Teen Wolf and Sci-Fi TV: Or, How I Convinced Myself To (Mostly) Stop Worrying and Love the Cheese

Hello, Tor.commers! Your Auntie Leigh here, taking an unexpected break from all things Epic Doorstop Fantasy Series-related, and trying something new and different for once.

Which is, apparently, a meditation on cheesy sci-fi TV shows in general, and the MTV supernatural teen drama Teen Wolf in particular. Because that’s exactly what everyone was expecting, right?

HAHAHA I GLEEFULLY DEFY YOUR NARROW EXPECTATIONS NEENER

Ahem. Anyway, my thoughts on my terrible-slash-wonderful TV obsessions, past and present, let me show you them. Click on!

My television habits have been a long running source of both amusement and puzzlement in my family—which I can’t really blame them for, because they amuse and puzzle—and frustrate—me almost as much. They’ve tried to phrase it delicately in one way or another over the years, but what their question boils down to, once you strip off the layer of protective lovingness, is simple: how can you watch such crap, Leigh?

It’s a pretty good question, honestly. And one which, it turns out to the shock of precisely no one, has a long and involved answer. Strap in, kids.

Back when I was roommates with my sister Liz in L.A., I would gleefully time how many minutes into any given episode of Smallville it would take before Liz threw a cushion at my head and stormed out of the living room, yelling OH MY GOD HOW CAN YOU STAND THIS AGGGGHH, and I would just laugh and shrug, because seriously, I had no defense. I give her immense credit that she continues to try to understand it and share my terrible TV with me, actually, given how often she has been burned in the process.

She was too young to be critical of Quantum Leap or Star Trek: TNG, but she later tried with reruns of The X-Files, and kept landing on the vampire pizza boy episode, poor darling. She tried with the aforementioned Smallville, with Roswell, with Xena, with Buffy, with Angel, with Stargate: Atlantis, with Heroes, just to name a few, and bounced off of them, one and all. She lasted less than one episode with Supernatural (for which I cannot blame her, as I’m pretty sure it was the bugs episode in Season 1, because of course she started with that one) and I think she is still traumatized by that time she walked in on True Blood at the absolute worst possible moment. (I couldn’t tell you which moment that was, though, because seriously there are SO MANY possibilities. Was it the werepanther gang rape scene, or the one where Vampire Beeeehl twists Whatsherguts’ neck around 180 degrees while they’re screwing? WHO KNOWS.) The point is, I voluntarily watch a show that has werepanther gang rape scenes, and this is a source of constant bafflement to my poor Liz.

My other sister, Kate, on the other hand, does watch True Blood with me, but this is strictly for MST3K purposes as far as she is concerned, and must be accompanied by alcohol, loud mockery, and liberal use of the pause button whenever anyone else wanders into the room while it’s on. I’m fine with this, because True Blood has long since… well, it hasn’t so much “jumped the shark” as it has abducted the shark, did unspeakable things to the shark in a filthy back room, and then sold the shark for parts on the black market. To say the least. Kate and I cheerfully refer to it as “stupid vampire time,” and the rest of the family just shakes their heads at us in sad, sad, totally justifiable judgment.

Sookie True Blood

But even Kate draws the line at my latest terrible TV obsession. Which is, of course, Teen Wolf. Because, well, yeah. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Liz and I have discussed my terrible TV, and I have tried to make her understand why I love/hate these shows so ardently, but I’m still not sure she gets it. You’re a writer, she says to me. It is literally your job to be critical of stories and how they’re written, so how can you deal with these shows that are so often frankly cringe-worthy in the writing department? (Not to mention the special effects department, and the acting department, and the just about everything else department.) Because let’s face it, even Buffy, arguably one of the best-written sci-fi/fantasy shows of the last twenty years, had some stunningly awful moments of cheese-laden badness, as well as some highly questionable narrative arc decisions, particularly in the later seasons. And many of the other shows I’ve mentioned are far worse in that regard—or, well, in all regards.

But the thing is, I don’t think she’s ever going to get it. Liz and Kate and the rest of my family are just not consumers of the science fiction/fantasy genre the way I am (and, I suspect, the way many of the folk reading this are). My sisters are game for it up to an extent, and have in fact enthusiastically enjoyed quite a lot of science fiction/fantasy things that they probably would never have otherwise read or watched if not for me shoving it at them, but the particular phenomenon of the sci-fi/fantasy serial TV show is the breaking point for them, it seems. And I think that is because that while my sisters enjoy SF/F, my sisters do not feel the need for it that I do.

