Friday, January 24, 2014

A peek inside the writers' room of The Vampire Diaries

If you're a fan of The Vampire Diaries or are just interested in TV writing in general, you should check out this fairly comprehensive article from Entertainment Weekly that deals with the seven biggest debates from the show's writers' room and the two smallest.  It's a fascinating peek behind-the-scenes of a show known for its often shocking plot twists.

I think I've brought this up before, but there were a couple seasons there where The Vampire Diaries was one of the best shows on TV.  I had expected little more than a Twilight ripoff when I started watching the show, (And truth be told, I only watched the pilot initially because I knew someone who worked on it) but the writers soon got a handle on the characters and by season two, they were layering twist upon twist in a way that was both exciting and organic.  For a while there, it was a standing rule in our household that neither my wife nor I could watch a new episode if the other one was not there.

But by the end of the third season, I was perceiving a problem with the series.  It was, in a word: Klaus.  As I discussed in a column for KsiteTV:

"Klaus was virtually unkillable and incredibly powerful.  That can make for a great short-term villain, but when you've got a bad guy who needs to sustain an entire season, it can be problematic.  It can make for great drama to see the good guys try to kill the bad guy and fail once or twice, but after that tedium sets in.  

"Plus, if your bad guy is seriously unstoppable and ruthless, not only should he win every encounter but in order to keep his cred alive, he shouldn't allow the good guys to walk away unscathed.  If our heroes survive too many encounters with this invulnerable force of evil, it doesn't make Klaus very effective either, does it?

"And as if making him immortal, strong and invulnerable wasn't enough, Klaus also had very powerful mind control powers.  If he can make any of the characters do anything he says, it again tips the scales so far in his favor that it's hard to buy our characters lasting too long against him.  The show did its best to find compelling reasons why Klaus couldn't just tear through these guys, but by the last stretch of the season" it felt like every episode contained a scene of Klaus threatening our heroes to do as he commanded, or flat-out using his mind control powers to make that happen.

At the time I felt like the story demanded that Klaus die at the climax of season three.  Everything seemed to be building to that outcome and I recall feeling like the show massively copped out when it dangled that possibility, only to have Klaus survive. Dramatically, he NEEDED to die for the show to maintain its credibility.

Well guess what?  According to co-creator and showrunner Julie Plec, that was the original plan:

“And Klaus, we were going to kill at the end of season 3 because he was the villain, and if your heroes can’t vanquish your villain then what the hell good are your heroes for? When we started pitching that, the studio and the network had a heart attack. They looked at us and they said look guys, from a strictly studio network point of view, it is so rare that you get a character and an actor like this that connects with the audience, that breaks out, that the actor is so talented and works so well on this show. If you kill him, you are making a major mistake. And we said, ‘But he’s our villain. Our entire season will have been for naught because our heroes will have just blown it.’ But we managed to make it work."

I think the network was wrong.  That's probably a bold statement to make in light of the fact that Klaus now anchors his own successful spinoff, The Originals.  (Which I admit, I didn't expect to like and have been very pleasantly surprised by.)  I think dragging out a character like Klaus ends up diminishing the impact they have.  The textbook example of this is probably Sylar on Heroes, who was a really compelling threat for the first season, but then became less interesting the longer the show had to contrive reasons to keep him around.

Powerful threats can be interesting when they challenge our heroes, but prolonged usage tends to undercut the threat they represent.  If a villain sticks around for too long, the stalemate not only makes their power less awe-inspiring (as it means the heroes CAN keep him at bay), but it runs the risk of making the heroes appear too ineffective to stop this continuing threat, often making their continued survival seem like the result of lucky breaks or outside interventions.

One reason I think Buffy's villains worked more often than not is that they typically only stuck around for a season and then were pretty definitively dealt with.  Sure, some might pop up in cameos or as apparitions, but by and large once the bad guys had served their purpose, their stories were brought to a definitive end.

I get where the CW was coming from in wanting to prolong Klaus, but most of the time I'd rather trust the creators to know when something had run its course.  I don't think anything done with Klaus the following year was powerful enough that it merited compromising the earlier story.  The Originals has shown that there's merit to the character when used in a new context.  In terms of The Vampire Diaries, I feel like the character's a bit of an albatross.  Better for both that they move in different directions.

The other interesting point in this article also deals with the need to follow through on consequences.

"Should we bring Jeremy back? After losing her brother in season 4, Elena went downhill fast. She turned off her humanity and nearly killed both of her best friends before turning all of her hate on Katherine. So why did the writers decide that bringing Jeremy back would be the right decision, even after Elena had grieved her loss? 

“Bringing Jeremy back was a massive debate. Massive,” Plec said. “We knew that his death needed to happen in order to make Elena turn to the dark side and to get us that story. When all is said and done, I can defend it with all honestly. Sometimes when you don’t look at your show critically but you look at your audience, and I as a fan have watched shows like Alias and like Buffy where really really terrible things keep happening to the heroes and it gets to the point where they get so depressed and everything’s so sad that it actually becomes kind of depressing to watch. So I thought about it from the point of view of an audience member saying you know what yes, to be a good writer, your deaths should feel permanent, but our audience that has been watching our show faithfully and sobbing along with us every time somebody dies, there is something beautiful about getting to revisit them every now and then and in Jeremy’s case, it was actually about bringing him back into Elena’s world so that she could find herself again.”

I have to admit, I felt Jeremy's "death" lacked some punch because there wasn't a single person I knew who thought it would be permanent.  His resurrection was expected, but stopped short of being a total cop-out.  I hadn't thought about it the way Plec articulates it here, and I guess she is onto something there.  There is something to be said for letting your heroes win now and then.  It helps that TVD had stuck to its guns on a number of character deaths prior to this, so one resurrection under extraordinary circumstances isn't too damaging.

That said, I think that if character deaths are undone too often, it compromises emotional investment in the work.  It's a real problem in comics, where it's rare that a death leaves any impact because there's little chance a major death WON'T be undone.  Drama thrives on consequences.  Puncture that too often and your story pays the price.

This is why while I might see Plec's side of the Jeremy resurrection, I think it was important that the show let its next major deaths stick, just to reestablish that sense of permanence.  Alas, TVD killed off Bonnie as Jeremy was resurrected, then brought Bonnie back to life fewer than a dozen episodes later.  That's a possible jump-the-shark moment, depending on how the rest of the season deals with the fallout.  What is clear to me is that the next several deaths HAVE to stick in order for the show to reestablish the threats to its characters.

But it is interesting to know that none of these decisions were made lightly in the writers' room.  They clearly debated each one at least as much as the fans eventually did.

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