PURE GOLDER What’s Wrong With The Monster Of The Week?

The SFX editorial column: Dave Golder gets his teeth into the problem with The Vampire Diaries

For a while it’s been bugging me why I have problems totally embracing The Vampire Diaries. Well, apart from the fact I’m an decrepit old hack and the show is clearly aimed at teen girls, so, yeah, I’m not exactly the target demographic.

On the other hand, I like to think I’m a professional. There are loads of things I have to review which aren’t aimed at me but I can put personal afflictions (like age and gender) aside and consider them in context (though I’ve never quite worked out in what context you’re supposed to watch No Ordinary Family – a vegetative state, perhaps?). And on lots of levels, The Vampires Diaries succeeds admirably in not being just a TV Twilight. The dialogue is snappy, the acting’s great, Damon is a wonderfully watchable character, Elena has more character in her left earlobe than Bella has at all, the action’s good, the scares are decent enough for mainstream TV.

But something just didn’t ever quite gel for me. At first I thought it was the dull secondary characters like Caroline and Tyler. But then the show did a Jessica on Caroline and made Tyler a werewolf, and they’re infinitely more interesting. It could have been the constant emo music wailing away in the background, but to be honest, that’s just a minor irritation (and at least they haven’t had Hallelujah yet – great song, but god, I’m heartily sick of hearing it trying to beef up insipid emotional scenes in US dramas).

Then it suddenly struck me.

There’s no monster of the week.

Which is odd, because these days the phrase, “monster of the week” is used in a derogatory sense. “Monster of the week” shows are old-fashioned, episodic dinosaurs, made obsolete by the evolution of the arc-plot, right?

Well, no. That’s a vast oversimplification. There’s still a lot of value to “the monster of the week”, though maybe we shouldn’t get hung up on the word monsters. Let’s include “mission of the week” and “freak of the week” in this argument as well. Hell, just anything “of week”.

The Vampire Diaries desperately needs “something of the week” and this became painfully obvious recently when (spoiler alert for people not up to date with the ITV2 airing) the Katherine plot came to a mid-season head. A fine episode it was too. But in the same episode, mere minutes after Katherine has been plonked in the tomb, Elena is kidnapped and next episode we’re onto the whole next level of vampire evilness.

I’m like… woah! Hang on! Give me a chance to catch breath!

The show is in serious danger of giving you revelation fatigue. It’s just revelation after revelation as one more powerful evil succeeds another.

And the reason the show has to do this is because there’s no “…of the week”. If there had been, the entire Katherine plot could have been spread out over a season. That’s why Buffy worked so well. Whedon and co could pace the major, gamechanging plotbombs throughout a season. Episodes didn’t have to be about those revelations; the revelations were almost part of an ongoing counterpoint to the A-plot “monster of the week” shenanigans.

If Buffy had been all about the vampire soap – like The Vampire Diaries – with no “monster of the week” The Master would have been dead by episode four, Angel would have become Angelus by the end of season one, Mayor Wilkins would have been dead by early season two, etc, etc. We’d be at the Army of Potentials versus the First Evil and Reverend Tightpants by the start of season four.

And that’s a worry for The Vampire Diaries. If it keeps going at the rate it’s going, with no “…of the week” episode to pace things out, it could face burn out. How long can things keep escalating? Even if they’d had a couple of episodes concentrating on Bonnie’s developing witchiness or exploring Tyler’s newfound lycanthropy between Katherine being entombed and Elena getting kidnapped, that may have helped the pacing. But the show seems in an indecent haste to get to the next level all the time. It doesn’t have to be that way.

I’d also argue that the lack of an “…of the week” has been the downfall of FlashForward and will have a similar effect on The Event (which is losing viewers fast). Although it’s easy to call them Lost wannabes, the reason why Lost had more legs was that it did have an “…of the week” format – “flashback of the week” (or “flashforward of the week” or “flashsideways of the week” or whatever). Interestingly, the less episodic and the more serialised Lost became, the less interested the general audience became.

For some reason it seems that while soaps thrive on the serialised format, sci-fi and fantasy struggles. Maybe it’s because soap deals almost exclusively with relationships, while genre TV deals with relationships and high concepts. And high concepts are more difficult to serialise as they’re just so damned abstract.

Telefantasy and serialisation shouldn’t be an impossible combination, but it is a definitely a difficult feat to pull off. Maybe The Vampire Diaries will prove me wrong and last for another six seasons. But for the moment, I’m seriously wishing I didn’t have to review it so I could have a revelation holiday…