They are not, in other words, Fans.

Because, I know that these shows are frequently cheesetacular. I know that the demands of their outlandish settings/storylines generally outstrip their (often paltry) SFX budgets. It’s rather a chicken or the egg kind of situation, honestly: do the networks have no faith in SF shows because they are so cheesy, or are they so cheesy because they have no support from the networks? Even in the era of LOTR and the Marvel movies and the Star Trek reboots, I still feel like the science fiction/fantasy genre is recognized by Hollywood more as a cheap and lucrative and slightly embarrassing financial investment than it is a source of genuine art, and that is often reflected by the amount of (or rather, lack of) effort put in to creating them.

And that is undeniably frustrating. But even so, I try to explain to Liz, there is something that comes through in so many of these shows that makes me love them anyway. Maybe it’s the feeling that, even if the networks and the critics and the general mainstream world continue to disdain them and drain support from them, that nevertheless someone on that creative team, whether it be the writers or the actors or whoever, loves that show as much as I do, and tries their best to make it as good as it can possibly be within the constraints that they are given. Even if they fail, ultimately.

Maybe it’s an appreciation of the quixotic attempt to portray visually what often cannot really be portrayed—at least not without showing the zipper down the monster’s back. Or maybe it’s just a SF/F fan taking what she can get, when she can get it.

But mostly, I think it is that want that every SF fan has: to see the real world reflected in the unreal—to let the supernatural, the fantastical, the other represent the mundane concerns of their lives—their fears, their hopes, and their loves—in a way that lets them connect to it, but also lets them feel that those things are momentous and amazing and awesome. It is precisely that thing that so many of these shows have the potential to do, and which so many of them only partially provide.

And I’m more and more convinced, these days, that the reason these shows so often fail to deliver on their promise is that their creators are suffering from a fundamental misunderstanding of what the science fiction/fantasy genre is actually for.

They think it is about monsters or magic or mutants, about flashy action sequences or gory scare moments or crazy cool special effects. And to an extent SF/F is about those things, true enough. Those things are very important! But if you ask me, those things are not enough. Monsters and magical mayhem or whatever cannot exist in a vacuum, or purely for their own sake, and be a good story. To have meaning, to have resonance with an audience, those things are pointless unless they are also connected in some way to humanity; either in the effects those fantastical elements are having on the humans experiencing them, or the effects of being those fantastical things have on the humans who become them. Without that human element, without exploring the impact that monsters and magic have on what would otherwise be ordinary human lives, and making us care about the people they are affecting, then these kinds of stories simply don’t work.

Teen Wolf, in particular, is a spectacular example of a show that has the potential to do this, and yet (in my opinion) has so far continually failed to actually provide it—or rather, it seemed to set itself up to be those things, and then egregiously failed to follow through on delivering them. And this seems to be because what the creators think it is and what its audience thinks it is (or should be) are apparently two completely different things.

Jeff Davis, the creator of the show, was best known prior to Teen Wolf as the originator of the series Criminal Minds. Which I hear is a very good show (I haven’t watched it myself, because God save me from Yet Another Police Procedural), but I think everyone will agree that what Criminal Minds is definitely not is either (a) a show about the supernatural, or (b) a teen drama.

Mind you, I’m not saying that there’s no way to segue from an adult forensic crime show to a youth-demographic-oriented supernatural show, but I do find Davis’s history to be rather instructive in considering why he seems to be totally missing the mark on what it is about the show he’s created that fans actually want to see more of. And by that I’m not even talking about a certain infamous slash ship associated with Teen Wolf; I’m talking about how he set up situations and dynamics between the characters in the first season that he has subsequently seemed to feel no need to explore or resolve, and in fact has actively ignored or even forgotten that these dynamics actually exist.

Teen Wolf

And I mean that last part literally, as demonstrated by the story Holland Roden (the actress who plays Lydia Martin) told in an interview about how, upon learning that Lydia and Peter Hale were having a scene together in Season 3, she and Ian Bohen (the actor playing Peter) had to go to Davis and remind him that (a) Peter had viciously attacked Lydia in Season 1, leaving her in a coma for weeks, and then (b) spent most of Season 2 brainwashing her to the point of insanity and using her for his own purposes, and given all that, was Davis really just going to have them meet up and chat together in this scene as if nothing had happened?

