[Apologies for the delay in writing comments on the Monday (August 13) second season finale of MTV’s “Teen Wolf.” Better slightly late than never, right? Exactly.]
I had relatively hostile things to say about MTV’s “Teen Wolf” in its first season.
When it premiered, I spent a long time harping on the misappropriation of the vintage “Teen Wolf” title for a show that exhibited none of the charm or humor of the relatively classic Michael J. Fox horror-comedy. [Frankly, I stand by that criticism and probably won’t ever back down. When it comes to “Teen Wolf,” my near-rhyming policy is simple: No Boof, no Wolf.]
For some reason, I stuck with “Teen Wolf” through a full season, just in case things improved, but for the most part, they didn’t. At the time, I said that I was mostly inexplicably still watching because it was summer and there were fewer viewing options and that if “Teen Wolf” would just air in February, I could ditch it entirely.
My feeling was basically that I wasn’t fully abandoning “Teen Wolf” not because I was enjoying it, but because it seemed like the kind of show that I generally do enjoy. And I’m persistent. Some showrunners should be grateful at that persistence.
In its second season, which concluded with Monday’s “Master Plan,” “Teen Wolf” made the leap from one of the worst shows on TV, to respectably fast-paced guilty pleasure. That’s not a small jump and as much as I maligned creator Jeff Davis and executive producer and Russell Mulcahy last season, I might as well give some begrudging credit now.
“Teen Wolf” isn’t bad.
There. I said it.
Yes, there are still things about “Teen Wolf” that aren’t working and some of those things are not minor.
While the cast around him has settled into their roles and the actors have begun to see the writers adapting to their respective strengths, star Tyler Posey remains comfortably the least interesting part of “Teen Wolf.” He’s beyond bland and other than a single furrowed expression that he uses for “concern,” “fear,” “determination” and “in love,” his placid demeanor never changes. At some point this is a character who needs to evolve beyond under-nuanced urgency, but either the writers are afraid to give Scott McCall a developing arc or Posey is draining the character of the ability to change.
Posey also looks ridiculous when he’s fully wolfed out or when he’s as fully wolfed out as “Teen Wolf” has decided it wants these characters to get. Two seasons in and I think we’ve determined that in the “Teen Wolf” universe, werewolves don’t ever become full wolves, they just get jaundiced eyes, pointy ears, claws and sideburns. I get the budgetary advantages of this limited lycanthropy solution, but rather than making these werewolves into something cool, “Teen Wolf” just makes all of its characters look like yellow-eyed versions of occasionally hirsute British thespian Jamie Bell. A few times this season, there were confrontations involving groups of werewolves and it just looked like a band of brawling Billy Elliotts.
If Posey has any physical presence at all, he might be able to get away with this sub-par transformation, but he doesn’t. This is especially evident any time he’s sharing the screen with Tyler Hoechlin’s Derek. Hoechlin is no great thespian. In fact, whenever he’s asked to deliver dialogue, the show becomes unintentional comedy. Or, actually, it becomes too ungainly to even achieve unintentional comedy. I point you to the character’s recent attempt to teach his pack of wolves about the Beau Geste Effect for an example. But when Hoechlin is in action, he’s broody and threatening in the right proportions.
Perhaps Season 2 of “Teen Wolf” improved as much as it did because it ceased to be Scott’s story? There was no formal hand-off and it may not have even been intentional, but it felt like there were episodes of “Teen Wolf” this season in which Scott was maybe the seventh or eighth most important person in the story.
When your hero is a dud, having a compelling villain or two can really help and, at times, “Teen Wolf” had a half-dozen villains this season, even if it was never really clear who was turning into what kinds of creatures or who was controlling what and for whom.
The season introduced, and may have poured all of its effects and makeup budget into, a new monster called a Kanima, a pointy-toothed lizard with paralyzing claws. Because “Teen Wolf” likes to tie itself into needlessly complicated knots, we spent the first half of the season trying to figure out who the new shape-shifter was — It was Colton Haynes’ Jackson in an arc that perfectly capitalized on Haynes’ square-jawed Stepford Son good looks and his somewhat dead eyes — and then the second half trying to figure out whose thirst for revenge was controlling the Kanima — some guy with a grudge against the swim team, or something. The Kanima plotline didn’t unspool perfectly, but it didn’t feel like a total retread from a dozen other recent supernatural shows. That’s a big deal, what with all of the supernatural shows on the air. If I can compare the arc you’re doing to something that another show is doing better at the exact same thing, that looks bad. Well, nobody did a Kanima arc this season.
Even more than the Kanima, though, the season’s Big Bad was Michael Hogan’s Gerard, the pater familias for the wolf-busting clan that also included Scott’s Lady Love Allison. The “Battlestar Galactica” veteran was given free rein to be as lip-curlingly wicked as he wanted to be and Hogan responded with a performance that was expertly hammy, from his arched eyebrows to his twitching jowels to thick Canadian accent that only embellished his malevolent line-readings. Not only was Hogan having obvious fun, but playing opposite this newly arrived wack-job let J.R. Bourne humanize master-hunter Argent and let Crystal Reed explore Allison’s dark side. I don’t think I bought Allison’s speedy transition from meek girlfriend to crossbow wielding badass, but it was definitely the best thing that could have happened for Reed, because it gave her something to do other than just mooning over Posey.
