Jun 27 2013 4:00pm

Stop Everything You’re Doing and Turn On Teen Wolf Right Now

Teen Wolf

You aren’t watching this show. Know how I know you’re not watching this show? Because you, like me, heard that MTV—bastion of lowest common denominator reality TV, teenagers making very poor life choices, and Carson Daly—was remaking a cheeseball 80s movie about a high school basketball player cum werewolf. No amount of world-weary sighing or Internet hand-wringing about the deplorable state of the contemporary television landscape could adequately cover the depths of your irritation at the very mention of its existence. “It has to be the stupidest thing anyone’s ever put on the small screen,” you bemoaned loudly. And you were wrong. We both were. Oh, so very wrong.

Last year I finally joined Tumblr. Looking back, that was one of those moments that seemed insignificant at the time, but later you realize it was a major turning point in your personal evolution. Tumblr introduced me to Destiel, which lead me to Supernatural, and my life collapsed around me—just as it did a few years back when a friend sent me a clip of Spike and some hot dude in a coat making out during a bar fight and I died of heart failure and was reborn a SFF fanatic. Likewise, I was considering giving Teen Wolf a try after nearly drowning in a deluge of Stiles GIFs and Sterek slash, but it was after meeting a Tumblr blogger IRL at an Amanda Palmer concert—we bonded over our mutual Doctor Who tattoos and my “Smoke on the Water” ringtone—who gave me the final push.

Teen Wolf isn’t a great show, but it is an awesome one. It is everything True Blood has failed to be. It’s genetically closer to Angel (minus the Monster of the Week format) than its namesake or home network. Yes, it can be very, very stupid sometimes—I literally cringe whenever the weres runs on all fours—but then out of the blue they toss out a gorgeously composed shot, structurally complex scene, or dizzyingly quippy dialogue. As much as I love to whine about how MTV no longer plays music, Teen Wolf has a killer soundtrack. And the opening credits, great Hera’s ghost, but it’s one of my favorites on TV. Jeff Davis, creator of Criminal Minds (another show I enjoy probably more than is healthy), knows how to ratchet up the suspense and frights, and he complements them well with humor and relatable characters.

Teen Wolf

Davis doesn’t shy away from violence or gore, either, but uses it sparingly—which heightens the impact tremendously.  Take a scene from the fourth episode of season 3. In it, Derek and a beta get into a brawl with a couple alphas. You think you know where this is going, that Derek and Cora will get their asses kicked or get saved last minute by Scott, but instead one of the alphas rams a pipe through Derek’s chest and pins him to the ground so Deucalion can cut the cheese with him. The show is great at setting up expectations then countering them unexpectedly, intensely, graphically, and bloodily.

There’s something kinda amazing about a television show that balances perfectly its Rocky Horror-esque camp with the kind of seriousness rarely seen outside a teen drama while not crumbling into ridiculousness like many lesser shows of its ilk (hi there, Secret Circle and Beauty and the Beast). But it wasn’t always so entertaining. The first season can be a struggle to get through, depending on your level of tolerance for over-the-top angst and lacrosse. But it also has the “Derek/Miguel” scene, which ranks somewhere between “If there’s a key, then there must also be a lock!” and David Duchovny on Twin Peaks as one of my favorite television scenes ever filmed.

The second season shakes things up a lot and minimizes the Romeo and Juliet theme in lieu of world building and B- and C-season-long arcs with a much higher stakes. Rather than relying on over-used mythological creatures, the show creates a whole new supernatural being, the Kanima, and things go crazy town banana pants from there. Season 3 improves on its predecessors, and promises a magical serial killer, a psychotic alpha pack, and a tense alliance between the hunters and the weres.

The acting talents vary from keeps-getting-better to would-probably-be-adequate-in-a-minor-role-on-a-CBS-cop-show, but it’s Tyler Posey and Dylan O’Brien that really stand out. Dylan’s a good actor bordering on very, and though most of the time Tyler stretches the limits of his fairly minor acting abilities, every so often he knocks it out the park. Both have completely mastered their roles. They know the ins and out of their characters, and play them to the fullest. One of the best things about 8 seasons of Supernatural is watching Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki grow into and with their characters, developing personal ticks and idiosyncrasies, interests and hobbies. Tyler and Dylan have sussed out their characters’ every quirk in 2 seasons flat while also shedding light on what sort of people Scott and Stiles might be when they grow up.

