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'The Vampire Diaries' Adjusts to Life after Nina Dobrev, on a Wing and a Prayer
October 6, 2015  | By Alex Strachan

The die was cast on The Vampire Diaries two seasons ago, when Nina Dobrev, then 23 (above, with Ian Somerhalder), told an interviewer on the red carpet at the People’s Choice Awards that she was gratified for the series’ success and eternally grateful to her legion of fans — but that she harbored ambitions of doing more.

Dobrev — who emigrated to Canada from her native Bulgaria at the age of two, the daughter of an electrical engineer father and an artist mother who left Eastern Europe for a better life for their children — earned her early acting chops in the teen-ensemble drama Degrassi: The Next Generation. The shy girl with the un-Hollywood name — her birth name is Nikolina Konstaninova Dobreva — always took acting seriously. It was both a vocation and an obsession. She was determined to learn the craft, and learn it well. Dobrev had just won the People’s Choice vote for favorite TV drama actress. In its first year, in 2010, The Vampire Diaries itself won the People’s Choice Award as favorite new TV drama.

Dobrev was back in the People’s Choice spotlight earlier this year. Dobrev and her fellow castmate Ian Somerhalder were the People’s pick as the year’s favorite TV duo.

By then, though, the word was out: Dobrev would not be returning for Diaries’ seventh season. She chose not to extend her contract. Diaries returns this week (Thursday, Oct. 8) just the same, with Somerhalder and Paul Wesley (both right) carrying the flame in what is now a two-lead series. There are precedents in TV, though none lasted long. David Duchovny exited The X-Files for several seasons before returning for the finale; more recently, The Office and Two and a Half Men played out the string, to mixed effect. Further back in time, Cheers, Three’s Company and Spin City all gave it a whirl. Generally, comedies have an easier road than dramas — though David Caruso was quickly eclipsed after he famously bailed on NYPD Blue after just one season, despite being the ensemble drama’s breakout actor that first year.

The year Dobrev won her People’s Choice Award for favorite TV actress, she was mindful that the Oscar nominees that year included Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Rooney Mara, Michelle Williams and Glenn Close. TV has improved immeasurably, even in the relatively brief time since, but Dobrev knew she didn’t want to play Elena Gilbert well into her thirties. She was always serious about her craft, and always one to show up on time and give it her best.

Around the time The Vampire Diaries became a genuine hit, co-creator Kevin Williamson recalled in private conversation the day Dobrev first auditioned for the part. She was suffering from flu, Williamson recalled, and could barely speak. By her own admission, her audition was impossibly bad — but Williamson saw something there, that intangible flash of pure, innate ability that casting directors only recognize when they see it. Often the actor herself doesn’t know it’s there. Vampire Diaries was difficult to cast — impossible, even, Williamson said. He saw a dizzying parade of actors, many of them terrific and some of them astonishingly good — but none who was quite right somehow. Dobrev was a hunch, but it was the kind of hunch he instantly knew to be real. He insisted Dobrev return for a second reading, over the objections of some others, and talked his doubting colleagues into giving her another chance. The rest was Vampire history.

The Vampire Diaries will be in a tough spot as it opens its seventh season with the episode "Day One of 22,000, Give or Take." Diaries’ original concept revolved around a classic love triangle, after all. And it was that tension — romantic, emotional and sexual — between Dobrev’s hard-luck high-school senior Elena Gilbert and the moody, mysterious Stefan Salvatore, played by Paul Wesley, and his high-energy, charismatic elder brother Damon, played by Somerhalder, that drove the conflict and drama behind 130-plus episodes over six seasons.

The new season features a bevy of new characters, a new crisis for the star-crossed town of Mystic Falls, Virginia and, based on an early look at the season opener — made available to reviewers with the strict condition that no secrets be spilled — plenty of bloodletting, a fireball explosion or two, and a seemingly never-ending series of unfortunate events.

Elena’s presence hangs heavily over the proceedings, in spirit if not in body, and one can almost feel the strain and effort the writer-producers are going through to pull it all together in the end. The Vampire Diaries might or might not defy fate in the end, but it’s interesting — fascinating, even — to see the creators try.

Fans are liable to be satisfied, at least at first. Stefan and Damon have their loyal followings, after all, in part because Wesley and Somerhalder have managed to cultivate a cult-like presence through sheer hard work and longevity. The CW’s dramas are all of a type, and aimed at a very specific audience. Programs like The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural have endured as long as they have because their creators knew early on what they wanted to be, and they stuck to that vision despite frenzied competition and an ever-changing TV landscape. The Vampire Diaries has outlived the Twilight movie series, despite the glitz, glamor and moments of insane hype afforded by the big screen. Vampire Diaries has quietly emerged as this generation’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, despite toiling in the entertainment shadows for much of its existence. Like Buffy, Vampire Diaries was — and largely remains — a parable and morality play wrapped into one, where young, impressionable characters are tempted by power and lust for life everlasting, and yet somehow manage to do the right thing, in their own time and in their own way.

Dobrev’s absence leaves an undeniable void, but there’s enough left to keep Diaries interesting and engage viewers’ emotions at the same time. As Somerhalder’s Damon counsels a heartbroken confidante, late in the new season’s first hour, that’s life. “You can’t just sit back and wait for the good parts to happen.”

If The Vampire Diaries has luck on its side  — and it just might — there may be a few more good parts yet.

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