Last week MTV launched Teen Wolf, its effort to capitalize on the supernatural soap opera frenzy led by the Twilight movie series and the CW’s Vampire Diaries. Now three episodes in, it seems increasingly obvious that Teen Wolf is less in competition with Twilight or the Vampire Diaries than with Degrassi: The Next Generation and some of the lesser efforts of ABC Family (which is launching its own were-creature soap, about a cat-girl).
I assume if you are reading this you are familiar with the concept: Teen boy is bitten by a werewolf, gains supernatural power, and finds himself involved in a simmering stew of small town resentment and possessed of unwanted body hair.
First, let me damn Teen Wolf with faint praise. Many critics complained about the concept, arguing that the old Michael J. Fox movie (itself based on the still older I Was a Teenage Werewolf) had no reason to transition to television. I have no problem with the concept, and there seems to be many good elements swirling around under the surface. The rudimentary idea (never quite developed in the show) of equating lycanthropy with steroids is at least a half-step above the obvious equation of werewolves and puberty. And a high school soap opera ought to be a paint-by-the-numbers no-brainer, even if so far this one is dramatically inert.
Tyler Posey, as the “teen wolf,” creates an appealing character and is believably awkward as someone newly possessed of superhuman abilities moored to an unwavering moral compass. Dylan O’Brien as his best friend hits all of the notes of the familiar teen-oriented best friend/comic relief role, adding a few hints of depth atop the mostly superficial writing he’s been given. Unfortunately, Crystal Reed and Holland Roden have less to do as the female characters (and so far they exist only as “the female characters”), playing the archetypical idealized maiden and scheming slut, respectively. If every character on the show were not some type of stereotype familiar from high school movies dating back thirty years, one might wonder whether Teen Wolf’s writers have difficulty developing rounded female characters.
The bigger problem, however, is that the Twilight-inspired atmospherics—all shadows and clouds of dry ice fog and muted color palettes—fail to match the content of the show. Teen Wolf is simply too earnest and too gentle for that. Despite the occasional flashes of (I presume network-mandated) gore and one crude reference to oral sex, Teen Wolf is a program that is warm and fuzzy instead of sharp with teeth and claws—more puppy-dog than wolf.
MTV wanted to position the program as a sexy, dangerous drama. On that count Teen Wolf is a remarkable failure. As a gentle coming-of-age fable, a sort of Twilight for tweens (if that isn’t redundant) or perhaps Kyle XY with fur, it comes much closer to succeeding. I could imagine myself really liking the show when I was twelve, but I think that skews a bit too young even for MTV, which targets ages 12-24. The MTV of Jersey Shore may be the wrong network for a show this, well, sweet (though rising ratings--it's now the top-rated show among women 12-34 in its time slot--say otherwise); Teen Nick or ABC Family might have been a more appropriate fit.
So, the bottom line: The show is a little stiff and still obviously finding its way. It's enjoyable and, sometimes, even fun; but not quite as advertised.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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