No one’s quite figured out what to do with Allison Argent, most of all Crystal Reed. Holland Roden’s Lydia Martin is the SASS MASTER, and one day the writers will give her a real storyline more substantial than resident scream queen. Tyler Hoechlin still hasn’t learned that Derek Hale’s personality should go beyond nice abs and an ever-present growl. Daniel Sharman plays Isaac as the world’s most adorably put upon boy king of eye rolling, and all I want to do is take him home, bake him a pie, and mother him forever and ever. Everyone else is varying degrees of attractive but underdeveloped.

To compare the show to another Joss Whedon creation, Scott and Stiles remind me a lot of Buffy and Willow/Xander from the high school seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (with Lydia guesting as Cordy). Neither boy is particularly bright, but they’re earnest and have a clear sense of right, wrong, and—importantly—when to accept that doing the right thing doesn’t always mean doing what’s good. They aren’t caught up in werewolf politics and hierarchies; they just want to live their lives and protect their friends and families. When these kids run into trouble, they do what any Scoobie worth their salt would do: research. They plan, and re-plan, and plan some more. Scott may not look like much, but he can strategize the hell out of a long game. The whole back half of season 2 turned out to be Scott being a manipulative little smart ass who outwitted three Big Bads without breaking a sweat. Stiles is running the game in season 3, having untangled one of two possibly connected Big Bads all on his own.

The best thing about Teen Wolf is its shocking level of diversity. One of the characters is a gay Hawaiian. In season 3, a girl is attacked not because she’s a lesbian with a girlfriend, but simply because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. No one makes a big deal out of someone being gay for the same reason no one cares if someone’s straight. The way Teen Wolf is written, you could literally swap the race, sex, gender, or orientation and it wouldn’t alter the character in any substantial way. Not because the writers have white-washed everyone, but because those aspects don’t influence the characters’ relationships with each other.

They don’t care if you’re black or bi or nerdy or sexually active or whatever. It’s the person that matters, not the presentation or societal labels. There’s this great Kerry Washington quote from a 2010 Essence Magazine article where she says, “I just want to get to the point where my racial identity is simply a part of what makes me unique in the way being from the Bronx makes me unique, or being an Aquarius, or being born in 1977 and having hip-hop be a part of my heartbeat.” That is exactly what Teen Wolf does.

Everyone is accepted or rejected based solely on their personality, not what race, color, creed, sex, gender, or orientation they are or aren’t. And there’s not even a discussion about it. Their world is diverse and no one thinks twice about it. Teen Wolf refuses tokenism in favor of diversity. Think about that for a moment. How many Native Americans/Alaskan Natives/Pacific Islanders are active in film or television right now? How many gay characters aren’t stuck playing the best friend or a horrendous stereotype? How many plus-sized characters—or plus-sized people of color—aren’t relegated “fatty go boom” jokes? How many shows and movies about teenagers don’t reduce them to blood-thirsty bullies and mean girls? Teen Wolf emotionally reflects what it’s like to be a teenager—star-crossed romance, best friends, academic struggles, hormones, etc.—while not (fully) succumbing to clichés and petty melodrama.

And you thought this was just a dumb show about hormonal teenagers.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

1. victorianfae
Mark me down as convinced! tumblr was starting to sway me, but I'm definitely in now. ^_^
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
Huh--that sounds very different than I would have imagined and well worth a view.
Alex Brown
3. AlexBrown
@victorianfae: Do you have the same username on Tumblr? If so, hello from one of your followers :) Also, welcome to your newest addiction.

@stevenhalter: If you're still on the fence, start with this season (only 4 eps in). This is the best season so far. You won't be spoiled on the previous seasons, and they catch you up to speed pretty quickly. Then you can go back and fill in seasons 1 and 2 later (and you should, because they are great).
4. Cybersnark
Definitely worth watching.

