I'm totally serious about this. No, The Vampire Diaries isn't innovative or groundbreaking or anything new really, but in terms of entertainment value, characters you actually like and care about, storylines that actually progress and pay off, twists that make sense but that you don't see coming? The Vampire Diaries has totally been knocking it out of the park.
I admit that I dismissed the show at first. I know that the recent resurgent popularity of vampires with Twilight and all that probably led to this show being made in the first place (it's based on a series of books first published almost 20 years ago) but I was wary of another vampire romance, especially another triangle, this time with the girl, Elena, caught between two vampire brothers, Stefan and Damon. And the first couple of episodes really weren't that great. I felt like it was trying a little too hard to be "shocking" and a lot of the supporting characters felt useless. But things started to improve, and actually the show turned out to not even really be what I assumed -- yes, there is the romance, but the triangle hasn't quite manifested yet (though it'll probably go there eventually), and there's just a lot more going on with the town's history. It's doing what I think vampire stories should always do: take advantage of the vampire characters' long pasts. Plus, the show totally has guts: it's not afraid to kill off people, even main characters.
By the midseason break I was definitely enjoying the show but it wasn't yet on my weekly viewing list. For awhile there was this situation with Damon "compelling" Caroline, one of Elena's friends, that I thought was just kind of unpleasant, and also it felt like every week Damon doing something bad and Stefan wanted to kill him but then didn't. There's also this "Founders' Council" of various town officials and descendants of the original founders of the town that knows about the vampires that I thought was generally kind of lame, and a lot of the more "regular" high school type stories were just falling flat.
But then the second half of the season really amped things up. This tomb was opened up, releasing a group of vampires trapped there in the 1860s (when Damon and Stefan became vampires), and all the history stuff became completely relevant. I don't want to spoil too much for those of you who haven't watched at all, but I really can't believe how much has actually happened. While a lot of shows would drag out questions like who Elena's real parents are or will Jeremy, Elena's brother, actually become a vampire or where's Katherine (Elena's vampire doppelganger)...we've already got answers! Yesterday's season finale upped the body count yet again and ended on multiple cliffhangers but it was still really satisfying. I can't WAIT until next season!
Of course, besides story, the other thing that really makes a show is the characters and the acting, and the three leads are doing a pretty fantastic job. The biggest revelation in the cast for me has been Nina Dobrev as Elena. I kind of hated her on Degrassi but was pleasantly surprised that I actually really like her here. Elena is definitely more Buffy than Bella in terms of being in love with a vampire. She doesn't have any special powers of her own, but she's not helpless, she's not obsessing over the future, and even as she gets more and more embroiled in vampire drama, she still cares about being a good sister and friend.
Stefan and Damon are kind of like what Angel and Spike from the Buffyverse would be like as brothers. Stefan is the "good" brother, brooding and tortured, and Damon is the snarky "evil" one who starts coming over to the good side because of Elena. Paul Wesley as Stefan doesn't get to have as much fun as Ian Somerhalder does as Damon, but I do really like their dynamic. There was this one plotline where Stefan temporarily loses control and their roles are kind of reversed that was really good. Oh, and I definitely don't mind that the show seems to relish opportunities to get these guys shirtless...
So yes, the Vampire Diaries is still basically a teen soap, but what it does, it does really well. Hopefully the show can keep up the momentum next season!