The Vampire Diaries and Billions

No spoilers.

The Vampire Diaries

The Vampire Diaries concluded on Friday with its 171st episode.   After bingeing the first season on Netflix I started watching the show regularly in 2010, and have kept up with it ever since.   I found it far, far, far superior to its sleazy HBO cousin, True Blood, which I also watched.   I don’t think there’s a single show out there that I’ve spent more time watching than The Vampire Diaries (I’d have to do some math on The Simpsons, but I doubt it).   With its 22 episode seasons, the show was on about half the year, and it’s been tremendously comforting to so often have a new VD episode waiting.

The Vampire Diaries has a large roster of endearing characters that anyone who makes it through all 8 seasons will surely think of as old friends.  That’s not what makes the show so special, though.  The Young Adult Serial Melodrama (YASM) is an afflicted genre.  YASMs frequently start out intriguing, with a mysterious new guy or girl moving to town to escape a dark past and two or more love triangles rapidly ensuing.  The problem, though, is that these shows almost invariably run into a brick wall once they’ve exhausted the available love triangle permutations.  First she’s with Dawson, then she’s with Pacey, and then what?  The initially wonderful Gossip Girl fell into repetition and became hard for me to take less than halfway through its run.  The O.C. may be the only pure instance of the genre that didn’t ever really suck.

The key, I think, is to combine the YASM with some other genre.  Veronica Mars knocked YASM/mystery fusion out of the park.  I don’t think there’s any question that the first two seasons of VM are the best young adult TV of all time.  The Vampire Diaries fused the YASM with supernatural fantasy and, while it didn’t burn as brightly as Veronica Mars, it was consistently great for 8 seasons.  I can’t recall as single bad episode.  There were certainly lulls, and it did get a tiny bit repetitive to be facing so many different versions of The Most Powerful Being in the Universe, but it always maintained its core appeal.  It benefited above all else from extremely clever writing by Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec.  Rather than repeat love triangle permutations to move the story forward, they dug ever deeper into the past for material.  It’s quite a resource for a writer to have 150 years of backstory available for the main characters along with thousands of years of background, and Williamson and Plec made effective use of it.  The distinctive merit of The Vampire Diaries is how expansively creative their writing has been.

Certainly, it gets ridiculous.  For one thing, death means nothing in The Vampire Diaries.  Characters die or are entrapped in prison dimensions only to be brought back a couple seasons later as a matter of routine.  There’s always an emotional goodbye featuring an indie-rock montage and a lot of hand-holding, and then an emotional welcome back featuring an indie-rock montage and a lot of hand-holding.   But the show knows how to be just cheeky enough about its own ridiculousness to make it fun rather than grating.  Enzo’s dead.  Don’t worry, he’ll be back, as soon as Bonnie can track down an ancient dagger made from the bones of one of his ancestors and then perform a summoning ritual during a lunar eclipse while a descendant of the city’s founder strikes a magical bell with a hammer enchanted by an ancient sorceress to open a portal to another dimension where Damon must free Enzo and then stab an evil warlock with the dagger and escape back through the portal before it closes.   Yes, another primary pleasure of the VD is its hilariously byzantine mythology.  There are a lot of rules, and a lot of deus ex machina solutions that bypass these rules.  It’s all great fun.  I’ll miss it.  Usually I would watch new episodes first thing in the morning, by myself, with a cup of coffee.  I frequently cackled with delight.  I even went along as best as I could with the prescribed emotional responses to the many, many, many indie rock montages.  I doubt I’ll ever find another show quite so comforting.

Billions

Naomi Klein hates Billions.  She tweeted (I paraphrase), “Is there a shittier show than Billions?  I mean besides the RNC in Cleveland.”

There’s no question that if you think steadfast adherence to “correct” progressive attitudes is a precondition for aesthetic value, then you will hate Billions.  Billions revels in brash immoralism.  It introduces you to some of the worst people in the world, and then coaxes you to root for them by pitting them against even worse people.  In season 2, we finally meet a likable character.  Taylor, a non-binary, super-genius intern who announces upon initial greeting that their pronouns are “they, them, and their,” is subjected to a non-stop gauntlet of macho office harassment while showing superlative talent.  Taylor is motivated by sincere, academic interest in market analysis as opposed to greed and narcissism, and one of the primary arcs of season 2 features Axe (the show’s billionaire hedge fund manager protagonist, played by Brody from Homeland) feeding Taylor’s most competitive urges and seeking to undermine their integrity.  The pleasure of Billions depends in large part on the ability to bracket one’s moral sensibility and relish the sinister dastardliness of it all.

So how does the show manage to generate sympathy for its supervillain protagonist?  By pitting him against the one thing more repulsive than a corrupt hedge fund manager: a corrupt federal prosecutor, played by the brilliant Paul Giamatti.  I used to be a Giamatti detractor (Sideways-era), but he’s really grown on me, and his work in Billions as U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhodes makes the show.  Rhodes is hell bent on bringing down Axe, not out of any concern for the greater good, but as part of a multi-generational vendetta spiced up by deep insecurity over his dominatrix wife’s personal connection with Axe, who employs her (!) as a workplace psychologist/performance coach.  Without giving anything away, I’ll say that Giamatti’s chess soliloquy late in season 1 is a high point of the show.

Billions approaches the world of the elite scumbag without irony or satire.  It certainly doesn’t attempt to valorize or defend its characters, but it also doesn’t judge them.  It doesn’t go in for the manic hysteria of The Wolf of Wall Street, but like Scorsese’s film, it wants to be caught up in the exhilaration of greed rather than to stand above it.  It has no interest in offering a trite critique of something we all already know is destroying human civilization.  Taken together these two works signal a reorientation of the gangster genre.  We’ve always enjoyed rooting for the bad guy in the right context.  Who didn’t root for Michael Corleone to get away clean after assassinating a crooked cop in an Italian restaurant?  The new gangsters are on Wall Street, and Billions gives us a chance to root for them against uncharismatic rivals and crooked prosecutors alike.  There’s backstabbing and out-maneuvering aplenty, and even a guest appearance by Metallica.  I can definitely understand where Naomi Klein is coming from, but I personally don’t plan on missing any episodes of Billions. 

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