I'd argue that Derek being kinda one-note is, if not deliberate, at least lampshaded in-show. As Deaton notes in S2, Derek's not half as smart as he thinks he is.

Of course, if Derek was more emotionally mature, he and Stiles wouldn't be nearly as hilarious.
Alex Brown
5. AlexBrown
@Cybersnark: I think Derek's maturity level is going to skyrocket if this new relationship picks up steam, so it'll be nice to have some development out of him. But yes, watching him and Stiles snipe at each other like a couple of 12-year-old girls is the best thing ever.

To go one step further, I'd argue that everyone lampshades each other about their flaws. In particular, they all like to call out Scott's dumbass-ness on a regular basis (which makes his intellectual turnabouts that much more striking). One of my favorite conversations is in the first ep:
Scott: Stiles, what the hell are you doing?
Stiles: You weren’t answering your phone. Why do you have a bat?
Scott: I thought you were a predator.
Stiles: A pre… *coughs* what…what? Look, I know it’s late but you gotta hear this. I saw my dad leave 20 minutes ago. Dispatch called. They’re bringing in every officer from the Beacon Department, and even state police.
Scott: For what?
Stiles: Two jogger found a body in the woods.
Scott: A dead body?
Stiles: No, a body of water. Yes, dumbass, a dead body.
6. jonathan inge
You write a nice defense. But I still can't stand "Teen Wolf." A much better teen wolf show is CBBC's "Wolfblood."

Side note: It's amazing to see Russell T. Davies' abismal "Wizards vs Aliens" cross the pond (it airs on The Hub) and not see "Wolfblood" do the same.
7. soxy
I've never seen Teen Wolf but a 'Kanaima' is a mythological figure in Guyana/Brazil. Kanaima's are humans who are able to use some form of magic to transform into other creatures ('tigers' - which in these areas refer to leopards - and spiders seem common). Can someone explain a bit more about the Kanima in Teen Wolf? Obviously it could be an entirely new creature but I'd be equally interested if there's any link to the SA Kanaima.
Risha Jorgensen
8. RishaBree
@7 - Teen Wolf's kanima is a "spirit of vengence", a lizard-like creature with paralyzing venom. It has no will of its own, but serves a human master.

Derek: They say he’s in some kind of transparent casing made from the venom coming out of his claws.
Peter: That sounds officially terrifying.
Derek: They also say he’s starting to move.
Peter: Okay, look, I think I found something. Looks like what you’re seeing XXXXXXX is just the kanima’s beta shape.
Derek: Well, meaning what? It can turn into something bigger?
Peter: Bigger and badder.
Derek: He’s turning into that? That has wings.
Peter: I can see that.
Derek: Scott, bring him to us.
Scott: I’m not sure if we have time for that.
Peter: Look, somebody actually made an animation of it. Maybe it’s less frightening if we… Nope, not at all.
9. victorianfae
@AlexBrown I do, hello to you too! It'll be nice to know who to blame for this one ;-)
10. Ixos
I disagree with your characterization that Stiles isn't bright. He, like Lydia, is supposed to be exceptionally clever; but, unlike her, he isn't especially aware.

That being said, this is a show whose cast is more attractive than the average citizen of Mystic Falls, and it is ridiculously amusing. Therefore, I can only support your apology for Teen Wolf.
Alex Brown
11. AlexBrown
@soxy: I did a lot of internet sleuthing when TW revealed the kanima, and while I found a lot of creatures similar to it, it's a wholly new creation as far as I can tell. It's kinda the anti-werewolf: a shapeshifter, but one who can't fully control it, and a creature always looking to be someone's omega rather than battling for pack supremacy. But a helluva lot more powerful than most weres. I'd pay good money to see the kanima take on the Alpha Pack.

