It's gotta be hard to start a spinoff to a heavily serialized TV show.
That's the best explanation I have for why the premiere of The Originals stinks so much through the first two-thirds of its running time. Maybe it was the writers thinking they needed to do more introduction to the world of The Vampire Diaries, or maybe the network ordered them to do so, but regardless, there's no way around the fact that the bulk of this episode is a clusterfuck of forced exposition. I can't decide which is more embarrassing, Sophie Devereaux saying she knows Elijah with “Original vampire who always wears a suit? You and your family are famous amongst the witches,” or Elijah deciding to explain Klaus to Hailey and the theoretical non-TVD audience trying this one out with “Perhaps if you knew my brother's story…” and a magic trick to do so via already-shot TVD scenes.
Carrie Raisler, our regular Vampire Diaries reviewer, has already done a fine job of explaining how the bizarre structure of this pilot-from-a-different perspective attempts to serve everyone while satisfying none, so I'm not going to spend too long on how painful most of this episode was (although I am interested in what people who don't watch TVD but are trying this out might think, so let me know in the comments). I will say this: The exposition about who the Original vampires are seems to miss the forest for the trees; miss wild plotting and intense characterization for mythology and boredom.
But the TV Club Reviews are intended to be spoiler-free, and almost everything that interests me about this episode took place toward the end, and involves “spoilers.” The crucial question that this first episode of The Originals brings up, in my mind, is this: Who is the protagonist of this series going to be? Will it be Elijah, the narration-friendly, family first-style friendly vampire?. Or will it be Klaus, the ridiculously charismatic, mythologically problematic villain.
Thanks to the fact that we have two different pilots, the backdoor pilot that The Vampire Diaries aired toward the end of its fourth season and this one airing now, that question becomes even more interesting. The former was Klaus' story, and as such, had a compelling level of action and was consistent with what had happened on The Vampire Diaries, where Klaus has been a major character there since his arrival at the end of the second season. On the other hand, this premiere focuses on Elijah, and much like Daniel Gillies' character, it's restrained, calm, verbose, and perhaps trying too hard to make certain it's seen as those things.
Who Elijah is is, to me, the most compelling part of this episode. Yes, Elijah is a fan favorite and has an ethical code that makes him reasonable to cheer for as a hero, but he's never been the subject of a show before. He's always been an external object, who comes in, acts, and departs. On the other hand, Klaus has been, if anything, too subjectified by The Vampire Diaries, where this one-time pure villain has had his evil diluted just enough to have him stick around as a character. He's often entertaining, yes, but can he be the protagonist of a show given how brutally evil he's been? In this, Elijah's variation of the episode, Klaus doesn't even show up for 40 minutes, building up a proper level of danger (which had been lacking for Klaus on TVD) when he finally appears.
This allows the episode to serve, even at its exposition-filled worst, as Elijah's audition for the role of protagonist of The Originals. To be honest, I wasn't expecting this to be a viable possibility—I thought this was always Klaus' show. But Elijah was presented as a fascinating Michael Bluth-esque character, a man overtly committed to “family” in a way that allowed him to present himself as ethically good, even as he supports evil. The very first scene of the episode portrays Elijah as less Klaus' better half than his apologist: “I do recommend that you find yourself further assistance for luggage. My sincere apologies.”
Indeed, despite this episode's relative weakness as a standalone hour of television, it actually served to get me more excited about The Originals, because I feel like I have less of an idea what this show is going to be about now. Will it be about Klaus or Elijah? Or will Phoebe Tonkin's Hayley, serving as the audience surrogate in this variation of the pilot, manage to take over? Rebekah's awkward inclusion via phone call doesn't serve her character well, but she's still going to show up, and her sudden and surprising improvement later in TVD's fourth season makes it plausible that she could serve as a lead. I'm not sure that these are better than The Klaus Show, Starring Klaus, but they all seemed entirely viable, which excites me at least in terms of writing about the show.
And then, to my delight, The Originals takes a card from The Vampire Diaries's best playbook and arranges for a surprise stabbing. Klaus takes Elijah out with a dagger. Do I expect this to last longer than an episode or two? Not at all. But does it prove that this is a show that may be willing to embrace a kind of chaos that could make it instantly appealing? Oh my yes. It just takes one dagger to end an excess of painful exposition and turn The Originals into a show worth watching.
- The term “the Originals” was parceled out fairly slowly in TVD, but it's all over the place here. I suppose it's good branding.
- Hayley cuts through Elijah's bullshit: “Your dad was kind of a dick.” I also enjoyed seeing Mikael again; TVD burned through him a little too quickly given his relative importance to the show.
- “He could almost… taste… happiness.” Elijah, describing Klaus, in perhaps the most idiotic way possible. I really, really like the idea of Elijah as a sentimental fool instead of the near-hero he's portrays himself as/the show is willing to portray him as.
- I wonder if we'll see more about Klaus' biological father. On The Vampire Diaries, this was treated as mildly relevant background info, but The Originals moved it slightly forward in importance.
- Flashback hair grade: B+. Gotta love the wigs from the cold open (“we ate all our crew, but saved our conditioner!”), but Klaus' stringy hair in the flashback to his werewolf transformation was pretty weak.