Teen Wolf debuts tonight on MTV at 11 p.m. Eastern. It moves to its regular time slot Monday at 10 p.m. Eastern.
The fundamental question any pilot of a new show called Teen Wolf needs to answer is, “Why are you making a TV show out of Teen Wolf?” Whatever other virtues it possesses, the premiere episode of Teen Wolf, just the latest attempt by MTV to get into the world of scripted television, fails at answering that very basic question. The answer, of course, is “We’re making a TV show out of Teen Wolf because the rights were available.” Even more damningly, the pilot doesn’t give a good sense of what the hell this show’s going to be about. It’s attempting to position it firmly in the tradition of Buffy or (more realistically) The Vampire Diaries, but the central, guiding question of the pilot is, “Has our lead character become a teen wolf?” When the answer’s right there in the title, you’ve wasted 40 minutes.
Scott McCall (Tyler Posey) is your average teenage nerd, which we know because his best friend keeps telling him what a nerd he is. Really, all we know about him is that he’s into lacrosse, has asthma, and thinks it would be cool to go see a dead body in the woods. While he’s out seeing that dead body, he also sees something strange and unearthly and demonic. That something bites him, and the next day, he’s able to overhear things people are saying outside his high school while he's sitting in a classroom inside of it. He gets much better at lacrosse. He grows more violent. He can see and smell things he couldn’t before. And on and on. He is become teen wolf, destroyer of after-hours parties among American Apparel model hopefuls.
The original Teen Wolf movie, of course, was a goofy comedy about Michael J. Fox using an ancient family curse to dunk basketballs. (This is literally all I remember about the movie. Someone on my Twitter feed brought up that he apparently goes highway surfing, and I seem to have expurgated this from my memory.) The new TV series wants to be a dark, brooding tale of what it means to grow up werewolf or an examination of both the good and bad points of becoming a teen wolf, but it mostly misses that where the movie embraced the ridiculousness of the premise, it has gone too far in the other direction. There’s no real humor or wit or even excitement here. When Scott starts being able to hear things happening the next county over, he yells and shouts a little bit, but the script treats all of this in a fashion that’s remarkably blasé, as if it’s asking Scott if he knows the title of the show he’s on.
It doesn’t help that the actors are incredibly bland, all of them clearly chosen for their ability to pout prettily. The only actor asked to display anything like a range is Posey, and he’s clearly stymied, perhaps from lack of ability and perhaps from the fact that the script doesn’t give us any real sense of who Scott is. His new teen wolf powers are literally the only characterization he gets, and his life, split between everything before the bite and everything after, is entirely signified via the fact that before he was bitten, he had asthma, and now, he doesn’t. (We don’t even get to see him suck at lacrosse in the obligatory scene where his jock enemy hits him in the face with a lacrosse ball and laughs about what a loser he is.) Dylan O’Brien is similarly rote as best friend Stiles, who realizes his friend must be a werewolf and shrugs it off like it’s no big thing. The two female characters seem to literally exist solely to show how a program can fail the Bechdel Test as aggressively as possible, as they’re only really there as love interests, nothing else. They’re the Betty and Veronica of this narrative, right down to the fact that they look surprisingly similar, just with differently colored hair. At least Holland Roden, as popular girl Lydia, is a little feisty. Crystal Reed, as new girl Allison, is a bore.
Obviously, this could all grow and change as it goes on. I never would have pegged Nina Dobrev as someone who could act from the Vampire Diaries pilot, and she gave one of my favorite performances on television last season. But Vampire Diaries, even in a dire pilot, at least had a firm sense that it would be headed in a balls-out, crazy, campy direction. It felt like the kind of show that could be fun, given enough time. And while there are elements I like in Teen Wolf—in particular, the closing twist, while completely predictable, sets up a few interesting ideas—they’ve all been marginalized in favor of staring at the pretty people, who are easily the least interesting things about this. Plus, tonally, it really makes no sense to so faithfully reproduce certain elements of the original movie—why does this need a sports-themed subplot?—and then utterly abandon others that might have made for fun twists—like that family curse. Everything here is paint-by-numbers, and not enough of it entertainingly so.
But there are things to recommend in the pilot. In particular, Russell Mulcahy’s direction is nicely atmospheric, finding neat ways to cut around the fact that he’s working on a basic cable budget and can’t really show much of anything. And the makeup effects, as these things go, are pretty good for a TV production, though it seems like we’ll have to wait a while to see Scott in full werewolf get-up. Still, the scene where Scott first begins to change is, while similar to every other werewolf transformation scene ever, solid stuff, where you really do get a sense of the simultaneous terror and awe such a transformation would inspire. It’s safe to say that the people working in the production design department here have seen enough werewolf movies to know the right beats to hit and the right notes to play. The program has a nice enough level of gloss that I never outright despised it.
But the script, from Jeff Davis, formerly of Criminal Minds, is such standard teen soap boilerplate stitched to a lame riff on every horror tale ever—there’s even a dark and mysterious stranger who’s exactly who you think he is—that it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for tomorrow night’s second episode. There are things here that could work (and I haven’t even mentioned the enjoyably ridiculous lacrosse coach, the one element of comedy here). In fact, I might be tempted to watch a series about dark, mysterious guy facing off against the person who seems to be his primary antagonist here. But they’re centered on yet another tale of boring teenagers who develop boring powers and then don’t do anything with them because Hollywood is addicted to origin stories. If this story had opened with Scott already knowing enough about his werewolfery to be vaguely aware of how to use it, then had proceeded to have him fight crime or showed him getting the girl or delved into the most accurate and intricate depiction of lacrosse in American pop cultural history, fine. That might have felt like a TV show. Instead, we’ve got a pilot that has its moments but feels like the first 15 minutes of a movie stretched out to an hour, with no real sense of what the show is going to be moving forward.