Case Study 53: Marvin Marvin, Episode 4–“Ice Pop Pop”

Original Airdate: December 15th, 2012 on Nickelodeon

Everyone loves a good fish-out-of-water story, so the “mild-mannered humans hide a secret space alien” trope is one we’re apparently destined to return to again and again. Every generation has its own version of this: My Favorite Martian. Mork & Mindy. ALF. When I was in my teens, I got to personally witness the straight-faced dramatic interpretation, Kyle XY. By now, those returns have aggressively diminished into the form of Marvin Marvin. Instead of Robin Williams, we have the equally manic and overbearing YouTube celebrity Lucas Cruikshank (Fred: The Movie.) Cruikshank is one of legions of teenagers and young adults who have become the Tiger Beat set for the 21st century while you weren’t looking. The reason you weren’t looking is because this all happening on YouTube, whereas you can’t even keep up with The Americans and Transparent. No shade intended: you probably also don’t listen to One Direction records, either. Teenyboppers gonna bop. But Cruikshank briefly was able to translate his YouTube success to actual TV shows and feature films centered on his character Fred, who is meant to be an obnoxious six year old. If you’re like me, obnoxiousness is not one of the traits you look for among the fictional characters to spend your vanishingly rare leisure time with, and many adults did not find Fred especially endearing. Nevertheless, Nickelodeon gave Cruikshank another show, one that the usually fannish TVTropes notes “gained negative reviews from critics and viewers alike.” Marvin ended after one season and Cruikshank was shown the door by Nickelodeon. It may or may not be a coincidence that he came out of the closet shortly thereafter. The queer leftist in me wants to make the case that he’s gotten blackballed because of his sexuality, but the TV critic in me looks at this show and has some real fucking doubts, let me tell you.

Strengths

  • Decent child actors. Let’s give some credit where credit is due, here. Usually child actors are terrible, as the Mary-Kates and Beavers of this world can attest. It would seem that the people doing the casting at Nick managed to avoid this pitfall. Marvin the alien’s host family includes a young son named Henry (Jacob Bertrand, Rise of the Guardians,) who is very believable as the scheming younger brother, and while his sister Teri (Victory Van Tuyl, Magic In The Forest) is played unremarkably by Van Tuyl, Teri’s friend Brianna (Camille Spirlin) is also a treat. Marvin is a comedy with absolutely no funny moments, but Bertrand and Spirlin come closest to successfully selling ice cubes in a volcano, especially when compared with the adults in the cast, who miserably phone it in and mentally update their resumes as they watch the sword of cancellation dangle above. Kids are just more innocent, I guess. Falling somewhere between is Cruikshank. His performance is the same one-note hyperactivity you can see in any of his videos, but his energy could theoretically work with even remotely amusing material. It’s a shame the writing is so terrible, because “high-energy, goofy space alien” is the role he was born to play. Most normal sitcoms would require too much range and depth, but this could have been his sweet spot.

Weaknesses

  • Dreadfully unfunny. Generation War was funnier than this. Hopefully, we can find something instructive in its profound lack of humor, though. You see, all of the alleged merriment stems from that classic staple of comedy, the Wacky Misunderstanding. Hey, if it’s good enough for Shakespeare, Neil Simon AND Three’s Company, it should be good enough for me, right? Well…Good comedy can come from lots of places. Observation. Commentary. Strong characterization. Slapstick. Absurdism. Sheer novelty & originality. And, yes, sometimes comedy can arise out of a wacky situation. Without those, we wouldn’t have “situation comedies.” But the wacky situation can’t be so wacky that it takes us out of the action entirely, and that line is already getting pushed with the whole undercover space alien premise. The wacky misunderstanding we’re confronted with here involves Marvin learning what an expiration date is, seeing an expiration date on the driver’s license of Henry and Teri’s grandfather Pop-Pop (Casey Sander, Grace Under Fire) and assuming that Pop-Pop will get moldy and have to be discarded. Because Pop-Pop is an asshole, he takes advantage of Marvin’s confusion and extracts favors and free labor accordingly. Because this is Marvin Marvin, no comedic dividends are forthcoming. (Sample: Pop-Pop makes Marvin cart him around in a rickshaw. “I always wanted to see the top of that mountain.” Hilarity, thy name is Pop-Pop.) But I wonder if there’s any possibility that this tired-ass setup could ever have been funny. It’s possible that all those other sitcoms I mentioned already extracted the meagre laughs available from this dumb premise. Maybe they could have leaned harder on “expiration as death” and had Marvin start digging a grave? Or some kind of Logan’s Run thing? Or maybe the writers of Marvin Marvin were just doomed from the start. The really crazy thing is that this is only one of three Wacky Misunderstandings in this episode. Teri and Brianna get romantically involved with a pair of twins and everyone ends up covered in purple paint. Look, just because Shakespeare did it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for basic cable. The third misunderstanding comes into being when Marvin realizes what Pop-Pop is up to and devises a revenge scheme whereby he tricks Pop-Pop into thinking he’s brought Marvin to death’s door, with the payoff being that Pop-Pop drinks a milkshake made of disgusting foods. This show makes a New Yorker cartoon look like a George Carlin routine.
  • Out-of-touch. There’s just one example of this, but it’s gratuitous. Teri and Brianna approach Henry to help them devise a scheme to get back at those two-timing twins (Josh & Caleb Pryer, Future Problems.) Henry will help, but his fee is “$20 in arcade tokens.” Whaaat? He explains that “They’re untraceable! And because I’m a kid.” Yeah, a kid in 1985, apparently. I like to imagine that this was a Bitcoin joke in the original draft. It wouldn’t be any funnier, but at least it wouldn’t have unmasked the writers as childless fifty-somethings. Did they transfer over from Grace with Casey Sander?

