MTV, Mondays, 6 PM
Written by Jeff Davis & Jeph Loeb & Matthew Weisman
Screenplay by Jeph Loeb & Matthew Weisman
Directed by Russell Mulcahy
“Second Chance at a First Line”
Written by Jeff Davis
Directed by Russell Mulcahy
Written by Jeff Vlaming
Directed by Russell Mulcahy
“All this started with a bite.” – Stiles
The newsworthy thing about this new series from MTV is that it unashamedly strips down the werewolf legend into its psychosexual foundation: puberty. Think about it: nearly all cinema werewolves are young males. They don’t want to go through these changes, changes that make hair grow where it never grew before, that release animal passions that are new to them, that make them ashamed to face society, friends, or girls. Werewolves are almost always involuntary – the werewolf is created through a bite, like a vampire, but rarely asks to be bitten. It happens without his consent, and in this case, almost without his knowledge. InTeen Wolf, our teen does not know what is happening to his body, why he is suddenly stronger and more agile, why hair keeps growing in those new places, and why he is suddenly subject to bodily changes he did not want or expect. That’s a pretty close approximation of puberty, in my book.
“My whole life is sitting on the sidelines.” — Scott
At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss this new series as a revisioning of the 1985 classic movie starring Michael J. Fox. At second glance, the two productions don’t have much in common. Yes, it is set in a high school, but any story involving American teenagers is going to have to be set there. Yes, our hero is involved in sports – in this case lacrosse rather than basketball – but the majority of American teenage males either play an intramural sport or take gym class. Otherwise, though, the mechanism of the change is different – rather than inheriting a family tradition at puberty, young Scott McCall (Tyler Posey, Smallville) is bitten during a nighttime outing in the woods. Rather than openly appearing as a wolf and bonding deeper with his family, he hides his condition even from his mother. What’s interesting is not so much the similarities between the two shows as the differences, even more so as the pilot was written by Teen Wolf series producers Jeph Loeb and Matthew Weisman, who wrote the 1985 movie! Loeb has also written for Smallville, which explains some of the crossover casting.
“Everything in my life is finally perfect. Why are you trying to ruin it?” — Scott
So much for background. If you know the story behind the movie Teen Wolf, fine. If you don’t, no harm done. This series launches from a different premise. Scott and his BFF Stiles Stilinski (Dylan O’Brien, High Road) are out larking about one night because Stiles’ father, the chief of police, has called a manhunt to look for the top half of a body found in the woods. Okay, we’re two minutes into a much, much darker story than the 1985 movie. Naturally, Stiles and Scott get caught; Stiles’s father sends him home, stranding Scott in the woods. Oops. Sure enough, Scott stumbles, almost literally, across the upper half of a dead young woman while looking for his inhaler. Frantically running away, he is attacked by a wolf-like being and bitten. And may I just say how delighted I was to find the wolf-like being did not resemble an actual wolf; it was larger and more monstrous, as one would expect when converting a grown human into a four-legged predator. Scott, not quite understanding what has happened to him, pays no attention to the bite of a wild animal, and goes home. In a very short time, he finds himself with better hearing, faster reflexes, and other enhancements.
“Is it really so bad? That you can see better, hear more clearly, move faster than any human could every hope?” — Derek
Almost the first thing he hears is the introduction of a new girl to the school, Allison Argent (Crystal Reed, Skyline). If you’re a werewolf fan, that name alone sets off alarms: argent is French for silver. And we know how silver plays into werewolf lore. Scott is irresistibly drawn to her, which triggers some of his werewolf changes: fangs, infrared sight, growling, hair growth. (Did I mention puberty?) His buddy Stiles figures out right away that Scott is a werewolf; Scott isn’t sure until he starts having strange dreams which have him waking up, half-naked (this is a PG-rated TV show, after all) miles from home, in the deep woods. There, he meets a tall, dark and mysterious hottie, er, stranger named Derek Hale (Tyler Hoechlin,Solstice), the last surviving member of a family that died in a mysterious fire. Scott realizes Derek is a werewolf (how he does so is not clear, is there a secret handshake?) and lambastes him for this unwanted gift. Their argument is interrupted by a crossbow bolt through Scott’s arm — a move certain to get his attention — and Derek warns him that werewolf hunters are after them.