Because, apparently, Davis was going to do exactly that. And, in fact, other than a hastily inserted shocked look at each other, that’s still what they ended up doing! And this is because the writing was more concerned with getting Lydia and Peter in position for the big climactic showdown at the end of the story arc than it was in their history or how that should affect their reaction to each other. Because having Lydia have an actual logical, human reaction to seeing Peter again (which, for my money, should probably have been an attempt to kill him, or at least a refusal to have anything to do with him) would have messed up the plot, you see.

It’s the classic mistake made by those who see the flash and bang as the ultimate goal of the sci-fi show: the belief that plot trumps character, when it should always, always be the other way around. Davis seems to believe the audience of Teen Wolf is just waiting impatiently through all this annoying “character interaction” and “having feelings” crap so we can get to see the next slomo werewolf fight scene or the next super-cool special effects sequence, when in fact I’m willing to bet I am far from the only one who would like it to be the other way around.

Because don’t get me wrong: I like me a good werewolf fight scene. Who doesn’t? But the mere fact of a good fight scene’s existence is not enough. The most super-cool werewolf fight scene in the world isn’t going to interest me if I don’t care about at least some of the werewolves involved, or if I don’t understand what the fight is supposed to accomplish, or if I don’t believe that the characters have a believable reason to be in the fight in the first place.

Teen Wolf

I need the human element, in other words. I need for something to be at stake for the people involved—and for that “something” to make logical sense in the realm of human interaction. (Logic in general would be appreciated, actually.) And if you think demanding a “human element” out of a show about werewolves is silly, then you have no business writing a werewolf story, because congratulations, you have completely and totally missed the point of werewolves—and science fiction/fantasy—in the first place.

Plot over character is something you can maybe get away with in a criminal procedural show, where the plot really is the point, but it is an absolutely disastrous way to approach a show like Teen Wolf. Both the teen drama and the supernatural setting absolutely require that character be paramount, to overcome each genre’s inherent tendency toward cheesiness if for no other reason, and yet Teen Wolf seems utterly uninterested in providing that. It’s almost bizarre, in fact, how the show seems to veer skittishly away from having characters confront each other about how their actions affected the people around them, instead leaving the audience to confusedly assume that these confrontations/resolutions took place off-screen for some unfathomable reason. I mean, why would you even do that? Why would you deliberately miss that opportunity for dramatic tension?

Well, and the answer is because far too many people in Hollywood still think that plot-driven tension is better than character-driven tension, despite all the evidence to the contrary. You’d think people would have learned their lesson from the long-held conviction that The Empire Strikes Back—a film whose climax was overwhelmingly character- and emotion-driven (“I am your father,” hello), with the action acting as a backdrop to that emotionality instead of the other way around—is the best of the original Star Wars trilogy, but not so much, apparently. That film is a seminal example, in my opinion, of the proof that all the sci-fi flash and bang in the world is only as important as getting the audience invested in the emotional lives of the people it’s happening to, but again and again it seems to be a lesson that is roundly ignored. (By the Star Wars prequels, for one. But that’s another rant.)

There’s no other explanation, in my mind, for why a show like Teen Wolf could set up a character with such a compelling and tragic backstory as Derek Hale’s in Season 1, and yet fail, then or in any subsequent season (so far), to adequately address the effects that should have had on the character in more than the most superficial and facetious sort of way. It’s why it could introduce a character like Isaac Lahey, who we’re shown had been living with an extremely abusive father for most of his life, and then later see nothing wrong with having the hero of the show beat Isaac up and then play it as a joke. It’s why the show has largely ignored the opportunity to explore what it could mean for its protagonist, Scott McCall, to be coping with being a teenaged werewolf, on an intimate or emotional level, in favor of—well, just crazy shit happening, really.

And again, I love a good homage to classic horror/adventure stories—and Teen Wolf has run the gamut of them, from Lon Chaney to Hitchcock to Indiana Jones—but if your homage is made at the expense of developing the relationships between your main characters (or the characters’ own emotional development within themselves), then you’re doing the equivalent of spending all your money on the frame, and none on the painting. And that is just a shame.