Final Judgment: 2/10. It was certainly a joyless 22 minutes, but it wasn’t an active affront to the senses, so it’s not quite eligible for the Hall of Infamy. Sometimes I wonder if I’m too nice.

NEXT TIME: I continue my coverage of space aliens by reviewing Roswell!

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Case Study 53: Marvin Marvin, Episode 4–“Ice Pop Pop”

Case Study 52: Generation War, Episode 3–“A Different Country”

Original Airdate: March 20th, 2013 on ZDF

I’ve been hoping to get a chance to cover more international programming in this space, and Germany’s Generation War offers new ground both in terms of country of origin and original language. For those of you nerdy enough to keep track, I’ve now covered shows in three languages (English, Japanese and German) and from five countries (the US, the UK, Japan, Canada and Germany.) It’s quite a dramatic point of entry for German TV—averaging about seven and a half million viewers per night when it first aired, it proved a highly controversial miniseries both in Germany and elsewhere.

Strengths

  • Insightful. James Delingpole’s mostly incoherent response to Generation is a good example of the reception it received. He accuses it of being “politically correct melodrama,” and yet at the same time it’s guilty of not depicting the “banality of evil.” It pulls its punches by having the character Wilhelm (Volker Bruch) flinch when he finds himself forced to commit war crimes. Wouldn’t the “politically correct” thing to do be to make the Nazis as evil and remorseless as possible? Wouldn’t the “politically correct” approach be to rehash Hannah Arendt’s gospel fresh from 1963? It’s always a bad sign when the critic starts talking about the message the art should have imparted, but the truly bizarre thing is that the homily Delingpole desires is in the actual text! He says “Surely the key point about being a German in the second world war was this: regardless of whether you were good or bad, rampantly philo-Semitic or violently Nazi, you were chewed up by Hitler’s machine all the same.” It’s not clear if Delingpole actually watched all three episodes of this miniseries, but if he had bothered to hang on for an admittedly ponderous four and a half hours, it would be painfully apparent how eager the show was to underline an early observation made by Friedhelm (Tom Schilling, Who Am I): “The war will bring out only the worst in us.” And, yes, Hitler’s war machine turns out to be an unstoppable vehicle of immiseration. Despite Delingpole’s extensive complaining about Friedhelm’s initial reluctance to fight for the Nazis, he eventually ends up becoming a hardened executioner before dying in a hail of machine gun fire. The other member of the core cast of five characters who dies in the course of the series is Greta (Katharina Schuttler.) At the start of the series, she seems to be the member of the group most poised to survive: Friedhelm and Wilhelm are off to the Eastern Front, as is military nurse Charlotte (Miriam Stein.) At the show’s start in 1941 it’s already starting to look pretty grim for Greta’s Jewish lover, Viktor (Ludwig Trepte.) But Greta’s planning to stay in Berlin and make a bid for fame as a singer and hopefully actress in the style of her idol, Marlene Dietrich. And she does become somewhat well-known as a singer, thanks in no small part to her OTHER lover, Gestapo officer Martin Dorn (Mark Waschke, Habermann.) Things take a turn for Greta when she goes on tour to the Front and gets a sense of what the war is actually like. She makes the mistake of expressing her doubts publicly and doubles down on that mistake by telling Dorn’s wife about their affair, and before long she’s been imprisoned on charges of “defeatism.” In the course of a month, she goes from being a rising star sipping champagne in a well-appointed dressing room to being thrown in prison with an effective death sentence. More than any other shown here, her story conveys the insanity of the war and Nazi Germany, and she doesn’t fire a shot