Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Breaking Out of the Pack


Here's the thing one has to remember when watching or thinking about the television series Teen Wolf: you simply have to forget the source material.  Unlike the film version starring Michael J. Fox, Teen Wolf takes the premise seriously.  In this respect, it borrows from Buffy The Vampire Slayer.  The movie was a straight-up comedy, a spoof.  Its television version is, conversely, a very dark series, to where few people actually refer to it as Buffy The Vampire Slayer but as just Buffy.  Likewise, Teen Wolf isn't by any means a comedy (albeit there are funny moments).  Rather, Teen Wolf is a very serious supernatural drama, but it also can be seen as an allegory of sorts about the complexities of growing up today.

Granted, that might be a case of reading a bit too much into its storyline, but I can only offer opinions on what I saw and how I can interpret it.

Scott McCall (Tyler Posey, above) is your typical 16-year-old: generally unpopular, always second-team on the lacrosse team, not the smartest (or in fairness, the dumbest) of students, a bit shy when it comes to women.  He has only one friend, Stiles Stilinski (Dylan O'Brien), a bit of an excitable fellow who knows his folklore.  Stiles is also the son of Sheriff Stilinski (Linden Ashby), which will be important as the show goes on.

Stiles talks Scott into going into the dark northern California forest to see if they can find a body.  While searching at night, something comes after them.  It is here that Scott is both bitten by an animal and shot by hunters.  Scott, to his horror, finds that he has been turned into a werewolf, with only Stiles to know his secret.

As is the case, a girl gets into the picture.  The beautiful Allison Argent (Crystal Reed) comes into town.  Scott is bitten by something else: the love bug.  Allison, for her part, is smitten with Scott (and as her Aunt Kate says, 'those beautiful brown eyes'), by his innocent charm and quirky ways.  Allison soon becomes friends with Lydia Martin (Holland Roden) the apparently empty-headed girlfriend of lacrosse captain Jackson (Colton Hayes), who dislikes Scott.

However, after the wolf bites turns our Scott into the title character, he finds pluses and minuses to the lycanthropic world.   The positive is that he is now faster, stronger, than his teammates.  The negative is that he turns into an animal at not just a full moon but also when he gets excited or angry.  It also doesn't help that he has Hunters who want to kill him because he is a werewolf and because they suspect he is involved in a string of gruesome murders around town.

As it happens, these murders are connected to the mysterious Derek Hale (Tyler Hoechlin, above).  Derek finds Scott and tells him that he, like Scott, is a werewolf, but not the one who bit him.  They are both Betas, and the one who turned Scott and murdered Derek's sister is an Alpha.  Now, the search goes on for the Alpha before he kills and kills again.

The relationship with Allison grows, flounders, and grows again.  The fact that Allison's father (J.R. Bourne) and his sister Kate (Jill Wagner) are the Hunters might have something to do with it.  Allison knows nothing of her family history, but she is an excellent archer. 

Teen Wolf then goes into solving the mystery of who the Alpha is, along with trying to keep Scott's identity a secret and keeping him alive.   We do find out who the Alpha is, but Jackson also finds out Scott's secret...as does Allison.

The most obvious thing about Teen Wolf is that it is a dark show in an almost literal sense.  Many of the episodes take place at night or in dark rooms.  Teen Wolf is a nocturnal show in the sense that the action is almost always under cover of darkness.  I think this is a conscious decision to emphasize the darker tone the series is taking versus the light and humorous nature of the film it draws from.  Teen Wolf goes for a dark, gothic feel, creating a world that is foreboding, mysterious, slightly gloomy.  It does this well, and while we do get some scenes in the daytime, even then there is no scene that is dominated by sunlight.  Instead, they are touched with darkness, as if to remind viewers this is meant to be a dark show. 

Like all series television, Teen Wolf ends each episode with some shocking twist: identities are discovered, people are attacked.  With perhaps only one or two exceptions the twists and turns are answered logically and/or have repercussions.  The two twists that I don't think quite worked are in Episode Six (Heart Monitor) and Episode Nine (Wolf's Bane).  In the former, Derek is viciously attacked and left for dead.  It is a shocking moment, but by the time we see Derek again, he seems perfectly fine, no worse for wear.  Perhaps I missed it, but I don't think we ever got an explanation as to how he survived what could have killed him.  In the latter, we find the actual identity of the Alpha, but while it makes sense we don't get much if any evidence that it could be that individual person.

On the whole however, the stories in Teen Wolf balance themselves well, and the season finale both wrapped up some plot points and left things open for the next season. 

The performances are all excellent.  Posey has the unenviable task of bearing the show on his shoulders as the title character.  He has to play basically two characters: the innocent good guy Scott and the dangerous teen wolf.  Posey does both roles well: as Scott, he has an innocence whenever he finds that the beautiful Allison really likes him for him, and when he has to strike he can be menacing (and although his make-up is well-done, Posey still looks like a kid werewolf, especially against both the Alpha and Derek).  Hayes' jock could have been a more cliched character, dumb and brutal.  However, Jackson is given his moments of fear as well as insecurity.  Even after he was attacked the lure of gaining power is far too tempting for him.  However, Hayes can project that behind the bravado there is an adopted son desperate to be valued for something, anything.

Likewise, Roden at first would appear to be the vapid airhead, but we see during the course of the series that Lydia is remarkably bright but suppresses her intelligence in order to play a part herself. 