And I know what you’re thinking at this point, which is probably something very similar to what Liz (who probably needs an award for patient tolerance and Awesome Sisterhoodness) said to me after I spent an evening ranting to her about this exact topic. Which is: Uh, okay, so… if the writing is as bad as you say, then why are you still watching this show?

Well.

You remember what I said up there, about the saving grace of so many of these shows being that at least one someone or someones on the creative team does actually get what the point is, or should be, and tries their best to provide it even if they can’t always succeed in doing so? Well, Teen Wolf has that saving grace, too. And in its particular case, for my money, it’s the cast.

Because the cast of Teen Wolf? Is awesome.

Teen Wolf

Not only in that they are, as a unit, far better actors than one would remotely expect from a werewolf teen drama ensemble on MTV (Dylan O’Brien in particular is just stunningly good, and I hope destined for far greater things), but in that one gets the overwhelming sense that they are pretty much the only people actually paying attention to the emotional continuity of their own characters, and doing the best they can to fill in the gaping gaps that the writing leaves for them to work with. Not always or even usually with total success, mind you, but they really do seem to try nevertheless. And for that, I love them.

The triage that Holland Roden and Ian Bohen did to at least partially rescue their characters’ integrity is not an isolated incident, in other words. One always has to take interviews and public appearances and mediated events of any kind with actors with a large grain of salt, of course, but nevertheless, reading between the lines of what many of the cast has said about their experiences in making Teen Wolf leaves the distinct impression that they have been the ones to have to say “Um, I don’t think my character would do that.” Because, apparently, no one else has bothered to do so. And beyond that, they have managed, in practically every episode, to imbue their characters with at least some of the subtextual depth that the bare bones of their dialogue would never have given them, as far as I can tell.

One can have a debate, of course, about whether it is the actors’ job to police their own characters or not, but in my opinion, in an ideal world any given character must be a joint creation of the person writing it and the person embodying it. So it is a source of profound relief to me that it seems that at least one half of that team on Teen Wolf is actually doing his or her job.

And on the more negative side of that, one also has to ponder the surprisingly large percentage of the cast who have abruptly exited the show over the course of three seasons. The actors’ given reasons, of course, have never been anything so bridge-burningly blatant as “the writing for my character was wretched, so I left for greener pastures,” but again, one can read between the lines, and wonder.

(It doesn’t hurt that the cast is, one and all, almost excruciatingly gorgeous, of course, but I maintain that mere attractiveness would not be enough to rescue their characters without genuine talent to accompany it. You’ll notice I never said anything about watching, say, The Vampire Diaries, because the acting there is as awful as the writing, in my opinion, and no amount of prettiness will ever rescue it.)

So it is for the cast that I stay, mostly, but I would be disingenuous if I claimed that I still don’t harbor some lingering hope that the show will eventually correct at least some of its flaws. Because there are those moments of awesome, scattered here and there like diamonds in the muck, and maybe I’m just a sucker, but the combination of the two is enough to keep me coming back. At least for now.

The fourth season of the show premiered this Monday, as was reviewed on Tor.com, but other than being cheered by the perhaps inadvertently large percentage of female representation in the cast thus far, I think it is far too early to tell whether the show is going to make any headway in addressing my issues with it. Certainly trends like blithely ignoring its own internal rules of supernatural physics continue merrily along (so, like, torturing a werewolf with electroshocks now also promotes deductive reasoning? Aztec-ish tombs in the desert can de-age people? What?), but I can still hope that the depiction of the characters’ development, both internally and between themselves and the other characters, will get more of a chance to shine this season. We Shall See.

…Aaaand I didn’t get to even touch upon the other giant topic of interest re: Teen Wolf, which is of course the huge and contentious fandom of the show, and the fascinating ways the show has engaged with that fandom, and both respected and failed to respect the audience which is largely responsible for its success, but I have to draw the line somewhere. Maybe that’s a topic for a future post.

In the meantime, tell me your thoughts! Am I right, am I wrong, am I brilliant, am I completely off my head? All are equal possibilities, so comment and weigh in on which you think it is! And cheers!


Leigh Butler is a writer, blogger, and tragic verbosity abuser. She conducts A Read of Ice and Fire and the currently on-hiatus Wheel of Time Reread for Tor.com, and would appreciate it if there were no spoilers for the True Blood premiere in the comments, as she and Kate have not yet been able to arrange for Stupid Vampire Time this week. She currently lives in New Orleans.

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