or come anywhere near a concentration camp. Moving on to another controversy that erupted over Generation: many in Poland were angry over the show’s depiction of anti-Semitism among the Polish Home Army. You see, Viktor manages to escape a train to a concentration camp and winds up joining the Polish resistance, but he has to keep his identity as a Jew secret. Eventually, he ends up freeing a trainload of Jews from captivity when his comrades are just as happy to leave them to die. With his secret exposed, he’s thrown out of the resistance movement. But the objections to the “historical accuracy” of these scenes seem largely political and remind me of similar objections made about President Johnson’s legacy vis a vis the movie Selma. Because the thing is, it does seem like large portions of the Polish resistance were legitimately anti-Semitic. But as that article hastens to point out, that wasn’t necessarily true of everyone involved in the movement, much like every soldier who fought for the Nazis wasn’t monstrously or even banally evil. And Generation points that out, too—Viktor’s comrade Alina (Alina Levshin, Combat Girls) is entirely sympathetic to him, and even the leader of the partisans (Lucas Gregorowicz, Lammbock) sends Viktor on his way with a handgun instead of executing him as was planned. And maybe this is my ignorant, American ass showing, but I never would have thought about anti-Semitism in the Polish resistance if it weren’t for this show. At the end of the day, the problem with the “politically correct” version of this show that Delingpole and other critics of the show long for is that it’s boring. We know that Nazis, on the whole, were evil. Even if you had never heard of this World War II business sixty years of TV, movies and other media released in the last 60 years would have informed you of that quite exhaustively. Wikipedia notes that the show has also been criticized for its “scant depiction of Nazi Germany’s project to purge the Reich of Jews.” While there’s room for improvement in how the show deals with Jewishness, I’ll point out once again that there’s no shortage of things depicting Nazi Germany’s project to purge the Reich of Jews. Which isn’t to say that there’s not a place for those stories. There always will be. I was still pleasantly surprised to see Viktor escape the train to the camp and wind up in the resistance, because concentration camps are something of a narrative cul-de-sac. Either you die, or you beat the odds and survive, either by waiting out the clock or escaping. Are there profound truths we’ve yet to explore about the human experience of the Holocaust? Sure. Are you going to find those unexplored yet profound truths in a made-for-TV miniseries? It seems unlikely. It would have been interesting to see what Generation came up with, but I’m not too mad that they didn’t go there. There are much better places to find profound truths about the camps. Instead, Generation explores less well-trod territory, like the very real terror of rape and execution at the hands of the Red Army for frontline medical staff like Charly. I’ve heard the soul-searing stories of the Holocaust. I’ll hear them many times again. It is valuable testimony. But I had never heard or imagined the story of someone like Charly, as two-dimensional and cumbersome to the narrative as she is. (See below.) I’m pleased whenever a show can offer this depth of insight, though Huckleberry Hound and its ilk may set a rather low bar.
  • High production values. You don’t see a lot of TV dealing with war, and when you do it’s either sitcoms giving us a decidedly removed version of events (M*A*S*H, Hogan’s Heroes, Enlisted) or big-budget cable dramas (Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Generation Kill.) I’m sure this has everything to do with money, and Generation falls blessedly in the latter category. It’s hard to tell a story about war without the well-choreographed chaos of battle, dazzling explosions, realistically selected locations and burnt-out ruins.

