TV Review: MTV's 'Teen Wolf'
Bland, pretty reboot is no 'Vampire Diaries' and no Michael J. Fox 'Teen Wolf'
I don't want it to consume my entire review, but since I've been ranting about it for nearly a year at this point, I'm absolutely comfortable with allowing it to consume my entire intro:
If you want to make a serious drama about counselors and kids at a summer camp, ending with a triumphant and straight-faced victory at their annual color wars competition? That's fine. It just doesn't matter. It just doesn't matter. But don't call your project "Meatballs."
If you have a Mitch Albom-style tear-jerker you want to do focusing on a wealthy, obnoxious businessman who returns to university in order to encourage his son to progress his education? That's fine. It just doesn't matter. But don't call your project "Back to School."
If you have an epic outer space western about a gang of rag-tag underdogs who attempt to save a princess, in which the main hero discovers he has a shared family history with the main villain, a man in a dark helmet, with a dark cape? And you want to tell an unwinking Joseph Campbell-style journey? Well, you may have to deal with George Lucas' lawyers, but you won't get a quibble from me. But you know what I'd prefer you not do? Don't call your project "Spaceballs."
I don't think my requests here are unreasonable.
If you wish to latch onto what you imagine to be a marketable title of a project from my youth like a mindless parasite, at least show a wee bit of respect to the audience whose insatiable nostalgia you're catering to or counting on. Don't keep one or two names and a tiny part of the backdrop while totally overhauling the tone, mythology or structure. If you need to do that, why not just give your characters original names and give your project its own title. Why not roll the dice on your own ability to be creative in titling and promoting your series and allowing it to stand on its own four paws without risking the ire of bitter Gen Y-ers with blogs? Oh right. You can't, because your entire project is the fruit of creative laziness to begin with and you're counting on a familiar name to do what originality and freshness might have done in the past.
In short: Yo, MTV. If you want to remake "Teen Wolf," please respect that the original movie was a loosely structured horror-comedy about a likable Everyman who comes from a family with an Everywolf past and who uses his new-found lycanthropic skills to play basketball and do theater, but eventually learns self-confidence without howling at the moon. I'm pretty wedded to the specifics of the 1985 Michael J. Fox feature, but I acknowledge that accommodations probably need to be made to bring the story to the 21st Century. With that in mind, as long as you understand that the reason "Teen Wolf" was a hit was its absurd comic charm and the goofball transformation of its diminutive Canadian leading man, we'll be aces. Oh and if you could also make sure that the main character has an adorable female friend named "Boof," that would probably also be ideal.
Because, you see, it's not like the world has a shortage of werewolf stories with a tortured, dramatic backdrop. Suddenly discovering that every full moon you get hairy, fangy and violent could be a disturbing transformation. I wouldn't deny that for a second. That's just not what "Teen Wolf" is. "Teen Wolf" is about learning you have a family curse and using that curse to slam dunk a basketball, purchase beer by the keg, surf on the roof of a van and grab the boob of the previously unobtainable cheerleader, before realizing that you're cool enough and assertive enough to do all of those things as a less hirsute Canuck. That is what the primary ethos of "Teen Wolf" is. If you don't get that, you're making something that isn't "Teen Wolf."
It's possible that what you're spiritually remaking is the 1957 Michael Landon classic "I Was a Teenage Werewolf," which wasn't a silly comedy and also had a catchy and easily re-digestible name that's probably equally meaningless to MTV's core demographic of 15-year-old pregnant teens. It's a minor irony that in 2011, the title of "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" -- a drama in its original incarnation -- probably conveys only comedy, while "Teen Wolf" -- a comedy in its original incarnation -- has been deemed viable as a drama, but MTV's core demo doesn't understand irony particularly well. Either way, you're not remaking "Teen Wolf." So why not drop the one or two similar character names and, of course, the title and see if your project can seduce viewers on its own merits? After all, it's obvious that you don't especially like or respect "Teen Wolf," so how do you think it makes you look to rely so heavily on the title of something you clearly feel superior to?
