Maybe it’s just vampire fatigue. Maybe it’s just that tiresome, troublesome Mikaelson family, who can collectively bite me. Or maybe it’s just my continued frustration at the perpetually-pouty Elena’s cavalier treatment of my favorite, though bizarrely-besotted, brother Salvatore. (Yeah, you go, Damon! Hook up with all the hot British vampire chicks you want.) But here we are, halfway through the third season of The Vampire Diaries, and equally halfway into the first season of its lead-in sister show, The Secret Circle, and I have to tell you, nowadays I would far rather spend my time in Chance Harbor than in the formerly-fascinating Mystic Falls.
Yes, it has come as a shock to me, too.
Both based on the overwrought works of L. J. Smith, and both taking more than a few liberties with that source material (which is no bad thing, in this case), these two teen paranormal shows both feature impossibly beautiful supernatural cabals who are the objects of ancient hatred and yet whose assorted romantic dalliances are usually of far greater import than their latest brushes with spectacular death. Both narratives depend heavily on love triangles and secrets; both tend to portray the older generation as feckless and/or downright evil; both manage to get their pretty young things into formal attire more often than one might imagine seemly among groups of small-town teenagers; and both return to our screens on March 15, after a month-long hiatus, with at least mildly intriguing cliffhangers to be resolved.
But where The Vampire Diaries feels, to me, as though it has been merely going through the motions just lately, with Cyborg Stefan (Paul Wesley) probably the most boring attempt at badass ever seen on TV—and I thought he was boring when all he did was stare dolefully at Elena (Nina Dobrev) and whine about his dratted immortality—and the long-promised Elena/Damon (Ian Somerhalder) Dance of Imminent Sexiness feeling a lot more like a Dance of Imminent Pity Sex situation, along with the continued pointlessless of Matt (Zach Roerig) and far too little Tyler (Michael Trevino) for my liking, the new kids of The Secret Circle have brought witchy back onto my radar in a big way—and I thought I had delved into my very last Book of Televised Shadows when the halter-topped heroines from Charmed chanted their last vaguely-rhyming spell back in 2006.
A quick back story: the luminously lovely Cassie Blake (Britt Robertson) is made an orphan when her mother is killed in what seems to be an unfortunate house fire—though we know she was murdered, and by magic!—and so comes to live with her grandmother in the sleepy coastal town of Chance Harbor, Washington. What she doesn’t know is that her mother and unknown, long-dead father were witches, both descended from long lines of witches, and that she is about to be made part of a “circle” (read: coven) of her peers, who have discovered within themselves the potential for great power—though not so great responsibility.
At the nominal head of this circle is the unfathomably gorgeous Diana (Shelley Hennig) and her dreamy boyfriend, Adam (Thomas Dekker), though Adam is—naturally, or this story probably would have lost me before the end of the first half hour—uncontrollably drawn to Cassie’s winsome ways. The other circle standout is seductive bad girl Faye (Phoebe Tonkin), who is badass in an unstudied manner Stefan wishes he might learn to emulate some day; plus we have the delicate Melissa (Jessica Parker Kennedy), who has spent a lot of the season thus far as kind of a nonentity but has come into her own just lately, and a pair of blonde brothers, Nick (Louis Hunter) and Jake (Chris Zylka), who sure are pretty and you can tell are related because they are equally bad actors.
Now, a group of teen witches can hardly be left to their own devices, to practice their dark craft and mess with the natural order at will—hell, even Sabrina had Aunts Hilda and Zelda to hold her somewhat accountable. (And how awesome was Aunt Zelda? By far the best part of that show.) So nursing their timeless grudge are the Witch Hunters, a dour group of thaumicidal lunatics who doubtless caused havoc at Salem back in the day, and are responsible here for the deaths of many of our teens’ parents while the kids were in their infancy, as well as the current persecution of said teens. Bad boy Jake has conflicted allegiances regarding these Hunters—and, of course, Cassie cannot be killed by them and must be captured unharmed, because she is our heroine and therefore her power is Just. Too. Strong.
