Thursday, August 18, 2011
Teen Wolf (Season 1)
Airs: Mondays, 10/9c (currently in reruns); previous week's episodes streamed on MTV.com
I was initially a little leery of MTV's attempt at a werewolf TV show, largely because it was on MTV. They're not exactly what you'd call a bastion of quality cable programming. They've had successes, yes. In the field of animation, they've given us Beavis and Butthead, Daria, Aeon Flux, and Celebrity Deathmatch. They arguably invented reality TV with The Real World, and their unscripted shows are still above average for the genre. But for every success, there are at least three failures, and they have never produced a successful scripted drama. Still in all, with the internet having more or less annihilated the market for music videos on television, they're faced with an "evolve or die" situation. So Teen Wolf emerges as part of the first wave of a series of scripted drama and comedy programs. And as it turns out, it's not too shabby.
When we last left our hero, Scott McCall, he was trying to deal with the travails of high school while keeping his lycanthropy under wraps. It's particularly important to keep his new girlfriend Allison Argent out of the loop, since her dad leads a band of werewolf hunters. This isn't Scott's only problem, however. Allison's aunt Kate is also a wolf-hunter, and while Papa Argent plays cool and cautious, Kate is full-on psychotic. There's also the mysterious alpha wolf, who turned Scott and is now roaming the town killing people seemingly at random. Adding to the drama, the local lacrosse ace Jackson is making Scott's life miserable out of jealousy. After an accidental scratch from a werewolf claw, Jackson starts to experience terrifying hallucinations which eventually help him piece together the mystery of Scott's newfound athletic prowess. As you might imagine, all this is a bit much for Scott and his friend Stiles to handle alone. So they form an uneasy alliance with Derek Hale, an older and more experienced werewolf who can show Scott the ropes. Together, the three of them try to sort this whole mess out before it's too late.
As mentioned in our previous post, Teen Wolf started off iffy and improved after two or three episodes. Improvement continued at a steady pace over the first season as the story slowly found its voice. At first it was played somewhat like a murder mystery, with Derek and Scott trying to evade detection by the hunters while figuring out who the alpha was. However, this plot was something of a non-starter. Derek's investigations didn't really get anywhere, whereas Scott just wanted to be left alone and acted only when his friends were placed in jeopardy. Following a confrontation with the alpha in episode 6, the mystery plotline gets pushed aside in favor of love triangles and character drama. Then at the end of episode 9, the alpha is revealed and his revenge scheme takes front and center for the last three episodes, leading to a season finale that wraps major plotlines while leaving sequel hooks for season 2.
Teen Wolf's success is owed primarily to the realism of its characters. MTV may have a reputation for shallowness and sleaze these days, but they've always had a handle on where the youth of america is at. The teenagers in this show actually act like teenagers, with all the hormones, angst, identity crises, and self-doubt that implies. Credit goes to the writers for this, but more so to the actors, who deliver first-rate work. Dylan O'Brien, playing Stiles, continues to be a favorite. Colton Haynes' Jackson is a note-perfect high school bully, by turns overgrown brat and sniveling coward. By the last few episodes, I wanted to punch Jackson in the face every scene. Jill Wagner plays Kate to the hilt, reveling in the villain role so much that by the end it's questionable whether or not the alpha is really the main bad guy.
Then there's Holland Roden, who's portrayal of Jackson's girlfriend Lydia is... either underskilled or brilliant, I'm not sure which. Lydia is, essentially, the school bitch, and throughout the first half of the season, I got the feeling that Roden was either trying a little too hard, or had been directed to act like she was trying too hard. Lydia is a bit over the top, almost like a caricature. But the thing is, the character's entire arc is about her being a caricature. Lydia is actually very intelligent, shown in episode 7 when she MacGuyvers together a weapon to use against the alpha. The shallow rich-girl facade is mainly for the sake of Jackson's ego. ("You don't have to suck just to keep him happy," Allison says, regarding Lydia's bowling talents. "You don't want to know how much I suck to keep him happy", Lydia responds.) I hope she gets more screentime and is allowed to take it down a notch in season 2, because she's one of the more complex characters in the series.
When you think about it, that's the entire premise of the series: adolescent crises of identity. Scott, of course, is dealing with his double life as a werewolf. But it goes beyond that; in the second half of the season, nearly every character has a moment when they question who, exactly, they want to be. Allison, for example, wants to stop being a weakling and become an action girl instead, but after Kate shows her what that means Allison starts having second thoughts. Stiles, for his part, is frustrated by being little more than Scott's brainy sidekick. And once Jackson learns the truth about Scott, he wonders what lycanthropy might do for him.
The series excels on the production end. I praised the werewolf effects earlier, and they've generally stayed at a high level of quality. The CGI is occassionally jarring, so they compensate with cinematography. The alpha's beast form -- furred all over and bipedal or quadrupedal as the situation demands -- is not seen clearly until the last episode, the rest of the time being in the background, or just out of frame, or obscured by shadow, all traditional tricks to keep the monster out of the audience's view. Scott and Derek have the Talbot look: latex and makeup on the hands and face, for an animalistic look that still allows actors to speak and emote. It works pretty well, although Derek always winds up looking like he's trying to be Wolverine. The music is also above-average, as expected from an MTV production, and cinematography is solid, occasionally even clever. (Watch the trapped-in-school episode and catch the alpha lurking around in the background of deep focus shots.)
There are, however, two big problems dogging the series, no pun intended. The first is that the dialog is bland. The writers have a good handle on how teenagers behave, but that's not quite enough. It lacks punch; it makes for serviceable writing, but nothing more. The second is that the plot lurches, for lack of a better word. Each scene moves the story forward, but the plot also seems to move between scenes and episodes, resulting in the viewer feeling as if he's missed something. Episode 9 begins with the characters in a car chase with the cops, and how they got into this situation isn't clear. There are also plot holes, some of them rather serious. One episode implies that Lydia is abusive prescription drugs, but this plot point isn't mentioned again. Late in the game, a minor character reveals that he knows more about werewolves than expected. But even though he's friendly and there's ample opportunity for Scott to question him, Scott instead leaves immediately and the viewer is left wondering what the hell is going on here. Most egregiously, the alpha's ability to compel Scott to wolf out and hunt is quietly dropped halfway through with no explanation, and the alpha settles for persuasion through threats instead. Things need to be tightened up and streamlined.
Fortunately, there's time to deal with these issues. Teen Wolf has apparently been doing rather well in the ratings, and a second season has been greenlit for next year. I'll be waiting. And I might pick up the inevitable DVD in the meantime, too.