That's it for that. MTV's "Teen Wolf," which premieres on Sunday (June 5) night after the MTV Movie Awards isn't "Teen Wolf." It isn't even "Teen Wolf For a New Generation" unless MTV is convinced that the "new generation" doesn't have a sense of humor. It's MTV misappropriating an established title because buying a title and its possible brand visibility is easier and cheaper than convincing viewers to watch "Lacrosse Lupus" or "WereStud" or "9021Oooooooooo" or "Pretty Little Lycans."
Having dedicated my entire intro to making it clear what MTV's "Teen Wolf" isn't, click through for a review that may get into what MTV's Teen Wolf" actually is.
Developed by Jeff Davis ("Criminal Minds"), MTV's "Teen Wolf" stars Tyler Posey as Scott McCall. Scott's got terrific bone structure and he's capable of doing many pull-ups in his doorway, but he's not a terrific lacrosse player, so he's an outcast at his high school. Note: We never see Scott being a poor lacrosse player and other than a couple dismissive looks from More Popular Kids, we never see any evidence of Scott being an outsider. In fact, Scott has no real character, so it's a good thing that one night he's out wandering through the woods -- after inexplicably going out in search of a body with buddy Stiles (Dylan O'Brien), whose father is the chief of police -- and he gets attacked by... something. Whatever attacks him is capable of tearing women to shreds and terrifying herds of CGI deer, but it decides not to eat Scott, instead leaving a nicely symmetrical bite mark on his side. Before you can say "Magically Transformative Rabies," Scott has super-hearing and super-reflexes. He uses his super-reflexes to play lacrosse, frustrating star player Colton Haynes's Jackson, who expects to be Alpha Male by virtue of his own cheekbones. He uses his super-hearing to eves-drop on new girl Allison (Crystal Reed) and woos her by responding to conversations she had with other people, a creepy technique she doesn't find at all disturbing.
But soon, Scott's eyes are going yellow and buddy Stiles is able to diagnose that Scott either has hepatitis or that he's a werewolf. Thanks, WebMD! What does this have to do with Tyler Hoechlin's Derek, who may have the best cheekbones of all? And how does it relate to the mysterious soldiers prowling the forest? Well, it'll all be relevant.
As origin stories go, MTV's "Teen Wolf" takes a very straight-forward path, more in line with either the British or Syfy version of "Being Human" than with the somewhat convoluted arc that "The Vampire Diaries" chose to take last season. You get bit, you start to turn. The degree of transformation that's going to occur is unclear based on the pilot for MTV's "Teen Wolf" which denies viewers any sort of complete lycanthropy. The in-progress transformation effects -- other than the aforementioned hepatitis eyes -- are actually fairly solid, especially on what one has to assume is a lower budget than what either The CW or even Syfy might offer. Credit there to Proteus FX and K.N.B Effects Group, even if my own preference would always be towards more practical effects.
Also assisting in making MTV's "Teen Wolf" slightly better than you might be fearing is the presence of Russell Mulcahy as director. I don't know if anybody's going to say that the "Highlander" helmer is an artist, but he's been doing solidly mounted mid-range horror on the big and small screen for decades, with credits including episodes of "Tales from the Crypt" and "The Hunger." It's to Mulcahy's credit that MTV's "Teen Wolf" looks nice, especially in the nighttime scenes. It's never scary or disturbing, but that's partially because the pilot was written without any stakes or human characters to speak of. When all else fails, Mulcahy knows enough to showcase the effects and the actors' cheekbones, so he's earned his paycheck.
At least in the pilot, there's no real acting going on here. The cast is young, pretty and impressively forgettable and indistinguishable. The four or five male leads might as well all be the same person, differentiated only by, as I keep mentioning, degree of cheekbone definition and, in the case of Dylan O'Brien's Stiles, a short haircut and a tendency towards lame jokes. The women -- Argent's Crystal and Holland Roden's Lydia -- are distinguished by minor gradations in their hair color. There's one African-American girl who has one line of dialogue, appears in one shot and isn't even given a name, but I suppose it's possible she might have a character later in the series. A pilot gives you 40-ish minutes to establish the look, voices and desires for your characters, but Jeff Davis and Mulcahy have been satisfied with one sidekick and a slew of pouty Abercrombie & Fitch models.
