MTV updates the classic teen movie with more scares, more sex, and lacrosse.
Teen Wolf, adapted from the collective unconscious by way of early-period Michael J. Fox, will air regularly on Mondays at 10 p.m. ET, but MTV is launching it on Sunday, just after the blessed pseudo-event of the MTV Movie Awards. The very special scheduling is one of several ways the network has been signaling that it means serious business with this light and passably witty supernatural drama.
In a letter to "Members of the Media," Teen Wolf creator Jeff Davis (Criminal Minds) takes care to note that the series' director, Russell Mulcahy, created the epochal video for Duran Duran's " Hungry Like the Wolf," winning the first MTV Moon Man in the bargain. We in the Media appreciate the symmetry, the implication of Teen Wolf's network-defining intent, and MTV's steadfast commitment to exploiting lupine appetites and exciting adolescent Members. * And we will take the further step of noting that Mulcahy directed the classic Buggles video that was the first clip MTV ever transmitted. With video long since having killed the radio star and in turn been murdered by reality television, fiction, in the form of Teen Wolf, is now out for blood. It may well fall to this hairy-handed gent to rip the lungs out of Jersey Shore.
Davis' letter describes the show as a "reimagination" of the 1985 film, in which Michael J. Fox, newly lycanthropic, scales great heights of sexual charisma and athletic ability. Davis says they've "traded basketball for lacrosse. ..." (This change feels nicely attuned to contemporary suburbia—and also it gives an extra frisson to the idea of a nice clean boy developing into a bristling entity; as conditioned by Abercrombie & Fitch marketing, lax bros wax those firm pecs assiduously.) They've also traded "cute for sexy. ..." (Haven't we all, as a culture, thanks in part to the hard work of Mulcahy, Simon Le Bon, and the Other they tangle with in the "Hungry" clip?)
Lastly, they say they've traded "camp for scares," and there is limited truth to the claim. This year's wolf—Scott McCall, played by the shaggily winsome Tyler Posey—is just an asthmatic benchwarmer ("My whole life is sitting on the sidelines") before he sustains a transformative bite one night in the dark woods. That action scene is shrewdly paced and nicely modulated, with a herd of deer going buck wild, Scott's inhaler spinning away from him in Matrix-y FX, and the director apparently working on the Jaws principle of showing restraint in revealing the beastly assailant. It's a sequence to get teen girls starting and cringing right into their dates' laps. On the other hand, as four self-deconstructing Scream movies, the meta-monstrous Shaun of the Dead, and even the horror-romances of the CW network attest, irony and fright are not strictly incompatible. Teen Wolf bares its fangs and grins knowingly with them too.
Witness two moments that occur as Scott prepares to go to a party with the willowy new girl in town, Allison Argent—argent as in the silver bullets loaded in her daddy's gun. First, Scott's mom hands him the car keys, saying "We don't need to have a talk do we?" Too quickly, he replies, "I'm not having a safe-sex talk." Oh, but she just wanted to not have to tell him to keep the gas tank full, and now, amusingly, she has to have a sex-period talk: "I am not going to end up on some reality television show with a pregnant 16-year-old." Teen Wolf twits MTV's Teen Mom, and all the kids out there in TV land titter at an invitation to an in-joke. Then, at the party, when Scott and Allison start slow-dancing their accompaniment is a new number by a band called the Limousines: "Internet Killed the Video Star." This is meta-textuality as a mildly cute decorative element, window dressing for the fourth wall.
Then there's the slow-dancing itself. (To be precise, we probably ought to classify it as andante-grinding.) Well, the girl looks good enough to eat under the light of the full moon, and soon Scott starts wolfing out for the first time, embarrassed unto terror that he cannot control what is happening to his body. Sound familiar? In the course of a New York Times Magazine cover story (!?) on the new Teen Wolf, Alex Pappademas contributes to the body of scholarship about teenage-monster entertainments offering metaphors for "the weirdness of adolescence—of waking up one morning with uncontrollable urges, new and troubling hair growth and a sense that the whole world hates and fears you," and this sequence, with Scott ditching his date to race home and soak his phallic claws in a cold shower, is the campy-scary epitome of that.
Over the years, it has been a regular promise and frequent lie of MTV to tell the teenage American how to be a man. The jury's still out on how that's working, but Teen Wolf does a commendable pop job of teaching him how to be an animal.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Still of Tyler Posey inTeen Wolf