It’s funny to think that it’s been a full decade since I published my book Knowing Fear, my study of the development of the horror genre. (The book was released a few months ahead of its official 2008 publication date.) Time goes by fast, but it’s more amazing to think that I used to be so deeply enmeshed in the horror genre that I once wrote a whole book about it. Maybe it was the weight of the explosion of media over the past decade, or my waning enthusiasm about devoting my decreasing free time to intentionally seeking out horror, but I’ve found it harder and harder to keep up, or to care.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t tried, but I haven’t really enjoyed it like I used to. This season of American Horror Story confounds me. Most critics are practically orgasmic over the show’s choice to frame its story explicitly as a Tale of the Trump Era, in which characters openly reenact the most tedious arguments of the days after November 8, 2016. Billed as both horror and satire, Ryan Murphy’s brainchild is closer to the third season of Scream Queens in my view, a misbegotten mishmash of tones that fails on an even more basic level: Horror works when its relevance to our lives exists as subtext beneath the level of the story. Murphy took the subtext to the level of text, and by making it not just a story that speaks to the Trump Era but which is explicitly about the Trump Era, it paradoxically takes me out of the story by calling attention to the fact that it is a fictional narrative. It violates the suspension of disbelief because its broad performances and cartoonish story are so clearly not part of the real Trump’s America, where violence against minorities and angry white mobs aren’t a secret, or a cult, but an everyday part of the banality of evil.
I was similarly unimpressed by Syfy’s second season of Channel Zero: No-End House, based on a short online story from which it borrows only the vaguest of plot points. In expanding the short story to miniseries length, Syfy diluted whatever power the story had (and, in my view, its predictable “shock” ending wasn’t all that powerful) and turned it into a strange meditation on architecture. The design of the No-End House itself—an evil McMansion set up as a Halloween haunted house attraction—was clearly assembled from off the rack spare parts, and the Canadian street where it squats is made up of late twentieth century single family homes of style-free blandness. Taken together, the uninspiring visual design and too-sharp digital video, almost certainly dictated by the show’s small budget, combine to turn the show’s production design against the story, making all of the houses equally ugly and scary and suggesting, against the story’s apparent wishes, that the bland, soulless conformity of suburbia is the true evil. Every house is a No-End House, but I’m not sure that show creator Nick Antonsca recognizes this. We can hope; but the lack of subtext in the first season suggests otherwise, as do interviews when Antonsca speaks of the show in terms of marketing schemes, fan engagement, and other metrics. Naturally, online critics love this series irrationally, and I can’t quite figure out why.
Another widely beloved horror show, MTV’s Teen Wolf, came to an end on Sunday, and it gives me a rare opportunity to evaluate whether my critical opinion turned out to be correct. Many horror series began before I started writing this blog, and many have not yet ended—or both (cough, ahem, Supernatural)—and I so rarely get to see whether a multi-season show lives up, or down, to my initial evaluation of it. Teen Wolf is one of the few to have lasted a number of years and to have started and ended within the years I’ve written this blog.
The show debuted in 2011, and at the time I reviewed the program after its first three episodes. I was rather harsh about what I saw as a stylish but vapid hybrid of Twilight and Buffy. It was one of many TV supernatural adventure / romance stories in the Twilight mold, including The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, etc. Over the course of six seasons, the show grew into something that occasionally approached greatness (in teen TV horror terms) but never reached it. The loss of series regular Dylan O’Brien to the movies halfway through the show’s run, and the subsequent removal of his Stiles character, dealt it a death blow that no number of overly complex and nonsensical plotlines could overcome, especially since series star Tyler Posey is, to be kind, an inert presence whose lack of range and even a suggestion of internal life for his character, titular teen wolf Scott McCall, left the show unmoored and decentered as its final seasons spun out of control. I initially praised his early performance as authentically awkward and boyish, but he was the rare actor who grew smaller and stiffer over the course of a series. With no strong center to draw the story together, what remained was a series of spare parts that were individually interesting, beautifully shot, and often compelling, but never coherent.
But the bigger problem is that Teen Wolf’s plot confusion reflects the fact that the series was trapped into telling a story that series creator Jeff Davis didn’t really want to tell. The pilot of Teen Wolf set up a very conventional Twilight-style story with a bunch of straight boys in love with cardboard cutouts resembling women. I complained in 2011 that the show had trouble writing female characters, and as I commented in 2013 and I will do again today, the women on the show were almost entirely irrelevant and could easily be cut out without impact, and down to the last they existed entirely as fig leaves disguising the real story Teen Wolf wanted to tell. In the first episodes, probably due to network demands, lycanthropy was made into a symbol for steroid abuse, but that fell by the wayside as Davis made plain that his real goal was to make werewolves into symbols of gayness—both superpower and source of ostracism. Gradually, the show got really gay. By the end, about two-thirds of the show’s characters were gay, and the final storyline was literally about whether society would accept the werewolf lifestyle once they were involuntarily forced out of the closet by angry conservatives who feared they would corrupt the youth and convert people to wolfish perversion.
The trouble is that this story would have been transgressive, or at least relevant, in 2011, before gay marriage was legal and in a time when half of all Americans still thought of gay people as an evil species. (The likely next senator from Alabama, Roy Moore, still holds such views, and the Trump Justice Department has filed briefs opposing gay rights, so it is not a closed issue by any means.) In 2017, the more noticeable problem is that Davis, who is gay himself, lacked the courage of his convictions and made compromises to get the show made in the first place. There was a great show buried underneath the sops to convention. Had Davis made the main characters gay, this might have been a great and important horror series rather than merely an entertainingly decent show that flirted with relevance. I mentioned that the women on the show were largely afterthoughts, and that is almost certainly because the subtext, if promoted to text, would have dropped those stand-in characters altogether, and been a better show for it. In the final episode, when Scott is reunited with his best friend Stiles but is somehow saved from death by a kiss from his underdeveloped very brief late-series love interest, with whom, despite great effort to force the matter, Tyler Posey had no chemistry, the whole drama of the moment collapsed because it failed to hit an emotional note. Compared to the series’ best episode, season 3’s “Motel California,” when Stiles saves Scott from a magically induced suicide attempt by calling him his brother, this scene, set up to be mirror of it, fell flat.
And no, I did not recall all those details off the top of my head. I did have to look it up. This isn’t Buffy after all.
Four years ago, I said that Teen Wolf was really about masculinity, and I amend that here. In the end, it became a show about the many different ways to live as a gay man, and the emotional residue created by having to operate in a world not meant for you. The monsters the characters fought were consistently trying to enact punishments deeply affecting to gay men—physically assaulting them, trying to “fix” them, making them disappear, or eliminating them from the gene pool altogether. (There was also a weird, misbegotten Japanese season, but whatever.) I could go on, but I think I’ve probably put more thought into this than Davis did, seeing as he claims to see the show as basically Buffy and Twilight with a more artistic production design. He also created Criminal Minds, so subtlety isn’t his strong suit.
In the end, it turned out that my first impression was correct: “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.” In the end, everyone got a happy ending, and I suppose that is good enough for a show that was always more style than substance.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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