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‘The Vampire Diaries’ review: The biggest hit you never watched

Kat Graham is hot stuff on "The Vampire

Kat Graham is hot stuff on "The Vampire Diaries." Credit: The CW / Bob Mahoney


Series finale

WHEN | WHERE Friday at 8:59 p.m. on CW/11


WHAT IT’S ABOUT Good night, Mystic Falls. Good night, vampires. Good night, vampire killers. Good night, Damon Salvatore (Ian Somerhalder), and Stefan (Paul Wesley), and Bonnie (Kat Graham), and Caroline (Candice King). Good night, “The Vampire Diaries” lovers everywhere. The eighth and final season wraps Friday night on CW, preceded by a celebratory edition, “TVD: Forever Yours” at 8). Elena (Nina Dobrev) — who left two seasons ago — is expected to return for the finale, per reports, when she awakens from the long slumber she voluntarily underwent to save Bonnie.

For the uninitiated, “Diaries” was about Mystic Falls teen Elena Gilbert, who had lost her parents in a car accident, and who fell in love with a pair of vampire brothers, one naughty, the other nice. They, too, were smitten because she looked exactly like their old amour, one Katherine Pierce — who was decidedly not nice.

MY SAY Unless you’re a devoted fan, “The Vampire Diaries” may well be the biggest hit you’ve never watched. Somerhalder, Wesley and Dobrev may be the hottest TV stars you’ve never seen. Julie Plec may be the best showrunner you’ve never heard of.

In a not too distant past — mostly the second and third seasons — “TVD” wasn’t merely hot but smoking. A driver of social media, of viewers, of profits, of buzz, “Diaries” in the early years was “Game of Thrones” in its current years, on steroids. Hyperbole was its natural wingman, or wing-vampire, if you prefer. Every plot twist, every kiss, every death, every un-death occasioned passionate fan debate.

Struggling desperately at the time, The CW Network lived to see another day, or at least launch the spinoff (“The Originals”) and a slate of superhero series that owe their existence to “The Vampire Diaries” and the slightly cooler-to-the-touch “Supernatural.”

Much of this unbearable “Vampire Diaries” hotness took place just below the surface, in places like Facebook, where flaming wars were waged over the simplest of questions, like “Damon or Stefan? Debate!”

Showrunner Plec — who with Kevin Williamson developed this monster — had worked on Williamson’s “Dawson Creek,” so she understood instantly what needed to be thrown into the pot. The obvious YA fiction themes included coming of age, dealing with loss, dealing with love, self-discovery, self-identity and so on. Soap tropes were the next ingredient: The villain turns into a hero! She’s not your sister, she’s your mother! You think he/she’s dead? Well, he/she’s not!

The third ingredient was the magic, or maybe even the genius of “Diaries”: The love triangle that leads to death when broken.

“TVD” was, figuratively speaking, about sex and death, or eros and thanatos (Freud), or “two things that come once in a lifetime” (Woody Allen).

A few years ago, in a newspaper column that sought to explain the great vampire craze in pop culture, Harvard historian Jill Lepore traced it to 1897, when Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” was first published, and when “reading about vampires was a way to read about sex.”

But, she added, “dread of death, not love of sex, is why the dead keep rising.”

“The Vampire Diaries” was mostly about dread of death. It began with death, of Elena’s parents. It wondered whether death was the end, or the beginning. It wanted to know if pain too deep for words would end at death. Or as Damon once said, “Vampires don’t have to feel pain. They turn it off.”

Also this: Is love eternal, or does love die like all living things?

At its best, “The Vampire Diaries” explored questions and feelings that sensitive teens have struggled with since teenagers were invented.

In the third-season finale, which by consensus was probably the best episode or close to the best, Elena put the struggle this way: “After [her parents’] accident, I kind of felt I didn’t want to live anymore, but being with Stefan, I kind of figured it out. That’s what love should be — when you’re with the person who makes you feel you’re glad you’re alive. The problem is Damon. He consumes me and I know I can’t love them both. I know it’s wrong when I choose one because I still love the other.”

The flip side to eternal love — or rather the irony — was that both Stefan and Damon were also in love with Elena’s evil twin, another 160-something vampire.

In fact, Elena did die in that particular episode, and (of course) returned the following season, like Jon Snow, gasping for air.

In soaps, in vampire fiction and in “TVD,” death is never forever, but just for a few episodes or a season or two. What matters are the eternal questions. Sex or death? The possibility of love, or the impossibility of love?

Umm, Damon or Stefan?

“The Vampire Diaries” asked it all, had it all. And when Elena awakens from her “Sleeping Beauty” spell, it will finally have closure.

BOTTOM LINE Through ups and downs, deaths and undeaths, “The Vampire Diaries” kept it wild, interesting and mostly fun.

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