Weaknesses

  • Charly. It’s telling that in total Generation runs for four and a half hours, because it feels like eight but it has the content of two. This could have been a decent if forgettable movie, and instead it’s a mediocre if forgettable TV show. My diagnosis? The show is divided up between five characters, none of whom get a really satisfying character arc. The least satisfying arc goes to Charly, who doesn’t have an arc so much as an alarmingly jagged rhombus. She’s ultimately saved from the Russians by a Soviet officer named Lilija (Christiane Paul, Vampire Sisters.) But the clunking dramatic irony here is that Charly reported Lilija to the authorities back in the first episode for being Jewish. Why did Charly do that? The show certainly doesn’t tell us. You might think it’s because of internalized anti-Semitism, but she seems to immediately regret her choice—almost as though she were forced into it by the gods of lazy narrative. Later, she hears a rumor that Wilhelm has died, and she’s heartbroken because she never got to confess her ~~secret love.~~ Fine. So she throws herself into the arms of the fiftysomething Dr. Jahn (Götz Schubert, KDD.) Why does she do that? Who the hell knows. Certainly not the viewers of Generation War! And that’s about all that’s going on for Charly. As I said earlier, her story as a German woman and nurse on the Eastern Front could have been remarkable and revealing, and the fact that we get glimmers of that potential with no actualization is super frustrating.
  • Dumb ending. Maybe I found the ending particularly repellent because I was hoping for more of a payoff after four and a half hours. It mirrors the beginning of the show, when we’re hastily introduced to the cast as they get together for an illicit after-hours swing party at the bar where Greta works. At first, it successfully conveys a sense of innocent camaraderie about to be shattered by the wehrmacht, but by the end we realize how shallow that really was. Because we spend so little time with the characters before they get separated, we don’t have a strong sense of their relationships to one another or who they are as individuals. The show tries to pour a lot of that into shorthand in the first scene, but it’s a heavy load to bear. At the other end of the war, the survivors reunite in the bar, which has now been reduced to rubble. It’s pretty maudlin, and also badly written. Why do Wilhelm and Charly both happen to show up independently at exactly the time Viktor is morosely lurking in the bar? I get that they’re supposed to have been ruined by the weight of the war, but the old friends could at least say “hello” to one another instead of glowering silently. When Charly eventually asks “Has anyone heard anything from Greta?” Viktor could actually, you know, answer her as opposed to letting his silence speak volumes. If I were Charly, I would have been like, “Well? Have you? Is she dead? How did she die? What’s up with Greta? I care about what happened to her because she’s my friend, even if it’s not very subtle to demand an answer the viewer already knows!” And then we get a flashback to the stupid opening scene and all that squandered goodwill.

Final Judgment: 5/10. It’s stimulating but ultimately not that rewarding. I would skip it unless you’re teaching a class on media representations of World War II, where it would no doubt be an invaluable case study.

NEXT TIME: Barring technical difficulties, I review Lucas Cruikshank’s Marvin Marvin. Please join me as I pray for technical difficulties.

Case Study 52: Generation War, Episode 3–“A Different Country”

Case Study 51: Spider-Man (1967), Episode 19–“To Catch A Spider”/“Double Identity”

Original Airdate: January 13th, 1968 on ABC

Previously in this space we discussed an episode of the Iron Man cartoon from 1996, and the gold standard in DC and Marvel animated series’ are 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men, respectively, so the Snake People among us would be forgiven for thinking that the 1990s invented cartoons based on comic books. Nope, the Boomers can take credit for this one—both DC and Marvel have had cartoons based on their libraries as far back as the 1960s. Spider-Man is one of the more iconic examples, if only for its fun and oft-parodied theme song. I’ve actually spent a decent amount of time lately catching up on prehistoric Marvel comics and for long stretches of time in the 60s Peter Parker was the best thing going. The show takes many cues from the comics, but like the comics, it is far from perfect. Heavens, no.

