The Originals: Totally not what I was expecting

What, more vampires? Well, drat.

Out of all the new shows I’ve tried this last fall, I’m planning to continue with almost none of them. I’ll watch Agents of SHIELD only because of the creators, and my own insistent belief that it will somehow end up being worth it. The only show I feel compelled to keep watching on its own merits came as a total surprise to me: The Originals.

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I watched the first episode on a whim, and wasn’t really expecting much out of it. I’ve never watched its predecessor, but I’d been under the impression that it was mostly a guilty pleasure. That’s pretty much what I was expecting from this spin-off, too. And also, vampires, which never fail to creep me out. Plus, it’s on the CW (of course, so is Supernatural). Imagine my surprise when the show actually worked.

The central theme is family, which features as a motivator for some, and an inescapable fact for others. There’s some action, but stuff mostly gets resolved through manipulation and subterfuge–which is nice. And the characters. I don’t know that I would classify any of them as particularly good people, but they’re interesting. Even better, I honestly cannot tell who the protagonists and who the antagonists are anymore. And I get the feeling this is deliberate.

The story follows a family of immortal vampires who return to New Orleans hundreds of years after they’d left, just as a conflict between the local vampires and witches is coming to a head. The stories of the characters and their motivations unfold slowly, with each character having personal reasons for why they’re doing what they do.

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He’s only this happy when he’s making someone miserable.

Klaus is an absolute train wreck. He’s manipulative, he’s petty, and unfortunately for everyone who’s ever met him, he’s immortal. The actor who plays him is fantastic, and it’s artfully grotesque to watch Klaus inadvertently destroy anything and everything he cares about. He is an immensely dislikable character. The more I know about him, the less I can stand him. But it’s fascinating to watch his characterization–he’s devious and clever, but childish and selfish. And he’s intelligent enough (and possibly old enough) that I get the impression he’s at least a little self-aware.

The question of whether he can ever change is played with. Certainly, his brother hopes he can. On some level, I think that Klaus also hopes he can. But on the other hand, he doesn’t really want to admit that he’s a despicable person. Who does? And he has to, if he really wants to change. Klaus’ characterization is a little refreshing in the midst of all the redeemable bad boys out there in our media. Dealing with him sucks. Really sucks. And nobody pretends it’s worth it, because it’s not.

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Rebekah is Klaus’ sister, which is awful for her. She’s been pretty messed up by it, and it shows. On the surface, she’s mostly concerned with her own interests–I hesitate to call it selfishness, because that implies that it’s unreasonable. And after what she’s been through, wanting something for herself that isn’t ruined by her family shouldn’t be unreasonable.

Still, even with this focus on herself, it becomes apparent how much she’s trying to look like she doesn’t care. Maybe how much she doesn’t want to care. But she can’t really bring herself to be all the way indifferent, and it’s always concern for someone else that keeps driving her back when she tries to leave. This doesn’t mean she’s a good person, or even trying to be a good person. It just makes her more understandable, even sympathetic.

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Marcel is the leader of the vampire faction in New Orleans, who’d been made into a vampire by Klaus hundreds of years ago. The actor playing this guy is really charismatic, by the way. Marcel may have learned a lot of lessons from Klaus–it shows–but he’s got plenty that Klaus lacks. (Like the ability to care about something besides himself, maybe?) He doesn’t rule through fear, and people genuinely like him–maybe because he isn’t looking for excuses to punish them.

As Klaus’ protege, Marcel is easy to compare to Klaus. And he comes out favorably, because who wouldn’t? But this isn’t exactly fair. Marcel might be better stock material than Klaus, but whether on his own or through Klaus’ influence, he ended up with plenty of less savory traits too–his aggression, his manipulation, his ambition. But, much like with Rebekah, I can’t help but like him.

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Elijah is Klaus’ older brother, who has relentlessly tried to push Klaus towards some degree of decency and contentment. Elijah isn’t exactly a saint himself, but he tends to look like one compared to everyone else around him. Oh, and being Klaus’ brother sucks for him, too, though he deals with it differently than Rebekah does.

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Sophie is the head of the witch faction, in opposition to Marcel. I can’t explain her backstory, because it doesn’t unfold right away, but it really fits into the show. As soon as her story was told, the themes of the show started becoming evident. And it really highlighted that every character had their own deeply personal motivations. Also, everyone has a backstory. Everyone. (On Marcel’s side, there’s also Davina, another witch I can’t talk about much, because her backstory is also not divulged right away.)

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Camille is the human woman dragged into the vampire world, and I thought I knew how this subplot was going to go as soon as it was introduced. Cue internal groan. But, no, it turns out that Camille isn’t a naive girl–she’s experienced enough to know which guys she should stay away from. Unfortunately, political machinations contrive to make her too useful to let her walk away.

I found her oddly compelling, though she’s completely out of her depth. Her story is about what happens to a person when her mind is influenced by forces outside of her control–and what happens when she’s smart and resourceful enough to realize something is horribly, horribly wrong. I find myself wanting to see her  evolve into a kind of crusader against the person who did this to her. It’s hard to imagine her out for revenge, but she could probably work up some righteous indignation. Certainly, what was done to her warrants a response.

All in all, this series is actually a lot of fun to watch. It’s character-driven, and the characters are psychologically interesting. And it’s good to see some decent genre show from the fall TV season.

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