The second-season premiere of The Vampire Diaries proves once again why this series is one of prime time's more cleverly constructed, well-acted nighttime soap operas. After last season's finger-chopping cliff-hanger, we get neck snappings, a smothering, an unlikely alliance between two warring brothers, and the line ''Kiss me or kill me!'' Oh, and as Ian Somerhalder's Damon adds, ''Doppelgänger high jinks ensue.''
He's referring, of course, to Nina Dobrev's Elena/Katherine, the series' yin and yang of good and evil, purity and villainy. Dobrev has really risen to the challenge of portraying these two, managing to confuse viewers as to who's who when Katherine wants to impersonate Elena for some mischief.
This season hauls in Taylor Kinney as Mason, the ''black sheep'' brother of the late Mayor Lockwood. Mason has a nice swagger, and it looks like he'll take up any slack that might have occurred with the death of the Mystic Falls mayor.
But the throbbing red heart of The Vampire Diaries remains the tension between Damon and Paul Wesley's Stefan, and their mutual attraction to whomever Dobrev is embodying at the time. ''She's Katherine! She loves to play games!'' splutters Damon in the season opener. It's not long after this that she plays a romantic game with him that will doubtless have reverberations throughout the season. As Katherine says: ''Game on.'' B+