There’s a fairly obvious working thesis about American pop culture’s long history with teenage werewolves — and boy, has it been worked — having to do with the transformative horrors of puberty, mainly, along with subtexts of bullying, manhood rituals and uncorked fits of rage (albeit on a decidedly female lunar schedule).
Full moons and fur — the legend is fully intact and somewhat stylishly if unimpressively arranged in MTV’s new drama “Teen Wolf,” which premieres Sunday night and owes not much more than its title to the dopey 1985 Michael J. Fox comedy.
This update works strictly from the over-dramatic “Twilight” and “Vampire Diaries” template, moodily quick-cutting together a world of misty, sylvan backdrops with gorgeously angsty adolescence. Tyler Posey plays Scott McCall, a second-string lacrosse player (LAX is where it’s at these days) who, despite already possessing a cut physique and perfectly shaggy hair, goes unnoticed by all the pretty, pretty girls in his small-town Northern California high school.
Scott’s Adderall-popping rambunctious fellow nerd, Stiles (Dylan O’Brien), lures him out on a school night as the cops search for the other half of a mutilated body discovered in the woods.
The boys get separated and Scott winds up having a frightening encounter with a wolflike beast that gives him quite a scratch on his torso. No sooner has his wound started to heal than he’s sitting in English class — today’s lesson: Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” — and realizing that he can hear the popular crowd’s every whisper. Coach’s whistle is a grating whine, but Scott’s now endowed with animal-like reflexes and strength, making him a formidable goalie. Much to the chagrin of the big man on campus, Scott’s suddenly popular and the new girl (Crystal Reed) is smitten.
Then comes the full moon. “Teen Wolf” deals straight-up with lycan lore, visually harking back to the ancient history of John Landis’s 1981 film, “An American Werewolf in London,” to depict the gross things that happen to Scott’s body as his canine tendencies take hold. Although special effects have improved a lot in 30 years, “Teen Wolf” resorts to a lot of shadows and camera jerking, seemingly afraid of showing us what it thinks a teenage werewolf ought to look like.
Another werewolf (Tyler Hoechlin), a graduate of the same high school, introduces himself in the nighttime woods and helps Scott elude a band of werewolf hunters who arm themselves with silver-tipped arrowheads.
“Teen Wolf” moves so quickly (and even haphazardly) that by the end of its first hour, it’s difficult to imagine where it intends to go. There are, of course, great gobs of Judy Blume-like potential to be had in exploring the travails of a virginal, hapless boy-man trying to suppress his urges and tame his body hair. But this seems to be just the sort of introspective ookiness that today’s market-driven horror stories work so hard to avoid, especially when they are aimed at today’s discerning teenage girl, who seems to like her monster stories played out with a certain emo predictability and thematic redundancy. The real marketing trick, besides adding just the perfect mix of not-too-indie rock songs to the soundtrack, is that so many other horror fans these days — adult women, certain men — seem to have the same desires as that teenage girl.
Thus, atmosphere is more important than character; feeling is more important than seeing. “Teen Wolf” bounds so wildly between its main plot points that I began to wonder if my press copy of the show had skipped some scenes or if they’d been assembled out of order.
It is only peripherally about a monster in the shadows, misunderstood and lovelorn and entirely metaphorical. “Teen Wolf” growls angrily at deeper meaning, having completely neglected to read his assigned Kafka. And forget about comedy, irony, nuance. He just wants to howl.
(one hour) premieres Sunday at 11 p.m. on MTV.