@Ixos: I think Stiles and Scott aren't the brightest apples in the bunch...yet. Scott is much better at strategizing and Stiles is much smarter than either of them realize, but neither are at Lydia's level yet. They just need a little more maturing, which will lead to recognizing their talents. So, I guess you and I are saying sorta the same thing?
12. Ixos
@Alex Brown: In my defense of Stiles' intelligence, I was referring to the parent teacher conference or when they were both called into the principal's office (with Allison's grandfather) (Wonder what happened to him?). Stiles has perfect grades and a great IQ (not Lydia level, but still exceptional) (the only thing he has over her is looks, and I'm sure that's merely a matter of taste), but has little discipline or attention span. He is clever, but foolish. So . . . yeah . . . we are saying sorta the same thing.
John McClay
14. jmcclay3
Like most people, when I saw the previews for season one of Teen Wolf, I rolled my eyes. I rolled my eyes because it was MTV and in my book they had zero credibility. Then one day at school, a friend of mine told me he watched the show. I almost died of shock, partially because he was straight (the previews looked like nothing more than a beefcake feast), but also because this was a guy who liked to read Wollstonecraft and debate controversial books like Heart of Darkness. I couldn't believe the same guy watched a show on MTV. Still, I heard him out. Even with his persuasive argument, I was a bit skeptical. Then one day I saw season one was on Netflix and against my better judgment pressed play.

I was absolutely gobsmacked at how much I enjoyed the first season. Sure Scott was a total ding-dong, but it had some truly great elements. It was obvious the show was trying to take a page out of Buffy's book. It certainly wasn't Buffy, but it gave me that vibe of high school being a horror movie. Where I usually hated teenage problems and angst, I enjoyed it here. It was light, it was fun, it was spooky, and it wasn't badly written. Hey, call me converted. It ticked most of my boxes and I was hooked before the second season began.

Season two built on what I liked about the first, but I have to say I was sad to lose the closing credits from the first season. Then I got on Tumblr and discovered Sterek. After this, it was over for me. Here was the real reason to watch Teen Wolf. Stiles and Derek certainly have great chemistry and there actually seemed to be a positive acceptance of this pairing from the show's creator and cast. This element of the show has been the most fun to explore from fan fiction to fan art. Not to mention the subtle nods to it on the show. It's unbelievable how massive the fanbase is just for these two.

Now we get to season three and I'm pretty excited. The show has not only been renewed, but is getting twice as many episodes. I liked the first episode. It was everything I wanted it to be. Episode two was pretty good, but something felt a bit off. By the third episode I was beginning to roll my eyes again. I don't know what it is. Maybe it's the pacing? Or maybe it's the fact that it's starting to feel like fan fiction and not in a good way. Or maybe it's the fact that there are too many inconsistencies, too many plot holes, and too many scenarios that require the audience to take complete leave of their senses. I'm sure you guys are thinking that it's just Teen Wolf, it's supposed to be stupid. But here's what fans of the show having been trying to convey. It's not a bad show, not even by a longshot.

For fans to ignore mediocre acting from some of the cast or to brush aside some of the sillier aspects of a show, it has to retain something special. I can't quite put my finger on what that is, but I know there is a fine line between being in on the joke and being the joke itself. I'm worried that based upon what I've seen so far of the season, that the show is going to cross that line. I don't know if Jeff Davis doesn't know what to do with so many episodes, but the episodes are inching along and it doesn't really feel like anything is happening. Some of the characters are acting a bit out of character. I'm not sure I completely buy this Derek. And there's obviously the setup for some new potential romances. I worry about this, because many writers tend to just rotate characters into new relationships when they have no idea what to do. That is not character development.

The season is still young, so I will reserve judgment until a later date, but I'm a bit worried.
tatiana deCarillion
15. decarillion
heh, we love this show. I don't think I ever saw the original Teen Wolf film, but my husband did, way back, and he thought it was ... not good. But, we saw the trailer for this show, and decided to have a look. I hadn't watched MTV since the VJ days, but we started watching Death Valley a couple of years ago (canceled prematurely, IMO), and found it pretty funny, so we checked out TW, and are quite hooked.
Alex Brown
16. AlexBrown
@jmcclay3: Given last week's ep, you have every right to be worried. That was a solid hour of wheel-spinning. A shorter season would've produced a much tighter, tenser ep. Still, as you say, it's early days. A few meh eps are far from making me violently angry (i.e.: Dexter).

@decarillion: Didn't catch Death Valley, but I don't think you'll find anyone claiming the 80s original of Teen Wolf was a cinematic masterpiece.

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