“You’ve been given a gift most people would kill for.” — Derek
Scott is not happy with his new “gift”, and deals with it by denying it. Against Derek’s advice, he allows his humiliation on the lacrosse field to partially change him, giving him the agility and speed to wow his coach (standup comic Orny Adams, Tonight Show with Jay Leno) into putting him in the starting lineup. At a dance with Allison, he starts to grow fangs and has to flee, stranding her on the dance floor. Worse, when her dad drops by to pick her up from school, Scott recognizes her father (JR Bourne,Smallville) as the hunter who shot him. Yeah, picking up Allison for a date is going to be real awkward. Derek nags, warns, scowls and castigates Scott, who doesn’t want to hear all this good advice. It’s not until he and Stiles actually uncover a burial next to Derek’s burnt-out home that they begin to realize how dangerous this situation is. Derek tells them the wolf they found which, when deprived of its wolfbane flowers, turned back into the half-corpse Scott found, is his sister, killed by the same hunters who shot Scott. What’s more, Derek himself denies biting Scott, claiming it was some other, “alpha” wolf, a more dangerous beast than Derek and Scott, who are, presumably, “betas”. I love the introduction of production-line QA terms into mythology.
“Revel in the awesomeness of the fact that you’re a freakin’ werewolf!” — Stiles
Through these first three episodes, the banter is light, never condescending to its audience. The characterization is above average. One of my chief complaints about stories aimed at the MTV-age audience is that it treats them like shopping-mad idiots, when they are actually pretty savvy much of the time. Teen Wolf plays at their level, with sufficient nods to consumer/pop culture to say “I’m trendy” while still treating seriously the time-tested concerns of high schoolers: athletics, grades, and sex. There are times when Scott acts like a bonehead: the guy works at an animal clinic, but never worries that his wild-animal bite might be rabid? As in most fairy tales, Scott never looks to an adult for advice or help, which makes sense because his mother (Melissa Ponzio, Past Life) seems young enough to be an older sister — neither older nor wiser. Derek tries to step in as elder brother/mentor/adviser, but struggles against Scott’s well-founded suspicions. Scott is going to have to go on this hero’s journey more or less by himself, aided by his trusty, sarcastic sidekick. And may I just say that Stiles steals every scene he’s in: smart, funny, and loyal as a dog.
“Maybe I need to learn to take more chances.” — Scott
Some of the production values are outstanding, others not so much. All scenes set in the woods at night are creepy, and the ones where glowing eyes stare out at Scott are even more so. There is a chase scene through a locker room that is genuinely chilling — it’s a set piece, but it’s very well done. The CGI in scenes such as one where Scott shatters a mirror — that does not behave like a mirror — is seamless. But then there is the one, enormous flaw in Scott’s transformation: when he changes into a “werewolf”, he changes not into a creature out of nightmare, but into Eddie Munster. This one makeup choice, all by itself, brings all the potential for serious horror/drama crashing to the ground. I mean, seriously, sideburns? Obviously fake teeth? I’ve seen better werewolves at my door on Halloween. I do not, as I mentioned, want to see a human being turning into a wolf. What’s the point? Besides being impossible for me to believe (see conservation of mass, law of), it’s less frightening than a creature that is an obvious distortion of the human form. When an urban American sees a wolf, his/her first thought is “dog”. But present us with a figure that is part of one, part of another, and an atavistic part of our brain hits the panic button: “wrong! danger!”
“I can handle weird.” — Allison
As is often the case, the hero is sometimes much less interesting than the darker figures in the story. So far, I’m more intrigued by Derek (is he a bad guy? a mentor? a victim?) than by Scott, wholesome as he is. Stiles, as mentioned, steals every scene. The standard-issue high school jock/bully, with his standard-issue bitch girlfriend, is so obvious and cliched as to be practically invisible. I remain intrigued by the Argent family: can Allison be ignorant of her father’s nighttime hobbies? Does Dad know about Scott? Is Allison leading Scott along? Normally soap opera tropes bore me, but there’s just enough teen romance drama, just enough supernatural thrill, and more than enough respect for its audience, to bring me back for more.
“Why does it feel like you’re always Batman and I’m Robin?” — Stiles
There’s a lot of potential here. Teen Wolf debuted at 2.2 million viewers, after its lead-in from the MTV Movie Awards. It dropped to 1.5 million for the second episode, which does not alarm me; drop-off from a premiere is normal. But the third episode garnered 1.8 million, which means the audience is actually increasing. These are decent numbers for a cable scripted series, so I can optimistically look forward to seeing our Teen Wolfstep into the void left by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, if with less wit and panache.