I watched the premiere of The Gates last Sunday, and caught up with the off-season repeats of The Vampire Diaires as well.
Images TM & © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Photo: Steve Dietl.
The Gates, which airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC after the similarly hyped summer series Scoundrels, barely kept me locked in. As a guilty pleasure to screen on a hot, lazy night, well, it's more guilty than pleasure — not quite the melodramatic mash-up of Desperate Housewives and Twilight those making it might have hoped for, but probably engaging enough to keep anyone who enjoyed Eastwick coming back for its limited run.
The pilot has a former Chicago police detective, Nick Monohan, relocating his family to a planned community called The Gates. He's the new police chief of this private, protected, picturesque exurbia, naturally trying to rebuild his career and family bonds but stirring up controversy on Day One by getting suspicious about a missing person last seen at his new neighbors' house. Those neighbors, Claire and Dylan Radcliff, are vampires trying to assimilate for the sake of their daughter, and they're not the only ones in town with secrets: The popular herbalists, rivals who respectively run a day spa and medical practice, appear to be witches; the Monohans' son Charlie rubs football star Brett Crezski, a closet werewolf, the wrong way when he starts spending time with Brett's girlfriend Andie Bates, whose charisma (says ABC's promo material) may not be entirely ordinary.
While I didn't remember a single one of those characters' names, in fairness to The Gates my head for such things isn't what it used to be — and I did run a mini-marathon of The Vampire Diaries for myself right after the Gates premiere. The best-known cast member is probably Rhona Mitra, whose TV work includes stints on Boston Legal and Nip/Tuck; the rest of the ensemble is peppered with folks you've seen around the tube, like NYPD Blue's Chandra West, 24's Marisol Nichols, or utility player Frank Grillo (trust me, you know his face – and not just because he looks like Bones star David Boreanaz morphing into CSI supporting player Alex Carter). And it does seem to be an ensemble, despite the marketing push featuring Mitra, but the split focus on home life and high school felt as hodgepodge as the half-hearted injection of supernaturalism into soap opera. Mixing adolescent angst with parental and professional problems can absolutely work, as evidenced by the likes of Gilmore Girls or Once and Again; similarly, black-magic brooding has served as an apt background for serial sudsiness since the days of Dark Shadows if not the hot-blooded (for Victorian England) original, epistolary Dracula. Yet such tension on not one but two axes (indeed the plural of "axis" — thanks, wherever you are, Mr. Wolk) made The Gates feel faintly all over the place, particularly since the Monohan family, our entry into its occult environs, are apparently the unwitting Cousin Marilyn on the block.
So I guess what I'm saying is that The Gates, while making me mildly curious about where some of its storylines might lead, mostly reminded me of other shows. The Vampire Diaries did the same, but with more focus and more style.
Images TM & © 2009 The CW Network LLC. Photo: Quantrell Colbert.
I gave up on Vampire Diaries after its premiere last fall, which some friends and trusted reviewers have since indicated was a mistake. The CW has blessedly kept its elders' largely lapsed tradition of straight-through summer repeats alive, however, so I've been taping it Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET (along with Life Unexpected at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays; meanwhile, if you've taken my advice and begun treating yourself to Supernatural on DVD, you should be recording the latest season 9 p.m. Fridays so you don't have to wait for it to hit stores in September). Given that I'd recently devoured the enthralling first season of True Blood via Netflix when Diaries premiered and I couldn't help but compare it to the fangtastic Buffy the Vampire Slayer (lauded here less than a fortnight ago), I decided not to set myself up for disappointment.
The good news is that, four episodes in, The Vampire Diaries has turned out to be at bare minimum the kind of frothy diversion that The Gates wishes it were — although, to be fair, I've only seen as much of The Gates as I did of Diaries when I decided my plate was full enough without it last fall. Developed with Julie Plec by Kevin Williamson of Dawson's Creek fame from a series of prose novels (not previously on my radar, unlike the source material for the Twilight films and HBO's True Blood), it appears to borrow as much from Creek as from Buffy, with lots of Smallville in the mix as well. Since I've never actually seen Creek or read the Diaries books, I can't say how much of what we see on the screen is original to the novels as opposed to coming from Williamson's creative staff or an impetus to follow the general WB/CW template.
