year, is still fine-tuning its balancing act. It has its glib moments, its cheap gags, but as it discovers who precisely its characters are and refines its voice, it gets funnier and funnier and, at times, surprisingly affecting. I know Modern Family has its partisans, Glee its passionate fans, but Community is the sole comedy now airing guaranteed to set me in a good mood. Its satiric bite is delicious, its sense of the absurd is unrivaled, and its sentiment well leavened with honesty and wit. This is metahumor done right.

Avatar: The Last Airbender

All three seasons on DVD and streaming on Netflix.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is definitely a children’s show. Unlike the Pixar movies or some of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, which seem to have an adult sensibility and adult rhythms underlying the animation, Avatar follows the familiar contours of kids’ programming: a single strongly expressed theme in each episode; straightforward plotting; goofy, broad humor. And yet, as the show progresses, complexities reveal themselves beneath the simplicities. The morals of the story, though transparently conveyed, are more challenging, sometimes more unsettling, than typical kids’ fare. It took most of the first season for me to settle into the guileless storytelling, even longer for the boisterous child hero Aang to endear himself to me, but the vivid Japanese-style animation held my attention in the meantime. Eventually, I could see why so many people love this show so deeply—and why M. Night Shyamalan’s widely reviled live-action adaptation of the first season is such a travesty.