Teen Wolf: It's all getting a bit hairy
Forget Michael J Fox's goofy howler: TV's take on Teen Wolf is a darker affair aimed at a youth market still bitten by the supernatural bug, says Guy Adams
It begins with a chase through some woods, after dark. We see police cars, sniffer dogs, and lots of murky undergrowth from which wild animals are making night-time noises. After a chaotic encounter with some stampeding deer, the show's adolescent hero, Scott McCall, stumbles with a gasp upon the bloodied corpse of a young woman. Her grimacing face is illuminated, as it lurches across the screen, by the light of his iPhone.
This sequence, at the start of the opening episode of MTV's new series Teen Wolf, neatly sums up the general spirit of the show. It's a pacy drama about pubescent high-school children, in which time-honoured horror genre cliché sits side-by-side with the sort of contemporary flourish that feels designed to make critics use words like "zeitgeist". In years gone by, McCall would have been carrying a torch. But this is 2011, so he uses the "flashlight" App on his iPhone.
Now if you don't know what an App is, you probably aren't in this show's target audience. And you also probably won't spend a whole lot of time on Twitter, where #TeenWolf and #WatchingTeenWolf have been almost constant "trending topics" since the programme debuted in the US earlier this month to a commendable (if not quite blockbuster) audience of 2.2 million viewers.
That said, you may remember the Michael J Fox film Teen Wolf, which was released in 1985 and on which this new TV series is ostensibly based. But if you liked that goofy comedy, you probably won't enjoy this much darker drama. They're different products, for different eras. As the stars of either might say, in a moment of petulance, you can like it or lump it, granddad.
The new Teen Wolf is way more serious, and less hammy, than its 1980s predecessor. It follows McCall, an awkward, athsmatic teenager who after being bitten by a werewolf begins sprouting fangs and facial hair every full moon. He also suddenly becomes a brilliant athlete with a commensurate pull upon the affections of teenage girls. In the Michael J Fox film, McCall's preferred sport was basketball, and his werewolfism helped him slam-dunk. In MTV's remake, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, he instead becomes extremely good at lacrosse.
Much of the plot – in the opening episodes, at least – revolves around familiar elements of a bread-and-butter high-school drama. Indeed, it can sometimes feel awfully familiar. Do we have bitchy cheerleaders? Check! Alcohol-free teenage parties? Check! Sneering bullies? Overbearing PE teachers? Intefereing parents? Check! Check! Check! There is, it must be said, quite a lot of Glee about Teen Wolf.
The show's second major influence is Twilight. Somewhat unfairly (given that the rather good Buffy the Vampire Slayer predated it) Stephenie Meyer's inexplicably popular movie and book franchise has been credited with turning stories about vampires, zombies, werewolves and the like into one of the most successful genres of modern times. An entire generation of teenage girls now have posters of RPattz on their bedroom walls, and wear T-shirts declaring allegiance to Team Edward, or Team Jacob. They also watch a lot of True Blood.
For MTV's executives, green-lighting a series that invites Twi-hards and other young vampire fans to join a wolf pack was presumably a no-brainer. They helped Teen Wolf's chances by ensuring that the show is larded with acres of flesh. In the opening episode, McCall, played by a 19-year-old beefcake called Tyler Posey, lasts all of one minute before removing his T-shirt and displaying what are colloquially known as his "guns". His male co-stars aren't very far behind.
Director Russell Mulcahy, who was responsible for much of the first series, explains that his "mantra" during filming revolved around three s-words: "scary, sexy, and surprising". That's quite something, coming from Mulcahy: back in the day, he made not only the first two Highlander films, but also the classic video to Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf".
On 7 July, Britain will discover how "scary, sexy, and surprising" this new franchise really is, when it launches on Sky Living, the satellite channel which can be either lauded or blamed (depending on your viewpoint) for importing another gem of MTV's transatlantic culture, 16 and Pregnant. It comes at a time when the domestic werewolf market is considered particularly "hot" thanks to the BBC's Being Human.
