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'The Vampire Diaries'

TELEVISION REVIEW

Amid the many Count Dracula-esque cliches, it's a good old-fashioned Gothic love story.

September 10, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

For months now people have been anticipating "The Vampire Diaries" as a CW-ized version of "Twilight" with a bunch of sensitive young lovelies yearning and burning for danger, romance and the ultimate penetration. In between bouts of underage drinking, texting, girl-bonding, and the inevitable minor-key whine of a soundtrack, that is. "True Blood Lite" or "Transylvania 90210."

And you know what? It is. Almost exactly.

But this is not a bad thing, not a bad thing at all. Because "Vampire Diaries" knows precisely what it is -- a Gothic romance -- and doesn't try to be anything else. It's not going for a spangly-skinned update of "The Catcher in the Rye" or a pretentious political metaphor or even a through-the-mirror-darkly Christ myth. "The Vampire Diaries" is a good old-fashioned love story with vampires.

Rolling dry-ice fog? Check. Croaking raven as harbinger of evil? Check. Vampires bright and dark? Check. Modern girl who looks exactly like sepia-tone daguerreotype of noble vampire's long dead love? Honking big ring with vampire-related powers? Angel-winged tombstones? Promising references to local Civil War atrocities? Checkity, check, check, check and check. And that's just the first episode.

Seriously, all that's missing is Barnabas Collins with his thin-lipped smile and wolf-head cane. Ah, Barnabas, who will forget your tortured cries when Josette leaped to her death rather than succumb to your kiss of eternal life?

Not executive producers Kevin Williamson ("Scream," "Dawson's Creek") and Julie Plec ("Kyle XY"), that's for sure. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp may be literally resurrecting the fabulous "Dark Shadows," but tonally, "The Vampire Diaries" got there first.

Let the other franchises sniff with disdain at moldy old genre conventions, "The Vampire Diaries" stacks them up like corpses in a mausoleum and dances howling on the roof. Lonely road plus attractive couple plus swirling mist equals horrific death. Dueling diaries and anguished voice-overs compete with emo-soundtrack tunes while amid the forest primeval, girls vamp and the vamp broods (someday we will have a torn and troubled female vampire as a protagonist, but that day is not today). Eternal life results in bitter tenderness while true love keeps diaries and transcends centuries.

To a small town Southern enough to have had its own Civil War battle, Stefan (Paul Wesley), a 200-year-old vampire, has returned. He "knows the risks" of such a move, but cannot live without "her." "Her" is Elena (Nina Dobrev of "Degrassi: The Next Generation"), recently orphaned (how Gothic can you get?) and with the requisite beauty. Burdened by grief and the drug-related antics of her brother Jeremy (Steven R. McQueen), Elena nonetheless manages to engage in some serious back-to-school eye-lockage with new kid Stefan, who's busy battling his Very Nature to not drain the blood from her body. Ah, high school.

But what is Abel without Cain? What is Edgar without Heathcliff? Stefan may not be responsible for those recent "animal attacks" but someone is, and that someone is his wickedly blue-eyed brother, Damon (Ian Somerhalder, from "Lost"). Damon twinkles where Stefan smolders, kills where Stefan abstains and generally gets all the best lines.

"I liked what you did with the face," he taunts after Stefan goes all red-eyed and vein-riddled before pushing him through a window.

Although the show deviates more than a bit from the L.J. Smith books on which it is based, the essential love triangle between Elena, Stefan and his brother Damon should be assembled by the end of episode two, three at the latest. Add a best friend who may be turning psychic, an Adonis-like ex-boyfriend, his troubled sister and would-be-rapist wingman, and the jealous blond classmate, and you have a potential page turner of a show.

It may not be art, but it's as much fun as an ice-cream social in a cemetery, complete with the rustling chill of crows' wings overhead and the eerie outline of the campus cutie with strange vermilion eyes emerging from a sudden swirling mist.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'The Vampire Diaries'

Where: KTLA

When: 8 tonight

Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under age 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)

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