Back when 22-episode seasons were the norm, and vampires, witches, and everything in between were all the rage, an itty-bitty show about romance, fangs, and teenage drama premiered on The CW.
Based on the best-selling book series, The Vampire Diaries came along when Twilight and True Blood were at the height of their popularity. While it easily could have been written off as a thankless entry into the conversation, it exceeded expectations, becoming perhaps the most well-remembered vampire tale of the bunch.
It's been 14 years since the series debuted on The Vampire Diaries, and we thought it might be fun to look back on the pilot and see how it stands up today and how well it sets up the rest of the series (hint: not well).
Elena Is The Star, But Stefan Starts The Show
While Elena is very clearly the star of The Vampire Diaries Season 1 Episode 1 and the series at large (hello, she has a diary!), the first voice you hear is Stefan's. He introduces the whole shebang with his simple voiceover explaining he's a vampire and this is HIS story.
That's something that gets lost immediately, and as the series roars on, it becomes much more the Elena show, as so much of the series revolves around saving her. But in the pilot, we're led to believe this will be Stefan's story.
The first hour does a decent job teasing the Salvatore agenda through conversations and Stefan's one-upping of a history teacher who goes out of his way to embarrass Elena in class.
There's also that picture of Katherine that Stefan pulls out while brooding in his bedroom, just casually introduced, which is funny considering how significant a role Katherine will play in the future.
But that conflict isn't what the pilot wants to do. And if anything, that little nugget ups the intrigue factor as the audience and Uncle Zach (RIP!) wonder just why the hell Stefan has decided to come back to Mystic Falls now.
What does he want? What does he need?
Well, you'll have to keep watching if you want that answer!
What Love Triangle?
Much like the other vampire tales of the time I mentioned before, The Vampire Diaries was well-known for its core love triangle, which found brothers Stefan and Damon Salvatore vying for the love of Elena Gilbert.
Yet, the pilot does not set this triangle in motion.
From the onset, everything revolves around Stefan and Elena and setting up their intoxicating love story, which dominates so much of the earlier seasons.
Their immediate connection, even watching it now, some odd years later, is still just as captivating.
Paul Wesley had a quiet intensity that he used to play Stefan, which allowed Stefan to be both brooding and charming all at once. Pilot Stefan commands a room, and it's no wonder Elena is drawn to him.
And it has nothing to do with any compulsion.
Damon and Elena don't interact, and if someone told you how the finale would contrast with how it began, I highly doubt most people would remember it.
Whether you fall into the Team Stefan or Team Damon camp, one thing that's certain is that it was always Stefan in the beginning.
The murders and "animal attacks" should be the big buzzy moments. Those set up the plot of the mysterious vampire whom Stefan claims not to be, but the real draw is the romance.
There's a reason the show is most remembered for the romances because the dance between Stefan and Elena is easily the most exciting thing about the first hour.
The Secondary Characters Are A Mixed Bag
Elena, Stefan, and Damon were household names at their peak.
However, many of the secondary characters became pretty damn memorable throughout the series' run. From Bonnie to Caroline to Jeremy to Tyler to Enzo and the many Mikaelson's, the various spinoffs from the original were basically a direct result of the popularity of so many of the overall cast of characters.
But those who were there from the start are a shell of the characters they will become over time.
Arguably the heart and soul of the whole series, Bonnie Bennett was often neglected throughout the series run or solely used to conjure up spells and fall on the sword for her friends, who never seemed to appreciate her.
But that's a conversation for another day.
Pilot Bonnie comes across a lot differently from the Bonnie we get to know, as she's a bit flighty and makes a very insensitive "joke" that should have never been written in the first place.
Watching Bonnie in that first hour, you'd never guess how her story would eventually unravel, and the same could be said for Caroline, who comes across as a social-climbing, boy-obsessed party girl.
And, okay, maybe that's just who she is then, but there's nothing to like about her immediately. Elena and Bonnie don't seem to be her biggest fans, so neither are we!
The boys are just all-around nasty in the beginning, save for the ever-bland but bulletproof Matt Donovan, who pines away for Elena but does so in a pretty respectful manner.
Do you know who's not respectful? Tyler. He gets a lot of screen time, considering how underused he will end up being in the grand scheme of things, and every second he gets is wasted on him being a jerk to everyone around him.
Jeremy gets a bad rap for being an insufferable character, but in the pilot, he's just a kid drowning his pain in anything that will numb him. And wanting nothing more than to get a little attention from the girl of his dreams.
While everyone will get a chance at one point or another to put their mark on the various storylines, no one comes across particularly well here. And sure, part of all good stories is growth, but starting a series with so many intolerable pieces could have turned out disastrously.
All! The! Vampire! Lore!
A good vampire tale has a solid set of rules that the audience can understand and follow to make sense of what's unfolding, especially because everyone will come into a show like this with their own set of rules they've accumulated from other source material.
One thing the pilot does well is introducing the "rules" straight away, from Stefan's inability to enter Elena's home because she doesn't invite him inside to the way he compels the school secretary when she asks for his school records.
The tone is set right away regarding what the vampires can and can't do, which is essential in a supernatural tale.
The most significant information we gather overall is during the first showdown between Stefan and Damon. The daylight rings explain how Stefan can, you know, go to school.
After beating Stefan pretty soundly, we learn that Damon's strength is greater because he's still draining unsuspecting couples on their way home, while Stefan settles for blood that comes from the four-legged variety.
Without these little nuggets of information, we're walking away with many questions, which isn't bad; leave them wanting more, right? But a decent pilot creates a world worth visiting again, and by giving us a little cheat code of the vampire lore, we're now a part of that world.
Based on a popular young adult novel series, The Vampire Diaries premiered with a built-in audience, but that didn't account for the success of the pilot, which broke viewership records for The CW and was a bona fide hit right out of the gate.
Audiences fell in love with the characters, and you can still feel that love today as the actors regularly engage in conventions where they bring together all the fans of the Vampire Diaries Universe to reminisce about such an influential show.
Looking back on where it all started 14 years later, the pilot has many pros and cons. But overall, it's an episode that did its job.
It built up the humans and the vampires and the inevitable struggles between the two while teasing an epic love story. It's far from perfect, but then again, the series inevitably wasn't either.
My Pilot Grade: B-
Over to you, TVD fanatics! When was the last time you watched the pilot?
How do you feel about it now?
What grade would you give it?
Drop into the comments and let me know all your thoughts about that first episode and the entire series!
Whitney Evans is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on X.