(One point of note: Witch Hunter Isaac is played by JR Bourne, who also plays Werewolf Hunter Argent—see, because argent is Latin for silver? Clever, huh? —on MTV’s Teen Wolf [although he will always be best known to me as the handsome Tok’ra, Martouf, from Stargate SG-1]. But still, what a weird niche he has managed to carve out for himself! Now all he needs is to guest star on Supernatural as a colleague of the Winchesters’, and he’ll have hit the prime time monster-hunting trifecta.)
Of course, in the written text of this story, the Witch Hunters show up way later than they have here, and indeed L. J. Smith purists—if such exist?—can only be mightily miffed at the myriad changes made from page to screen by series creator Kevin Williamson, of Scream, Dawson’s Creek, and TVD fame. For a start, the TV circle is only six, as opposed to the books’ twelve. (All the better for character development and a CW-level budget, my dear.) Many of the novels’ characters have been amalgamated, Jake is entirely a writers’ room invention—dare I suggest they killed off book-series stalwart Nick because they realized too late just what an awful casting decision they had made? – and in the books, Diana’s father is dead, while in the series, he is not only alive but is a major player in events as they unfold…and is played by Queer as Folk’s phenomenally magnetic Gale Harold.
I remember the exact moment I started feeling advanced age creeping up on me. It was the day I embarked upon the first season of Gossip Girl and felt so very wrong about admiring high schoolers like the beauteous Nate (Chace Crawford) or the sardonic Dan (Penn Badgeley), so instead focused my feminine interest on Rufus (Matthew Settle), Dan’s dad—mostly be default. Here, though… sure, young Thomas Dekker is quietly adorable (as he was four years ago as the also-teenaged John Connor, future savior of humanity, in The Sarah Connor Chronicles – dude’s actually 24), and I suppose the finely-chiseled cheekbones that represent Christopher Zylka’s only discernible talent must have earned him some adherents among the series’ key demographic by now. But when it comes to the absolute hotness to be found in Chance Harbor, no one even remotely holds a candle to Diana’s conflicted, murdering papa, Charles—although Adam’s father Ethan (Adam Hamilton, another Queer as Folk alum) is also worthy of note, and Faye’s diabolical mother Dawn is played by Natasha Henstridge, who continues to be, quite simply, stunning.
In The Vampire Diaries, our older generation (not including the vampires) are rarely, if ever, fully-realized entities in and of themselves. Perhaps it’s because, when compared to supernatural creatures who can number their lives in centuries, it’s hard to look upon, say, Elena’s witless Aunt Jenna (Sara Canning) as anything other than a child playing dress-up—sorry to speak ill of the dead, but you know it’s true. It’s like the human adults in Mystic Falls are a necessary evil, because towns need adults, just as kids need parents, but aside from Tyler’s hot uncle, Mason (Taylor Kinney)—who did not get nearly as much screen time as someone that delectable truly deserved—for the most part, they are just kind of there.
Now, yes, I get it, it’s a teen show based on a series of YA novels, so obviously it is more about the rigors of dating and homework and unspeakable, primeval malevolence than it is about mortgages, yard sales and the swapping of apple pie recipes. But, hey, even Beverly Hills 90210 occasionally featured a storyline exclusively about Mr. and Mrs. Walsh—now that I am no longer a teen myself, I find that The Secret Circle, with its emphasis on witchy council Elders and its clever casting of eminently-watchable leads in the secondary grown-up roles, speaks to me in a way that, for example, the extra-marital peccadilloes of Dawson’s parents never did. And that the so-called adults of The Vampire Diaries probably never will.
But maybe I’m over-thinking all of this. Maybe it is just vampire fatigue, or merely that The Secret Circle is all shiny and new whilst what The Vampire Diaries is giving us lately feels very same ol’, same ol’. To be honest, it’s just as likely to be due to the tedium of Elena as anything else. But the fact remains: if it weren’t for Damon, I would probably give up on Mystic Falls entirely, and would doubtless be all the better for it.
Damn it, Damon. I wish I knew how to quit you.
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.