Getting older, and acquiring a life along the way, has pushed me even farther from the vanguard of pop culture than I was before. And I was pretty dang far. Welcome to Late to the Party, where I’ll occasionally discuss great TV I missed out on the first time around, just in case you haven’t discovered it, either.
Shame has kept me silent until now, but I just gotta say it: MTV’s Teen Wolf is a pretty great show.
I know, I know. It’s a needless reboot of an ever-more-irrelevant bit of ’80s pop culture flotsam, given a heavy gloss of Twilight for the basest of cash-in purposes, airing on a network that has basically become a 24-hour advertisement for skin care products, poor life choices, and venereal disease. And yet.
Under developer and Criminal Minds vet Jeff Davis, the show has neatly evaded all of the many, many opportunities it had to go horribly wrong. It’s smart, funny, consistently surprising, unexpectedly heartfelt, and a great big goofy pile of spooky pulp fun.
Like the Michael J. Fox original, this Teen Wolf involves a lycanthropic high schooler named Scott McCall, who pals around with a brainy dork named Stiles. But while the show worked in more than a few wry references to its cinematic predecessor in its first season, any similarities between movie and TV show end there. This version throws in a Twilight-style star-crossed romance with the daughter of a local clan of heavily armed werewolf hunters; a pack of morally gray fellow loup-garous with their own agenda; and more supernatural weirdness than you can shake a stick at.
Also, for some reason, lacrosse. The lacrosse may be the strangest thing about this show. It gives Teen Wolf a chance to show something you don’t often see on TV, and avoid the usual football and basketball cliches in the process. But otherwise, the less said about it, the better.
One suspects the show’s producers cast Tyler Poesy in the lead role for his facial and abdominal resemblance to Twilight hunk Taylor Lautner. This did not turn out as badly as it might have.
Scott’s fundamentally a good-hearted, brave kid with the moral steadfastness of a rock — and the intellect to match. While you shouldn’t expect to see Poesy among the Emmy nominees anytime soon, he has an earnest, puppyish sweetness that plays well against his character’s dangerous nature, and he makes Scott’s general lack of brains more endearing than aggravating. The show hasn’t yet succeeded in making Scott feel truly scary or out of control, but he can muster a certain measure of heroic badassery.
So can his co-star Crystal Reed, as Allison, Scott’s paramour of unfortunate parentage. (If you thought meeting your high school girl’s father was intimidating, just imagine knowing that he has a garage full of automatic weapons, and his sole purpose in life is to hunt you down and bisect you with a broadsword.)
Far from a hapless, lovesick twit, Allison’s smart and confident and plenty resourceful — one of a welcome panoply of strong, complex women in the show’s universe. As attached as she and Scott are to each other, Allison’s her own independent person. I like that the writers actually have her character feel angry about the rare times she has to depend on Scott for protection. When she insists, “I can take care of myself,” you know she actually can — particularly when she’s packing a collapsible crossbow in her purse. (And when Scott doesn’t believe her, you know that he’s once again being an idiot, albeit in believably human fashion.) Reed’s quite winning in the role, and does a great job of conveying Allison’s intelligence and determination.
As good as she is, the show’s MVP trophy goes to Dylan O’Brien as Stiles. Week after week, he turns in a deeply funny, surprisingly affecting performance in what could’ve been a thankless sidekick role. Stiles is as smart as Scott isn’t — and perceptive enough to be keenly aware of his social outcast status, and his own capacity to screw things up for the people he loves.
There’s an incredible scene toward the end of season 1 in which Stiles finds his dad, the local sheriff, up too late poring over crime scene photos with a glass of scotch. Dad’s in a melancholy mood, reminiscing bittersweetly about Stiles’ late mom; Stiles needs information from his dad to help Scott solve a crucial mystery and stop a supernatural Big Bad’s bloody rampage. So Stiles deliberately plies his dad with more and more booze, just to loosen his tongue and get the info he needs. All the while, O’Brien wordlessly makes it clear just how sick, remorseful, and disgusted with himself Stiles is for doing so.
You don’t expect that kind of sharp, understated drama from MTV, nor such depth to the characters. Heck, nearly everyone on the show, actors and characters alike, proves better and more interesting than they ought to be.
Colton Haynes’ Jackson and Holland Roeden’s Lydia start out as high school stereotypes — mean jock and queen bee, respectively. But the show actively pushes them into more complicated moral territory. Jackson’s never gotten over learning he was adopted, and his aggressive need to be the best stems from his fears that he’s not good enough for anyone to really love him. Lydia’s ditzy facade hides a genius-level intellect, emotional scars, and genuine bravery. (Yep. The smartest character on this show, by a country mile, is a girl. It’s pretty dang awesome.)
Even Tyler Hoechlin’s hilariously broody werewolf leader — imagine a cross between Eddie Munster and Edward Cullen who’s spent a whole lot of time at the gym — gets a few good moments of sarcastic disbelief amid his over-the-top smoldering. He’s got a weirdly compelling, mismatched-buddy-comedy chemistry with O’Brien’s Stiles, which the show never fails to exploit well. (The fans, of course, are shipping the holy hell out of these two. In keeping with its delightfully big-hearted approach to gay and lesbian characters, the show is completely cool with this.)
Davis and his writers take pains to make even their villains complex and believable, driven by understandable motives toward twisted ends. And the writers aren’t afraid to toy with your sympathies; they can have two characters face off at different points in the season, and completely reverse which one of them you’re rooting for in each encounter.
Even Shantal Rhodes, who won a contest for a walk-on role on the show, absolutely killed in her brief but memorable appearance. That’s how much this show cares about, and encourages, good characterization.
And what about the scares? Horror fans rightfully complained that Twilight defanged vampires, but Teen Wolf isn’t similarly toothless. You can only show so much blood and gore on basic cable — if you want visceral horror from MTV, stick with Jersey Shore reruns — but Davis and the writers have found clever ways to still make things creepy. They go for more cerebral, unsettling scares: Jarring hallucinations, unseen things prowling in the shadows, and in what may be the show’s all-time freakiest moment to date, a live snake squeezing its way out of the corner of someone’s eye socket.
More than once, the show has paid explicit homage to the elegant horror of classic producer Val Lewton, whose movies overcame miniscule budgets through shadow, suggestion, and their audiences’ imagination. In Teen Wolf’s case, having Highlander’s Russell Mulcahy around as executive producer and frequent director helps give the show the style and energy it needs to skate past any financial limitations.
Teen Wolf’s not without its flaws. Toward the end of its second season, the plotting gets muddled, filled with unexplained leaps of faith as it barrels toward its big finish. (How did that one guy come back to life, now? Oh, never mind, let’s just keep moving.) The consistent characterization keeps the show from flying off the rails completely, but I did find myself wishing the creators had stuck the landing better.
I’ll be interested to see whether Davis and company can keep up the quality in the impending third season. The show’s moving from Atlanta, whose woods gave the series a distinctively haunted and autumnal look, to L.A. It’s losing the talented Haynes to a contract dispute, right when his character seemed poised for bigger things. And it’s doubling its episode count from 12 to an unprecedented-for-MTV 24, which could tax the writers’ ingenuity even further.
Still, the first two seasons — available in full on Netflix, Hulu Plus, and MTV’s site — prove once again that you can’t judge a book by its cover, a show by its title, or a teenage lycanthrope by his six-pack abs.