Strengths

  • Classic comic book plots. So each episode of Spider-Man is divided into two ten minute segments, which are either parts one and two of a longer story or are two discrete entities. This flexibility is smart—it means that the writers aren’t stuck stretching out a thin plot into an entire half-hour and can be more judicious about pacing. Here, we get two separate stories. The first features four established bad guys teaming up to tackle Spider-Man (Paul Soles, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer) and the second centers on a two-bit actor with the groan-worthy name Charles Cameo (Carl Banas, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.) Cameo uses his impersonation and disguise skills to steal precious baubles and at various points he takes on the guise of Spider-Man, Peter Parker and J. Jonah Jameson (Paul Kligman.) The “supervillains combine their forces” and the “someone is out there doing a defamatory impersonation of our hero” are standard comic book tropes for perfectly good reasons. It’d be uncharitable to dismiss them as mere cliches, because it makes perfect sense that the various bad guys would at some point get the idea to combine forces, and identity theft is a natural outgrowth of a masked public figure with a mysterious background and questionable motivations. The show does reasonably interesting things with these tropes, too—Spider-Man can’t defeat his rogues gallery on sheer physical strength because they have him outnumbered, so he manipulates them and plays them against one another to foster infighting, and Cameo capitalizes on the paranoid Jameson’s ever-present Spider-Panic to the point where Jameson gets the cops involved. Not bad for a low-budget kids show, especially considering the actual comics from the period handled some of these things in a more clumsy manner. For instance, when six villains team up against Spidey in the 1964 Spider-Man Annual, for some dumb reason they all fight Spider-Man individually in a Chamber Of Secrets style gauntlet. Of course he beats them all, because he beat them all before one-on-one and why would anything be different now just because they formed an LLC? I dunno, maybe Stan Lee created an artificially low bar for spider-related excellence here.
  • J. Jonah Jameson. Jameson’s fun. He’s a big windbag with a Hitler mustache who likes to work himself up into hysterics, yelling and waving his arms around. Spiderman always outsmarts him. His employees crack jokes at his expense. In that same issue I just talked about, you can see him yelling at an actual spider. As usual, Spider-Man makes him look like an asshole here when it turns out that Cameo was the bad guy all along and Jameson’s back to square one on his lifelong quest to prove that Spider-Man is the Ayatollah. As Dolly Parton would say, he’s as mad as an old wet hen.

Weaknesses

  • The bad kind of camp. Look, camp is always going to be something of a bugbear, and there was no hope that any superhero property anywhere in the temporal vicinity of the 1966 live-action Batman was not going to be dripping with camp. However, it never reaches quite the level of art that ends with Batman getting into a surfing contest with The Joker. If you’re going to be campy, you damn well better lean into it. We can’t just settle for a visual of Spider-Man web-slinging through the suburbs, shooting webs up into the empty night sky and swinging around like there were skyscrapers instead of two-story rowhouses. I won’t be soothed by the sight of The Vulture (Soles) somehow producing missiles and explosives from between the feathers on his wings mid-air. It’s not even good enough to have Cameo escaping Spider-Man’s clutches by squirting him with tubes of paint until he becomes all flustered and painted. No, you really have to step up your game if you’re coming for Cesar Romero.
  • The Green Goblin. So The Green Goblin (Len Carlson, The Racoons) is one of Spider-Man’s more iconic nemeses, and I’m sure over the years various artists and writers have done interesting things with him, but for this reviewer he’s corny as hell. But he killed Gwen Stacy! Yeah, he also throws pumpkin shaped bombs. He buys his outfits at the pop-up Halloween superstore where the old Sears used to be. He looks like an off-brand garden gnome. He drives a shitty little sky scooter. I’m not buying it. It doesn’t help that Carlson’s voice acting makes him sound like the Wicked Witch in a theatrical production of Hansel & Gretel for pre-schoolers.
  • Under-explained plot points. At one point Jameson needs to deliver a “police memorial statue” to the police, and he needs to go pick it up at the artist’s studio. This gives Cameo an opportunity to impersonate Jameson, but what the hell is a “police memorial statue” and why is the editor of the local newspaper responsible for ferrying it across town?  And it’s not like this was the only way to get Jameson involved—a few scenes later he’s checking out a local antique show as advance publicity, but this time Cameo’s disguised as the antique dealer. Is there some reason Jameson needs to be integral to all of Cameo’s plots, even when it doesn’t make any goddamned sense whatsoever?
  • Doubling down on the theme song. Sure, everyone loves it. Listen, bud. He’s got radioactive blood. Sure. I’ve heard it all before—literally, because once we’re out of things to do in the second segment and still have a minute left to go, they run out the clock by showing us another 30 seconds of miscellaneous Spidey hijinks while we enjoy an encore performance of the theme song. Look, I get that there’s only so many ways we can watch Cameo steal stuff, but pacing is important because otherwise you get embarrassing shit like this.

Final Judgment: 3/10. Regardless of how catchy the song is, I really can’t recommend that you watch the 1960s version of Spider-Man. Paul Soles is no Tobey Maguire. He’s not even Andrew Garfield.

NEXT TIME: I’ll review the controversial German World War II miniseries, Generation War! Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll be back to watching ridiculous cartoons for undiscriminating children soon.