I digress to point out that Teen Wolf appears to be an allegory about how teenagers have to project an image in order to protect themselves or others.  Lydia pretends to be dumb in order to be 'popular', hiding her intelligence.  Jackson hides his fears of being unwanted behind his bullying actions and sheen of wealth and strength.  Obviously, Scott is hiding the most, but a case could be made that even before he was turned, he too was just hiding in plain sight, not wanting to draw attention to himself for anything. 

O'Brien has a way with a quick quip as the high-strung 'comic relief'.  He is intelligent in his own way but he also shows his loyalty to his friend, even after time and time again Scott warns him away from him.  On a personal note, any character who not only knows who Claude Rains is (from his role in The Wolf Man) and is genuinely shocked that his best friend has no idea who Claude Rains is gets points in my book. 

While I think that Hoechlin plays the role of Derek correctly (this angry young man seeking revenge for the killing of his family), I do wonder if Derek as a character has any sense of humor.  He's always angry and moody, barking out orders (no pun intended), and that soon starts to wear thin.  All the other characters manage to have moments of darkness and lightness, but Derek never does.  He's always grumpy, and it would have been nice to have seen him with at least one moment where he wasn't all business and maybe, just maybe, smiled once.

Of course, this being MTV, we get a heavy dose of sex.  It's a curious note that in Teen Wolf, we don't actually see any sex (perhaps they have learned from the Skins debacle).  However, we do get a lot of skin, particularly from the men.  Many an episode lingers on Posey's cut physique (despite his character being only 16).  I'm tired of going on about how I dislike the sexualizing of teenagers, but such is the way of the world, and I, a lonely voice, still think it's a concern, but I digress. 

Likewise, we get scenes of both Colton Hayes and Tyler Hoechlin shirtless.  One can't blame MTV for this: it IS still difficult to see shirtless women, in particular teenage girls, on television.  With men, it's a little easier I suppose, but I still wonder if this encourages the sexual activity/experimentation of the youth.

As I stated, the subtext of sexual desire and repression is apparent on Teen Wolf.  How else to explain how in Episode Four (Magic Bullet), Allison can so openly present a condom to a shocked Mr. Argent, her Aunt Lydia, and a stunned (but secretly pleased) Scott as the real reason why Lydia's bag had been opened?

Being MTV, we also get a good shot of homophilia through the character of Danny, played by Keahu Kahuanui.  We're suppose to believe that this guy can be openly gay, very beloved by all students, and a champion lacrosse player.  I have no way of knowing if this isn't going on in high school today, but I find that someone could be an openly gay jock more of a fantasy than being a closeted werewolf.

Somehow, as positive as the idea is, and as laudable an idea it is to show that 'gays are just like us', not even in today's high schools is it completely believable that someone can be so open about their sexual orientation and not face any kind of homophobia.  What little I know about teenagers (not being a parent to one and being a few years removed from being one) is that they still use "gay" as a pejorative, not a compliment.  This is perhaps why I find the casualness of Danny's homosexuality (which really is irrelevant both on the show and for me, in real life if this were real) hard to believe.

Still, on the whole I find that Teen Wolf may be tapping into common teenage fears.  Who among us, on at least some level, hasn't thought that the parents of the girl/boy we're dating hasn't wanted to kill us?  Those who are physically weaker or socially lower on the totem pole might celebrate that someone at the bottom is now finding he has untapped power.  Will the girl/boy whom we are in love with continue to do so even after they know our deepest, darkest secret? 

We, especially in our teenage years, yearn to fit in, to find that first taste of love, but we also have fears: of not fitting in, of not being loved (or in Stiles' case, of not being found attractive to gay guys).  The idea that parents are either a danger (as in Allison's) or to be protected (as in Scott and Stiles') connects to the dueling visions of the adults closest to us: either as people who want to keep us down or those whom we genuinely love.   

Teen Wolf may not be intended as an allegory about the difficulties of growing up or how to navigate the transition between juvenile and adult.  I know I may be reading too much into all this.  However, as much as I'd like to say that the story is strictly on face value (it is the story of how a kid was transformed into a werewolf but one whose genuine goodness struggles with the animal inside), I still can't help feel that on some level, Teen Wolf really is about the pressure to conform versus the desire to be free, between facing our fears about these years and how they will affect our futures and the joys of being a regular kid who can enjoy his/her teen years.

On the whole, I found Teen Wolf to be a smart and entertaining series.   The acting was well-rounded (and the teaming of Posey and O'Brien turns them into a great double act that balances menace with comedy).  I should mention that we get strong performances from the adults on Teen Wolf, putting to rest the idea that this show short-shifts those over 25.  Bourne is both caring and protective as well as dangerous as Mr. Argent, who loves his daughter but is not above trying to kill her boyfriend.  Orny Adams has great moments of comedy as the whacked-out lacrosse Coach Finstock and Adam Fristoe had good moments as the strict and serious chemistry teacher Mr. Harris, who harbors a secret that ties him in with the tragedy that unleashed the events in Teen Wolf.

As I was saying, Teen Wolf is a good show that keeps up a strong pace through its 12-episode First Season.  It treats the scenario seriously but manages to keep things on occasion light (with the exception of Derek, who's never in a good mood).  Again, one can read messages about being a teen if one wants to.  It's not required.  On the whole I'd say I'm looking forward to Season Two and would say the show can have around a three-to-four year run.  It should make a good calling car for our young cast, and even allow some of the adults a good chance to showcase genuine talent.

Teen Wolf does what it is suppose to do: be a series that appeals to teens without insulting them by bringing in their problems, concerns, and experiences both worldly and naive to play...even if it is in the guise of the supernatural. 

Then again, don't we all think our high school years had a touch of the macabre and mysterious to them?


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