What Diaries definitely shares with Buffy is the creep factor of centuries-old men in youthful, hunky, paranormally powered bodies mooning over minors. The premise sparks from vampire brothers Stefan and Damon Salvatore's return to their hometown of Mystic Falls, Virginia, posing as their own descendants. Stefan arrives first, enrolling in high school and beguiled by Elena Gilbert, the spitting image of a woman from his past named Katherine; Damon has followed Stefan to toy with him, disgusted at Stefan's rejection of human blood and the indulgent life he could be living if he embraced the fullness of his abilities. Elena's parents recently died in a car crash that she survived, bringing her young aunt, Jenna, back to Mystic to serve as guardian for Elena and her brother Jeremy. Stefan and Elena bond in the graveyard one night over their respective losses, withdrawn natures, and soulful diary-writing, but Damon's manipulation and Stefan's own reticence to share his past with Elena keep their burgeoning relationship rocky. Jeremy is involved in a love triangle without any unearthly dimensions revealed to date, while Elena's attraction to Stefan worries her best friend Bonnie Bennett, who appears to have turned psychic, then pyrokinetic, and is disturbed after feeling death when touching Stefan's hand.
Much of the cast of The Vampire Diaries looked familiar to me, but that's mostly to do with my heavy visual association (one fine day to be the topic of its own post) — these actors resemble other actors I've actually seen, from Matt Czuchry clone Zach Roerig to Kayla Ewell, an Elizabeth Berkley doppelgänger with some Scarlett Johansson in the jaw, to Steve McQueen's grandson Steven R. McQueen, distracting in his resemblance to some mythical love child of Kyle Gallner, seen on Smallville as Bart Allen, and Marc Blucas, who played Riley Finn on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Lost's Ian Somerhalder, who as Damon chews his lines with only slightly more restraint than his character chews his victims' necks, had the only face I recognized as his own. That old truism of the villain being more fun to play seems to hold here; Somerhalder gets to act the louche hedonist while Paul Wesley is stuck trying to smolder as self-disciplined Stefan and viewers try not to be distracted by how much he looks like Twilight's Robert Pattinson crossed with David Boreanaz in his heavy-browed Angel days (something that must have been entirely incidental to his casting) or, depending on the angle, Glee's Matthew Morrison. Nina Dobrev looks and sounds like a hot, teenage Rachael Ray (not that there's anything wrong with Rachael Ray the way she is right now, so don't pounce on me, Whatever They Call Rachael Ray Fans — direct your energy towards getting more appropriate pictures of her on the Internets); Dobrev's smoky voice, deep eyes, and genuine acting talent help her bring zest and believability to what could be a too-familiar role as the feisty yet vulnerable Elena.
The Vampire Diaires doesn't tread much new ground, but that may be part of its appeal. Damon Salvatore tweaks the Twilight franchise when he responds dismissively to a conquest asking him why he doesn't sparkle; he and Stefan would burn in the sun, but are protected by magic rings — more elegantly excusing their daytime excursions than the magic SPF-500,000 moisturizer that Claire Radcliff is shown using in The Gates (which must take hours to fully apply, since we never see so much as a spot inside her left ear sizzling). Diaries also decrees that a plant called vervain can thwart vampires' hypnotic powers and, in sufficient strength, physically weaken them, although it's bloodlust that makes their veins darken visibly through their skin in an echo of Clark Kent's exposure to kryptonite on Smallville.
Set amongst misty graveyards, forestry, and Southern architecture on the Eastern seaboard, the show has a gothic look in more than one sense, and in the handful of episodes I've seen the focus has already drawn away from school-oriented shenanigans to the complicated, connected past of the Salvatore family and Mystic Grove. The fourth installment ended with a promising turn that, capping as it did scenes set during the annual Founder's Day celebration, pleasantly echoed the intrigue of True Blood's Bon Temps, Louisiana. The acting isn't uniformly strong, and the soundtrack is usually either marketing predictable, generic pop rock or killing the mood with a bargain-brand Andrew Lloyd Webber synthesizer score, but the plotlines are drawing me in. While not straying far from what one expects out of a CW series titled The Vampire Diaries, it's at least giving the concept some bite.
[Update: After the first half-dozen episodes, repeats of The Vampire Diaires have jumped to much later in the season, but the DVD set is scheduled for release Aug. 31st and if you're really hooked you can always pay per episode via Amazon or ITunes.]