By Ian Grey
For those of us hooked on the serial cathode ray heroin that was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there’s no replacing the real thing.
Sure, every so often there’s a show that sates some old neural pathways-- Veronica Mars’s quipping blond heroine,Torchwood’s tightly knit supernatural-monster-fighting “family”--but we all know we’ll never enjoy the multi-neural-path pleasure blasts the old Buffster, Willow, Xander, Giles and yeah, Dawn, even whiney screamy Dawn, gave us for seven years in 144 episodes, battling evil with puns and metaphors.
So really, if Teen Wolf had remained as nothing more than really good Buffy methadone, I’d have been fine with that. Except now that we’re at Teen Wolf episode six, and it’s clear that the main thing it shares with Buffy is its ability to craft deeply felt new forms from the most worn genre parts. Even if its title and base idea came from a goofy 1985 Michael J. Fox comedy, this Teen Wolf is more than it’s own beast. Like, way more.
With epic backstories, existentially distressing core themes and unpredictable demonology mixed with and refreshingly blunt sexuality, episodes can feel like Skins meets At the Mountains of Madness . But Teen Wolf has a lightness of execution and a soul-darkness that is distinctively its own.
Taking place in a mistily Northern Californian suburb called Beacon Hills (but shot in Atlanta) Wolf centers on the somewhat spacey but puppy-cute Scott (Tyler Posey). What does he want from life? I’ll bet the idea never entered his mind. It’s just not the kind of thing you ask yourself in these times of diminished expectations.
Anyway, Scott’s on the lacrosse team but doesn’t harbor dreams of sports glory. He has a moderately dorky friend named Stiles (Dylan O'Brien) but the two don’t identify as Xander/Willow-style outsiders. They hang out with Type-A Jackson (Colton Haynes) and his seemingly air-headed, total beeyotch girlfriend Lydia (Holland Roden), but not because Scott/Stiles and Jackson/Lydia like each other. It’s more like The Universe dumped them in the same existential room and they just shrugged, said “Whatever”, and went along with the joke. Even the high school pecking order seems to have collapsed along with the economy (Scott’s sweet Mom — played by Melissa Ponzio — is occasionally seen overworked as an ER nurse).
Still, there’s Scott’s job to perk him up (he works at the local veterinary hospital, helping out injured dogs and such. No, really). Most of all, there’s Allison (Crystal Reed), she of the rich, long brown tresses, sunny disposition, natural talent for archery, and Dark Secret that even she doesn’t know about. Scott stumbles on a woman whose body has been chopped in half. Hey, it happens. Something claw-like slashes his gut from out of the dark, and before you can shout “Lon Cheney, Jr.!” he’s a werewolf.
So far, so basic. But then the super, ultra, mega smokin’ hot Derek Hale (Tyler Lee Hoechlin), ambles from behind his lair — a burned out American family house — and if this is where you tuned in, you could totally be excused for thinking you’d found the Logo network’s take on Twilight (Actually, Hoechlin was inches from securing the coveted Edward Cullen role in the real Twilight. But alas! No sparkly vampires for you, my son.) Derek favors slow-struts in tight jeans and distressed leather jackets that evoke John Varvatos’ rockin’ Spring Collection:
Because Derek is a werewolf, he can smell Scott on his property, which pisses him off, so he engages in some man-on-boy staring action with the younger werewolf. But Derek is an older werewolf and doesn’t need some newbie like Scott to mess up his plans to…well, that’s a secret, of course. In a few episodes he’ll become Scott’s werewolf mentor. That will involve lots of sweaty body-on-body--
--but I digress. Later, an older dude arrives: he prefers boring, hunter-style leathers, in light brown. This older dude is Argent (J.R. Bourne), werewolf hunter. He’s a real asshole. When he stares asshole-ishly at Derek and Scott, damn—that’s some serious staring. And Argent, he’s not above taking a baseball bat to Derek’s car windows, which he does to screw with Derek’s head, as a sort of build up to killing him. For now he buys that Scott is human--but that’s just for now.
But back to staring. It seemed like every time I tuned in, I got a dewy, magic-time forest scene of hapless Scott and nostril-flaring, smoldering Derek, or smoldering Derek and simmering Argent, or paranoid-yet-smoldering Derek and miffed Scott. And then I watched more and got a demon werewolf autographing that sliced-in-half woman, werewolves with eyes like burning embers and lacrosse super powers, a school bus massacre, veterinarian humor, and the only boy-girl romance on TV that doesn’t make me gack.
