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“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.” - Dr. Seuss

Teen Wolf: What is and what Could Have Been

Convinced by this GIF set to watch Teen Wolf. The first eight episodes are really, really good and make you feel good about the state of cable television. The second season drops most of what was good about the first season in favor of being more of a standard show. ;_; Still, at least I have the memories.

Let’s start with the positives. Here’s what’s great about the first season:

1. When he doesn’t have that overly-intense, borderline-psycho look in his eyes, Scott (the Teen Wolf) is one of those dreamy and unfocused guys whose main charm is that he actually listens to women and his much smarter best friend. Apart from actively pursuing the girl, he is a passive character who can generally be counted on to prioritize his love life over whatever very sensible and intelligent Stiles is currently pushing him to do, but he generally comes through in the end. The gif maker didn’t like that, but actually I loved it because it leaves more space for the girlfriend and best friend characters to really shine. Also the fact that Scott’s regular and full-moon selves are totally different allows the writers to explore “becoming a werewolf” as a metaphor for mania (e.g. starting about 25 minutes into this episode).

2. Stiles!!! Stiles is the best character. For real. He’s like this hyperactive nerd, but with a huge attraction to danger and dangerous situations, and an ability to fill in Scott’s awkward silences with constant (entertaining) chatter. Although he’s passionately nerdy about helping Scott figure out the werewolf thing and is generally a supportive friend, he also pursues his own goals, or in other words isn’t just a sidekick. Actually I am kind of disappointed that “he and Derrick are boyfriends” from the GIF set didn’t turn out to be really true, since that would have underlined his importance. It actually did seem for a while like the show was headed in that direction – they gave Stiles a bunch of lines about the show’s canonically gay character (“I don’t think he likes me – am I not attractive to gay guys?”) and spent some time building up chemistry between him and Derrick (not “when the two actors are on screen together, there’s a lot of chemistry” chemistry, I mean the director would purposefully cut between shots of Derrick looking intense and scary and shots of Stiles looking scared but also determined not to let his fear show – and also arguably attracted).**

3. Not as impressed by the way the show handles Alison – it almost feels like they make her physically strong (e.g. good with a bow) because it’s an easier way to signal “strength” than mental toughness – but she is a very sympathetic character, not just because of her bad family situation, but also because she is nice on top of being pretty and smart. Also, the chemistry her and Scott when she’s taking charge of the situation is real, yo.

4. OTOH, the other main female character in Teen Wolf, Lydia, is mentally tough. She spends years pretending to be dumb to get what she wants – high status – but is secretly very ambitious. The show was doing something really interesting with her and Jackson, the seemingly dominant guy (captain of the lacrosse team etc) who is actually deeply insecure. Actually they are sort of an insecure-narcissistic pair, pretty well suited to each other, until Jackson decides he’d rather use Alison to figure out Scott’s secrets and Lydia never recovers from the breakup. Too bad they had to make her CRAZY in season 2 >_>.

5. The way the show is shot, the writing. Teen Wolf really does have the feel of an 80s teen movie, kind of de-saturated, and relatively slow-paced. There are more shots of people staring intensely at each other and fewer abrupt scene changes. People talk less, but what they say is interesting and the show will often refer back to things that happened earlier in the episode in a wordless shot that shows faith in the intelligence of the audience. Also, the soundtrack is hilariously a combination of 80s music and 00s music that sounds like 80s music, as if we are in an alternate reality where the 90s never happened.

6. But the characters all have cell phones, use computers, use services like Find My Phone and Skype, etc etc. This show handles technology really well.

7. Horror is very effective. Actually this is still true in season 2, and about the only thing I like about season 2. Particularly, the characters have lots of really vivid horrible nightmares which turn out to have actually happened. It’s great.

Things I don’t like about season 2, compared to season 1:

1. Focus on plot over smoldering intense looks.

1b. …Actually it’s not the plot I object to, it’s the particular kind of plotting, which is all about misdirection – making you think the bad guy might be this person when really it’s this person, etc. You can’t build up a bunch of false leads without dropping something somewhere, so the show becomes a bit incoherent. Also, the focus on plot makes it a bit more predictable, like a procedural, and takes the emphasis away from lycanthropy-as-metaphor-for-madness, the-intensity-of-teenage-desire. You can still pick out themes and messages but they seem more accidental, like side-effects of genre conventions, more than like something the production team is doing on purpose. Also the show is is more conventionally shot in season 2, with lots of talking and scene changes – more like other TV shows, with lazier writing.

2. Since Scott has now “mastered” his wolf side and the bad alpha wolf is out of the picture, the new focus in season 2 is our-team-versus-your-team. This is fine, except they decided to make Scott the alpha-personality of his group, shifting the focus away from the canonically smarter Alison and Stiles, while the group is fighting against a wolf pack we are supposed to dislike because they are too hierarchical. Also, Scott and friends never tell anyone else the truth and always act on their own, but they are fighting against a wolf-hunter clan whose main issues are that they don’t follow a code and are too secretive.

3. Characters become more standard in this season. Scott is the decision-maker and leader, and also develops into a kind of bland I-must-save-everyone hero; Stiles is the sidekick best friend who uses sarcasm to cover up for the fact that he is powerless; Alison becomes the put-upon girlfriend who has to give up most other things in her life to be with Scott; Lydia is a crazy person and her craziness makes her weak and isolates her; Jackson becomes even more of a jerk and also stops being the smart, perceptive guy who was able to figure out Scott’s secret just by paying attention and digging around. (OK, so maybe Jackson hasn’t changed much.)

In fact I can sum it all up by saying they are taking Teen Wolf in too much of a Buffy the Vampire Hunter direction! I like Buffy a lot, but it has a particular kind of hyperwordy storytelling that’s become really standard on TV, and I was really enjoying the slower, tighter, more nuanced storytelling of Teen Wolf.

**I suppose making the best/only friend gay would have thrown the main character’s sexuality too much into questions (though how can you watch those scenes between him and Alison and not see how totally into her he is???). In my mental version of Teen Wolf, Stiles confuses danger and attraction and falls for Derrick, who falls for Stiles’ talent for filling up silences with endless entertaining chatter. Stiles and Derrick attempt a relationship but it ends badly, because duh. Considering how high the stakes are, how could this end in any other way? Stiles then experiences a crisis of sexual identity, concludes he must be gay, and goes to a club to try to pick up guys (because when he decides to do something, he does it 100%), but there’s no one there who attracts him and it doesn’t quite work. It seems that some kind of werewolf magic bewitched him, and he’s not actually gay. Later, though, he realizes that he is attracted to men – particularly the overly intense ones – on some level, even though he is like 70% straight. Because desire is complex, yo. But this is way too advanced for a primetime cable TV show, probably.

***Also in my mental version of Teen Wolf, Alison knows about her family from the beginning, and has an early hunch about Scott when she sees him play for the lacrosse team/when he hands her a pen on the first day of school. She brings the dog to the clinic and agrees to date him because she wants to see if it is true. However, Scott is so seemingly harmless and easy-going that she decides he can’t possibly be a werewolf, and also at some point realizes that she has fallen in love with him. She dismisses some evidence that he’s a teen wolf because she likes him so much and is so sure that he can’t be, so her family focus on Stiles, instead. When it turns out that Scott is a wolf, after all, she makes the tough choice to protect him from her family, since he’s nothing like the things she was told about werewolves growing up. She starts to question the things her family has always told her about wolves and eventually rebels against them. <– Wouldn’t this have been a much better way to approach the character? Yeah, I thought so.

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