The Kanima and Gerard were also larger-than-life baddies who helped the “Teen Wolf” stories live up to the heightened exaggeration of the show’s aesthetic. Dino Meneghin’s bombastic score is usually loud and aggressive enough to creative suspense from nothing, though it’s equally likely to squeeze all emotions from any scene that might have benefitted from a lighter touch. Similarly, Jonathan Hall’s cinematography has always worked best when channeling a hyper-stylized variation on the network’s ’80s music video language and worked least in any scene quiet enough to make you wonder why none of the characters know how to replace a light-bulb.
Although nobody on the “Teen Wolf” creative team excelled in those quiet moments, and although the show is still ostensibly built around an actor who vanishes the more subtle you ask him to be, the second season still found the occasional shading courtesy of its supporting players.
In the early going, Dylan O’Brien’s Stiles was one of the biggest disappointments for me, prone to tin-eared quipping, but rarely producing any actual comedic relief. Because O’Brien was really solid in the Sundance coming-of-age dramedy “The First Time,” I decided to blame the writers for Stiles’ Season 1 struggles and in Season 2, they started giving O’Brien one-liners that better matched his delivery and they also started giving him emotional moments, whether opposite the very good Linden Ashby as his father or moving his unrequited crush on Holland Roden’s Lydia into more grounded territory. Stiles always should have been the show’s most relatable character — he’s a moral, after all — and that didn’t happen in the first season, but things began to come together this summer.
With her huge, expressive eyes, porcelain skin and natural pout, Roden is like a doll-come-to-life and the writers still haven’t figured out what to do with Roden as an actress or Lydia as a character. The first season was all about defining Lydia in opposition to our first impressions of her, while the second season was a muddle built mostly to lead up to a series of scenes in which Lydia was lost or bereft and those eyes were able to fill with tears. The decision to hinge the entire season around Lydia and Jackson’s pure love was absurd insofar as as Jackson was concerned, but Roden sold her half of the equation.
In settling into its identity, “Teen Wolf” neatly compartmentalized its audience and, perhaps because of my harsh words when the show premiered, I was left out of the core demo, which can basically be described as “Viewers who like watching shirtless, hairless men.” Always proudly showcasing its leading men topless, both in the credit and in and out of narratively mandated contexts, whichever early season episode featured an extended scene at the local gay nightclub and a near-naked brawl in a high school shower cemented a place for “Teen Wolf” as TV’s most homoerotic show. I didn’t do the math, but I’m thinking that Colton Haynes spent maybe 10 percent of Season 2 with his shirt on.
“True Blood” has long been the king of small screen homoeroticism, but with “True Blood,” the raunchiness has always been evenly distributed. With “Teen Wolf,” the producers and directors have never had even the slightest sexual interest in the attractive female members of the cast. I’d point to multiple bizarrely chilly shower scenes featuring Holland Roden as evidence for how the Male Gaze somehow doesn’t lead to female objectification on this particular show. And yes, this is probably an interesting enough phenomenon to be worth a full blog post but I’ll save it for next season.
And I’ll be watching next season, even if the finale didn’t do much to set things up for a third season that I’m instantly excited for.
As was also the case with last summer’s finale, “Master Plan” built to its somewhat ludicrous climax — when we weren’t watching, Scott slipped mountain ash into Gerard’s cancer pills, thus thwarting his desire to become an alpha himself — and then spent its last 10 minutes on barely connected set-ups for next year. Allison and Scott broke up! Whatever. She can do better. Two of the members of Derek’s pack this year are ambushed by other creatures with claws! Whatever. I can’t even remember their names [Erica and Boyd, but whatevs.]. It turns out that those creatures with claws are actually a gang of alphas! Whatever. “Teen Wolf” has always been way over-invested in werewolf hierarchy and I can’t believe we’re headed down that path again.
The third season, in fact, could be all about deja vu. More Alpha/Beta wolf drama? Yawn. And while Gerard was left seemingly for dead, we didn’t see a body, which means the producers would be fools not to bring Hogan back. After all, we saw Peter die in Season 1 and it was barely an impediment to Ian Bohen’s return in recent episodes (Bohen was far better in his second shot).
“I’m right back where I started,” Scott said at the end of the finale. He meant that he’s not playing lacrosse — bad grades — and he doesn’t have a girlfriend. It’s a stupid thing for him to say, since before he had the sports stardom and the hottie on his arm, he also wasn’t becoming Jamie Bell every full moon, so he’s not right back where he started at all.
I hope “Teen Wolf” doesn’t go back where it started. It was pretty bad then and it’s much better now.
Who knows? With an extended third season, maybe “Teen Wolf” could eventually become good.