The failure to establish character rests on Davis and it's especially damning with our hero Scott. Because we don't really know what he was like before, we don't know or care how or if he's changing at all after being bitten. Wait. I take that back. He has asthma before. He doesn't have asthma after. Latch onto that as best you can. There's no reason to like this guy as a character, so our opinions of him don't change as he changes. This also thwarts any attempt to structure MTV's "Teen Wolf" as a parable/metaphor for universal pubescent transformations. Posey is not *un*likable as an actor, but he's not inherently relatable or dynamic.
And while I understand that lacrosse may be a hipper sport to depict than basketball these days, it's also a sport in which the competitors are helmeted and padded. There's no connection at all between what the special-effects aided guy in the helmets and pads is doing and the Scott we've briefly met previously. I get that if you're ditching the broad humor of the real "Teen Wolf," you're similar ditching the comedic value of a werewolf dribbling a basketball up the court and soaring above the rim. But in addition to laughter and dozens of subsequent parodies, you know that basketball accomplished in the real "Teen Wolf"? It gave viewers a clear distinction between Scott Howard (Michael J. Fox) as a person and The Wolf. Playing lacrosse will allow Posey's Scott to partially wolf-out without attracting attention, but even best case scenario, he'll just become a digital effect in pads and a helmet.
I'm curious if Davis and his writers are also using the relative anonymity of lacrosse so that they have an excuse to maintain the sports subplot beyond an episode or two. I hope that they're aware that supernatural creatures playing sports can go one of two ways: Funny, like in the real "Teen Wolf" or idiotic. "Vampire Diaries" followed the L.J. Smith novels by having Stefan play football, but he spent only an episode or two pretending to be a wide receiver before that subplot was ditched and never mentioned again. And for good reason. The potential for silliness is just too great. The chance of ending up with “Twilight”-style Vampire Baseball is nearly unavoidable. Nobody wants that.
No, what Davis wants is a straight-forward dark and mythologically heavy take on the story, like "Vampire Diaries" or "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," if they were written by somebody with minimal sense of humor and no sense of inspiration. It's worthless to say that MTV's "Teen Wolf" doesn't succeed at emulating the original "Teen Wolf," because nobody involved had any desire to cover that territory. But comparing it to "Vampire Diaries" seems like fair-play and the werewolf arc that "Vampire Diaries" did earlier this season with Michael Trevino and Taylor Kinney solidly achieved all of the horror and emotional beats that MTV's "Teen Wolf" looks to be aiming for. So this isn't me being excessively nostalgic and snobby saying that MTV's "Teen Wolf" doesn't live up to some lofty ideal wedged in my memory since childhood. [It's not like I don't know that the real "Teen Wolf" is a tremendously silly movie, but it's a tremendously silly movie that I happened to love.] No, I'm just asking MTV's "Teen Wolf" to live up the standard of writing and acting that I can get on a CW soap (or even, if you prefer, on Syfy or BBC America's respective versions of "Being Human"). It doesn't. The world is not starved for alternate and better versions of what MTV's "Teen Wolf" is trying to do.
That, finally, is far more of a reason for me to dismiss MTV's "Teen Wolf" than that I disapprove of the decision in naming the show. It's irrelevant that it MTV's "Teen Wolf" doesn't live up to the standard of an entirely different 1985 movie of the same name. It's far more relevant that it doesn't live up to the standards of a half-dozen currently TV and film projects of different names. MTV's press notes for "Teen Wolf" imply a lot of upcoming developments that weren't even hinted at in the pilot, so I may come back and give the show another couple episodes, but MTV probably needed to send critics more than just the pilot if they wanted the series to be judged on those upcoming developments. All I have is the pilot, which is, at best, a bland, familiar, not-outrageously terrible way to kill time until better supernatural dramas return.
MTV's "Teen Wolf" premieres on Sunday, June 5 at 11 p.m.