Case Study 51: Spider-Man (1967), Episode 19–“To Catch A Spider”/“Double Identity”

Case Study 50: The Vampire Diaries, Episode 52–“Ordinary People”

Original Airdate: November 3rd, 2011 on The CW

Whoo, it’s been a while. There are two reasons for that. First, a plague has fallen on the house of Oryx, and second, technical difficulties prevented me from my glorious plan of covering what would surely be one of the seven wonders of television history: NFL Rush Zone. Instead, I’m covering The Vampire Diaries, and since it’s a fast-paced soap opera for the hoverboard generation, I had to watch quite a bit of it to feel comfortable offering an opinion on any one episode.

Strengths

  • Rich mythology. Okay, let’s get this out of the way upfront. Diaries was obviously intended as a Twilight cash-in. The first movie in the series had come out the year before and had made billions of dollars, so the dude that brought us Dawson’s Creek dug around in the backlist and found some likely looking YA fiction from the early 1990s. So Diaries takes a minute to find its voice and walk away from its derivative roots. That isn’t helped by the fact that the central romance between Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) and Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley) is as inert as a noble gas, except with a noble gas, there’d be chemistry. Despite the game efforts of Dobrev and Wesley, the writing does not rise to the occasion. Thankfully, you can’t fill seven seasons and three seasons worth of spin-off with “teenagers” making moon eyes at one another, and in the three seasons I sampled the show cultivated a rich and rewarding mythology of vampires, werewolves, witches and even the occasional ghost. There were intricate, internecine conflicts between families and schemes that took centuries to unfold. There were magical artifacts, spells and counterspells. If you’re willing to give this show a chance and overlook its kiddy-bye exterior, you’ll find that it’s really quite immersive.
  • The originals. If you’d obediently clicked the link about the spin-off, you’d have found out that it is in fact called The Originals. I bring this up because the eponymous Originals are the subject of tonight’s episode, which chronicles nothing less momentous than the invention of vampires! They all stem from the Mikaelson Family, and what with vampires being immortal, the Mikaelsons are mostly still alive and have shown up to cause problems for Elena and friends. Think about all the drama that can well up in three generations of any given family. Think of all the grudges, overlooked slights, simmering resentment and unresolved tension, much of which only dissipates upon death or estrangement. Well, now imagine your family never died and have been clashing swords with one another for a goddamned millennium. In this episode, Elena seeks to break the compulsive control that malevolent Original Klaus Mikaelson (Joseph Morgan) has over Stefan. She thinks she can do this by uncovering the history of the Originals, so she seeks out his sister Rebekah (Claire Holt.) What happens next reveals that the family history that Rebekah had believed for centuries was all an ex post facto lie spun by Klaus, and we get all the dirt via flashbacks. All the best family dramas involve murder, magic and revenge.
  • Damon. Many of the characters on this show are two-dimensional, but you can’t say that about Stefan’s brother Damon (Ian Somerhalder.) Initially, Damon is set up as the evil, bloodthirsty alternative to the goody two-shoes, domesticated Stefan, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that despite his violent tendencies and his ever-present irreverent sarcasm, he cares a lot about Stefan and Elena. In fact, he cares too much about Elena, frequently butting heads with Stefan over her affections. The first time we see him in this episode, he’s sneaking up on Elena in a dark cave to scare her just for the sake of being an asshole. Later, he goes drinking and whoring with the help of some vampire compulsion. But at a key moment, he admits to Stefan that he’s trying to save him from Klaus’ control because he owes him for saving his life time and time again. He really does care! But when Stefan mocks him for it, Damon kicks his ass and leaves him lying on the ground. Sure, the bad boy with a heart of gold is a stock archetype, but Somerhalder executes it with real flair and Damon feels much more like a real person than many of the other leads, perhaps with the exception of Caroline (Candice King.)
  • Ripper Stefan. Normally, Stefan Salvatore is as boring as white toast. I had hoped for the sake of the show that they’d find a way to make him interesting and give Wesley a chance to prove himself as an actor. One fun way to do that is to give him a Dark and Mysterious Past. You see, he wasn’t always a brooding pretty boy hoping to meet the love of his life while lurking around a cemetery. No, he used to be what’s called a “Ripper,” a vampire that has renounced his humanity and just loves to tear people apart to feast on their delicious blood. Hooray! He managed to eventually get himself under control, but then Klaus undid all that hard work. So the Stefan on display here is mean and angry and all-around evil, and the show is that much more interesting for it.
  • Well-written closing scene. You could accuse this show of taking itself too seriously. It’s surrounded by a heavy aura of portentousness, perhaps to set itself apart from its wacky cousin, Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But the final scene here is both light-hearted and deft. Elena comes home from a long day of pumping Rebekah for information only to find a fully-clothed Damon sprawled on her bed. He’s there both to harass her and because he expects her to want to yell at him for using typically unorthodox methods to try and get through to Stefan, but she just wants to sleep and crawls into bed (weirdly fully clothed.) As the conversation unfolds, they realize they’ve come out of the day better than expected–Damon was confronted by Klaus’ vengeful father, Mikael (Sebastian Roche, Wer,) who was able to successfully extract information from Stefan by threatening Damon’s life, and Elena turned Rebekah against Klaus by revealing his murderous deceit. Thinking about Rebekah, Elena muses that Rebekah’s just a girl who “lost her mom too young and who loves blindly and recklessly, even if it consumes her.” My respect for the show skyrocketed when neither Elena or Damon pointed out that Rebekah shares these traits with Elena. The scene ends on a high note, too–Elena points out that her experience with Rebekah underscored the importance of familial bonds for vampires, which means that Elena can’t save Stefan from himself. Only Damon can do that. If that’s true, the viewers will reap the dividends—Damon and Stefan are a much better pairing than Stefan and Elena. That fact alone has no doubt brought us pages and pages of turgid, incestous slashfic.

