Supernatural Vs. The Vampire Diaries: Battle of the Buffy Successors
Posted on Tuesday September 27, 2011, 15:20 by Helen O’Hara in Small Screen
As our forumites will know, I’ve been into Supernatural for some time now. And just recently, I’ve been attempting to get into The Vampire Diaries as well. What I’ve discovered are two very different contenders to Buffy’s throne, so let’s discuss their similarities, their differences, their strengths and weaknesses, shall we? Before we start: I’m deliberately not counting True Blood here because it’s openly aimed at a different, older, less geeky demographic, nor am I considering the cancelled likes of Moonlight, Blood Ties or whatever. This is about ostensibly-at-least teen-friendly shows wherein improbably good-looking folk encounter supernatural creatures.
First of all, Supernatural. When it first started back in 2005 I more-or-less instantly dismissed it as Buffy-for-boys, a cynical attempt to remove the kick-ass ladies from the vampire slaying equation in a move which I objected to on girl power principles and rejected sight unseen. My bad. It’s pretty much entirely awesome. OK, season one starts a little slow and basicallyalways involves finding some bones, salting them and burning them to ash, but things go seriously upwards from there. It has great chemistry between the leads, the best writing this side of the Whedonverse and properly scary episodes (also, very comical ones, but more on that later). The first five seasons are pretty consistently marvellous; the sixth, while relatively weaker, is still better than most of the rest of genre TV out there, and contains the most brain-bendingly bizarre TV episode I’ve ever seen in The French Mistake*.
Supernatural shares quite a lot of Buffy’s DNA: a small central group of characters, a wise older mentor, lots of time spent researching and wisecracking while deciding what to do next, frequent (but inventive!) use of monster-of-the-week plots, and overarching story arcs to give it all a shape. It’s also got magical casting in the central group: Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki have positively Hepburn-and-Tracy / Laurel-&-Hardy levels of chemistry as the demon-hunting brothers who are the backbone of the show, but their Winchesters have Jim Beaver’s gruff advisor Bobby Singer for a guide, and in later seasons Misha Collins’ oddball angel Castiel to add an extra sprinkling of dry wit to the existing abundance. It’s darker and bloodier and sexier than Buffy (a sort of missing link between Buffy and True Blood, if you will), and many of the best episodes are riffs on other stories (but inventive ones!), but by Whedon it’s good.
Then there’s The Vampire Diaries. If Supernatural takes Buffy’s wit and character focus, TVD takes the bit where there were hot teens dealing with vampire love. In truth, it’s more Dawson’s Creek with fangs than anything Buffy ever did, and its character scenes generally come in one of three flavours:
1. “I love you, but I just don’t know if I can trust you anymore.”
2. “I love you, but I can’t be with you until I figure this thing out.”
3. “I love you, and I know that you don’t love me, but I’m just going to wait right here until you do.”
Seriously. That’s your lot. Cast- and character-wise, it has issues. Central pair Bella and Edward Elena Gilbert and Stefan Salvatore (Nina Dobrev and Paul Wesley) are afflicted with characters who are goody-two-shoes’d nearly out of existence; “bad boy” brother Damon Salvatore (Ian Somerhalder) is largely reduced to eyerolling (presumably at his own appalling haircut) and attempting more complexity than the script allows. Even the supporting characters aren’t all that: David Anders, so memorable in Alias, barely manages to make any impact here, and it’s left to Matthew Davis’ Alaric Saltzman (full marks for the naming there) to keep the adult end up. On the upside, Elena may be something of a blank but at least she’s not a perennial victim; that’s left to her unfortunate brother Jeremy (Steven R. McQueen, who interestingly looks exactly like a Ackles / Padalecki hybrid). Elena’s contrasting strength, together with the fact that the town’s sheriff and, latterly, mayor are women, and there’s an argument that this carries Buffy’s girl-power torch quite nicely.
Still, Vampire Diaries’ saving grace is that it packs more plot into a single episode that most shows manage in a typical series; Big Bads that in other shows would take at least 10 episodes are dispatched in one or two, and the sheer pace of the storytelling means that it does, occasionally, manage to surprise you. Hell, the body count alone is noteworthy. In Buffy the vampires “dusted” and disappeared, and were for the most part vagrants anyway; here, respectable citizens drop like flies and are largely uncommented upon, and the supporting cast rotates in and out so fast you have to assume the studio floor is on fire. There are pretty much no laughs, aside from the ones at Somerhalder’s hair (and yet, still hot), but it’s compelling in the way that all soap operas are compelling; they’re human emotions dialled up to 11. But with vampires (and, as of season two, werewolves as well, because every series featuring vampires introduces werewolves in season two**).
So, as is probably clear already, I have a favourite. It’s not that Vampire Diaries is bad – because despite some of the acting it isn’t – but more that it just lacks that extra spark that would take it from soapily interesting to essential viewing. And for all that they try, Vampire Diaries’ Salvatore brothers can’t compare to the Winchester brothers.
But don’t let me sway you: what do you see as the successor to Buffy’s throne?
*It is a profound mind-frak of an episode wherein lead characters Sam and Dean Winchester are transported to a universe where they are TV characters played by actors called Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles. The levels of self-spoofery are quite, quite astonishing, dwarfing even this shows previous forays into (consistently funny) navel-gazing in The Monster At The End Of The Book and The Real Ghostbusters. It’s not the ability to navel-gaze that impresses, so much as the ability to be funny while they’re down there.
**This holds true for Buffy, True Blood, Supernatural, and Vampire Diaries itself. It even holds true for the Twilight series, assuming you accept wolf shapeshifters in the same category as werewolves. Technically, in True Blood we don’t see the werewolves until season 3, but they do kidnap Bill at the end of season 2 so I’m counting that.