This , I thought, is some special freakin’ show. Like True Blood, but minus the nihilism, it seemed to float in this wonderfully, quietly strange homoerotic zone between the dreamily ridiculous and abrasively bizarre. I honestly don’t quite have a handle on how the show morphs from its loopy staring matches to its teen romances to its full-on nightmare scenarios, but maybe that’s the charm, the not-knowing. I can report that there have been scenes where I’ve actually felt fear, or a trill of dread, such as when I realized that Argent was Allison’s Dad. (“Argent”, by the way, means “tincture of metal or silver”. As in the only thing that will kill a werewolf. Ba-da-bing!)
I care because the actors—with the exception of Orny Adams’ wrong-note coach—are just so fine, so empathetic with the odd key changes the material demands. Posey’s Scott in particular is dreamy to the point of looking like he just smoked a spliff, but he can grow a (non-wolf) pair when he needs to. Most importantly, he can go wolf and I buy it (the unique, aerodynamic wolf make-up seals the deal). Reed’s Allison is an evolving delight: at first she was just The Girl. Now she casually drops nasty come-ons and blouses with a charming BFD that they don’t -- can’t -- teach at any Method school.
What makes the whole weird-wonderful cauldron come to a reliable boil is style, and lots of it -- but low key, and utterly singular. Life in Wolf’s Beacon Hills isn’t awful, but it is kind of flatlined, kind of spiritually Soviet in nature, with the colors of passion bled down to a cold digital palette of greys, blacks and blues: if Mark Zuckerberg were a DP, he’d chose these non-colors. The sound design is inextricably tied to the show’s super-smooth mise-en-scène: drum beats and grooves slide in and out of scenes, heavy-atmosphere songs support emotive moments and disappear as character feelings change.
The depth and color of the sound weaved here is extraordinary. And Teen Wolf does it every week.
Speaking of vision: Highlander director Russell Mulcahy, who started his career with seminal MTV era videos like The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star and Duran Duran’s The Wild Boys before becoming a sort of second string Tony Scott, helms many Wolf episodes. He’s has finally found a place where his limited but undeniable skill set can blossom. (You can see some of his unfortunate first film, the 1984 pig-horror film Razorback here:)
Look closer and the show’s fabulousness is no mystery—it’s in direct proportion to its almost ridiculously over-qualified staff, a multi-genre-skilled brain trust that includes creator Jess Davis (who also gave us Criminal Minds ), producer Monica Macer, (story editor for Prison Break ), co-writer René Echevarria (Star Trek: The Next Generation , The 4400 , Medium ) among the show’s staff.
Davis and crew have crafted a Wolf that’s not only a rare, true TV horror show (with humor), but a horror show with a lot on its mind. And the main thing on its mind isn’t sex, or social standing, or teen angst, or although it does bow at those stations of the teen-show cross. As it progresses, there will be scary monsters and super creeps: what there won’t be, I believe, are bad guys. So far, the bad guy here isn’t a person, it’s fear. Fear of self. Of who you are, what you might be, what you will end up being.
One character becomes so obsessed and terrified at another’s strangeness and how that strangeness might infect him that he pretty much goes mad for a spell. Another clings to their created persona like someone clinging to a piece of wood at sea, denying the truth of something real and awful because of the threat it poses to something fake and known. And there’s the tragic, totally unnerving case of Peter (Ian Bohen), Derek’s hospital-bound uncle. Peter’s face is a ruin from a fire. He’s in an eyes-open coma, but who knows for certain if he’s not awake?
Derek’s visits with Peter are pretty much defined by his fear of what—not even who, perhaps—lives in that horribly still, staring body. Even Stiles’ goofball fears of being gay if he does this or does that are not, I’m certain, about an actual fear of queerness, but a fear of forcibly turning into something else against his will. I already trust show creator Jess Davis to feel certain we’ll find out why Stiles is so frightened.
Teen Wolf has a core positivism that, for now, balances its darkness. But as I write this, the characters of Teen Wolf are on edge. Someone who tried to do good seems to have been killed horribly for bothering. Scott, who was terrified that the wolf inside would cause him to kill Allison, has learned the opposite is true -- that the only thing that will save him is the love he’s just realized he holds for her. Somebody trapped between good and Evil is having monstrous hallucinations of what’s hiding inside, while somebody else is realizing that maybe the truth doesn’t set you free -- maybe it just makes you hurt more accurately.
I wasn’t hip to Buffy when it first came out. So maybe this is what it was like to see it when it first aired -- watching something wonderful and precious and unlike anything else inventing itself each week before your eyes.
Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York.