At a recent press junket in Los Angeles, which was held before the show hit US television, you certainly got a sense that the young men and women who star in Teen Wolf believed that the stars were aligning. They all had perfect teeth, brand new clothes and the profiles of people who visit the gym daily. All the boys had slightly ruffled black hair, and at least half of them were wearing eye make-up.
One of the cast, Colton Haynes (he plays the baddie, Jackson) is a former Hugo Boss underwear model. He was happy to credit Twilight with fuelling a market for the show, and grateful for the vampire films for creating a demand for buff young actors like him who might look good with fake fangs. "These projects are really all that there are for short, brown-haired white kids to do," he said. "There's really not a lot else about. All the scripts I get sent, or jobs I'm going out on, are all about the supernatural."
Another Wolf-packer, Tyler Hoechlin (he plays McCall's canine rival Derek Hale) actually turned down the part
of Emmett Cullen in Twilight a few years ago. "There are a lot of projects out there that are purely in existence because they're capitalising on the success of the Twilight films," he admitted, quickly adding that he reckons Teen Wolf has more chops than its rivals.
The grown-ups in charge of proceedings, meanwhile, sang from a subtly different hymn-sheet. Jeff Davis, the show's creator and executive producer, said that although its origins lie in MTV's decision to purchase the TV rights to the Michael J Fox film, the series is actually modelled on two darker, and arguably deeper hits than Twilight: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Lost Boys.
"When we first discussed Teen Wolf, I asked how they planned on doing it as a TV series, because the original was a pretty broad comedy," he said. "They wanted to do it a little darker and a little sexier. So I said, 'what if we do it a little like The Lost Boys?', which is another Eighties movie I remember very fondly, which mixed sexy with scary with humour. And they said, 'absolutely, that's the way to go'."
MTV has certainly invested big money in the show, as part of an effort to offset its reality-TV offerings with a major foray into scripted drama (this has got off to a shaky start: the US version of Skins was recently cancelled). Teen Wolf's first series runs for 12 one-hour episodes, all of which feature the sort of swooping camera angles and extravagant bits of CGI work designed to give the TV show a cinematic quality.
"We have a classic story, with mythology about teenagers, and we needed it to be romantic, and scary, and most of all, convincing. So the mandate, right from the top, was for us to do what it would take to give the finished product a cinematic feel," said Mulcahy, who filmed on location in Atlanta, over a lengthy period of almost nine months.
He cites an important scene in the third episode, when McCall watches in a bathroom mirror as he transforms into a wolf, as evidence of the Rolls-Royce technical approach, using prosthetic masks, fake hair and gallons of fake blood ("Even though there is quite a lot of CGI, I didn't want to just rely on that"). Mulcahy regarded its proper execution as vital to the business of exploring a central theme of every teen werewolf narrative – the fact that a young man's monthly transformation into a wolf is supposed to represent the psychological trauma of puberty.
Reading much more into the show is for now, perhaps, premature. One can gripe that it has a – shall we say – monochrome cross section of major characters, since not one of the principals is overweight (as in Glee), or less than perfect looking. No central cast-member obviously comes from an ethnic minority.
But if Buffy taught us anything, it's that a teen programme which starts out feeling derivative can over time become complex and nuanced. In fact Davis argued, when we spoke, that his narrative would eventually subvert traditional notions of body image because his best-looking actor, Colton Haynes, plays his least appealing character.
Davis also claimed that while the cast seems glossy, the world the characters inhabit is not. "Scott McCall rides a bike to school. He drives this dented piece of shit car that his Mum owns. He is the opposite of one of these perfect rich kids, which is what you get everywhere else in TV shows these days." Time will tell whether that gives Teen Wolf a backbone; but for now, it provides at least one reason to be happy that fur is back in fashion.
'Teen Wolf' begins on tomorrow at 8pm on Sky Living
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