Weaknesses

  • Elena. Diaries isn’t the first show to have a bland, featureless protagonist designed to let the viewer project themselves onto the hero of their favorite soap opera. Consider also Grey’s Anatomy, Lost or even Wayward Pines. Just because it’s a common flaw doesn’t make it an endearing one, though. What exactly are Elena’s characteristics supposed to be, anyway? According to Wikia, she is “popular, sporty, smart, compassionate, empathetic, caring and friendly.” Who wouldn’t want to be those things? Though I will say she’s sporty in the same way Melanie C is sporty, which is to say she has maybe once looked at a soccer ball. Also, compassionate, empathetic and caring all mean the same thing, and Elena is as smart and compassionate as she needs to be to keep the plot moving forward. I’m just glad that Elena’s evil doppelganger Katherine exists to give Dobrev something to do.
  • Witches. Witches on Diaries are primarily represented by members of the Bennett family, and in the present day that means main cast member Bonnie Bennett (Kat Graham.) Bonnie is one of the few people of color on the show, and this means that nearly all the witches we see are black. It also means that we’re frequently seeing black witches who only exist to help out their white vampire friends, including in historical situations that have been whitewashed to remove actually existing racial tension. This is ironic considering how the show frequently uses human-vampire relations as a metaphor for prejudice and fear of difference. Other bloggers have written extensive, on point explorations of race on this show, so I’ll just point out that we’re given another example here of black witches existing only to serve their white buddies and being given absolutely nothing else to do with their kickass magical gifts. You see, Original matriarch Esther Mikaelson (Alice Evans, 102 Dalmations) is a witch herself, but on her expedition to the New World she is accompanied by another witch and healer, Ayana (Maria Howell, Addicted.) Now, Ayana is supposedly Esther’s best friend and mentor and the heir to all-powerful immortality magic. So she presumably taught Esther everything she knows about magic, giving Esther the central role in vampire mythology while Ayana gets shunted to the sidelines. All she gets to do here is to point out to Esther that creating vampires in an anti-werewolf arms race won’t be a net gain for either the Mikaelsons or the world at large, and that’s it. Witches are just as cool as vampires. They can do magic, for fuck’s sake! If you’re going to turn them into magical negroes, at least give them some thoughtful, creative stories of their own.

Motivation: Knowledge. If Elena is going to bring Stefan back to his dopey self, she needs to learn the secrets of the Originals.

Final Judgment: 8/10. This show seems lightweight at first blush, but there’s a lot going on here. Be aware that the quality of this show is wildly inconsistent—some of the episodes I watched were full of cringingly stupid moments and tired cliches, and the more time spent on Elena’s love life, the worse off we all are.

NEXT TIME: I return to the Marvel animated universe by reviewing the original 1960s Spiderman cartoon! I’ll do whatever a blogger can.

Case Study 50: The Vampire Diaries, Episode 52–“Ordinary People”