Unwilling to wait until “Twilight” turns ashen before tapping into the teen vampire bank, CW pops out this slick but slight variation on bloodsucker lore with its own (hopefully) swoon-inducing leads. Producer Kevin Williamson doesn’t stray far from his roots in concocting what amounts to “Dawson’s Teeth,” but the show hits all the requisite notes — and gets a major infusion of adrenaline when “Lost” alum Ian Somerhalder finally arrives as the “bad” vampire. Of course, this small-town drama could easily run dry (heh heh) pretty quickly, but the premiere sinks its fangs in deep enough to warrant a second look.
Mining the seemingly endless pool of chick-lit exploiting women’s strange obsession with undead romance, “The Vampire Diaries” is told largely from the perspective of Elena (Nina Dobrev), another brunette beauty with issues who catches the eye of a brooding type who’s older (by more than a century) than he looks.
Harking back to “Dracula,” Elena instantly reminds good vamp Stefan (Paul Wesley) of a woman he knew ages ago, making his dormant heart go all atwitter. Thus far, though, she’s blissfully ignorant about what sets Stefan apart, though we’re supposed to have our suspicions when somebody turns up dead. (As in “Twilight,” Stefan survives by draining four-footed prey — can a “PETA vs. the Vampires” sequel be far behind?)
It’s quite a ways into the pilot before Stefan’s brother Damon (Somerhalder) turns up, creating instant tension — and the threat of a lot more missing teenagers. If girls love vamps and bad boys, Somerhalder’s glowering presence should carbonate plenty of youthful hormones.
The real trick, of course, will be sustaining a teen soap with a supernatural twist without becoming just a pallid latter-day version of the oft-copied “Dark Shadows.” The Elena-Stefan relationship does progress in the second hour, but beyond the occasional flash of fangs, it moves slowly enough so as not to suggest this series will tickle the palates of action aficionados.
Still, Williamson and Julie Plec — working from L.J. Smith’s books, which actually preceded “Twilight” — mix these familiar elements into a crimson cocktail that even gets reasonable mileage out of its cliches, which ought to give this early riser a chance to establish some fan loyalty before the other networks launch their Thursday lineups. Besides, unless you’re a teenage girl, “Twilight” is vastly overrated, and based on that comparison, this series could honestly run on the slogan, “We suck less.”
Bottom line: “Vampire Diaries” is a highly calculated construct — all the way down to its pairing with CW’s otherworldly running mate “Supernatural” — but with that disclaimer, hey, at least it doesn’t bite.