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July 2, 2013

Teen Wolf: Frayed Recap

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/teen_wolf_frayed_recap/

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The first thing you should know about me is that I've got incorrgibly lowbrow taste: I grew up in a golden age of teen movies and gross out comedy, somewhere between American Pie and Judd Apatow, after Sixteen Candles but just contemporary with its sucessors, Clueless through Mean Girls. I can appreciate a well-told story and a seriously smart plot twist but I like kitsch and humor almost as much, and I am a sucker for twentysomethings playing teenagers. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which combines all of the above, is my idea of perfect television. 

So summer is the perfect time for me to start writing about what's on the small screen: there are more new shows airing now than ever before, sure, but they're still mostly in the horror/thriller/supernatural genre, or at the very least twisted dramas where humans conspire to make one anothers' lives miserable-- standard summer blockbuster fare. We'll talk about serious business when things cool down, in the fall. Between now and Labor Day it's going to be a lot of fast-paced fun stuff, an investigation of what other people might call guilty pleasures but what I think of as my bread and butter.

So: Teen Wolf. The MTV drama is now four episodes into its fourth season, and despite an expanded effects budget and doubled episode order (previous seasons were 12 eps a piece, the third will be 24) it's still remarkably shaky and uneven. There's speculation that some of the confusion is intentional-- creator Jeff Davis has hinted in interviews and Q&As that the resident villains, a pack of Alpha werewolves, have mind control powers that are affecting what we see-- but that doesn't excuse the lack of craft and strange narrative constructions of the last few episodes.

(I'm going to talk about them now; if you're not caught up, please be wary of spoilers ahead!)

Television stories tend to happen in three episode arcs, so we're just past the first one of the season. It, too, was strangely constructed, but it got the point across: titular Teen Wolf Scott McCall's determination to do well in school and get back together with his ex-girlfriend, spawn-of-werewolf hunters Allison Argent, is not going well. That's in part because there's a pack of Alphas newly arrived on the scene, intent on convincing current Alpha Derek to kill his own pack, including Scott, absorb their powers and get out of town with them, and in part because some kind of dark Druid is arranging murders in sets of three. (I said this stuff was fun; I never said it was dignified.)

Last night Scott and co. headed out of their hometown, Beacon Hills, for an away track meet. One of the things the show tends to do well is integrating the unavoidable goofiness of high school into its more serious life-or-death stuff: the first episode had Scott studying for the SATs with a word-a-day website that taught him about the meaning of ephemeral, a fitting way to set the tone for an hour dedicated to transitions and new tattoos. This one started off with more of the same: Scott's best friend, Stiles, quizzing him on anachronism, intransigent and incongruous while the two of them kept an eye on various flirtations happening elsewhere on the bus. It was only when Scott's side wound started bleeding through his shirt that the episode's central drama became clear: apparently between last week and this one Scott and his pack battled the Alphas and Derek died.

We spend the episode watching Scott's wound worsen; theoretically the drama comes from wondering why he's not just healing, and whether Derek is really dead. But anyone who's seen a television show knows that Derek, a major character beloved by the show's fanbase, isn't in danger of actually kicking it, and I was too busy questioning why Scott hasn't used herbs on the wound-- Derek showed him how in the first episode of the season-- to care that, as it turned out, it was all in his head, that he was bleeding out as a psychosomatic expression of guilt because he believes Derek's "death" was his fault. 

The present-tense narrative is studded with flashback sequences to a low-lit slo-mo fight scene in an abandoned mall (abandoned structure count in this season so far is two, a bank and a mall, but based on past evidence that figure will only rise). It's padding and it feels like it: the fight reveals nothing except the specific action sequence that leads to Scott's literally crushing guilt. It all works to establish Scott's probable character arc for the season-- the kid is taking the Very Moral stance of being Anti-Death-- but it doesn't really function like a plot, which moves from A through B to C. This is just beating us over the head with what we already know.

Instead last night's episode was carried by the female characters. Allison's mother died at the end of last season in a complicated bit of dramatics: she tried to kill Scott, Derek saved Scott and bit her, she decided she'd rather die than turn into a werewolf herself. Scott had been, to that point, Allison's first love; to say that their relationship is complicated in the aftermath is putting it mildly. So it's incredibly affecting to see her crouched over his prone body in a grimy rest-stop bathroom while a hallucination of her militant mother berates her for her shaking hands as she tries to thread a needle, to stitch everything up. Teen Wolf isn't always fantastic at handling its female characters, but Allison so far this season has been fantastic: a complex, shadowy figure, whose main action has been swooping in to save her friends' hides when they can't handle a fight (she's a trained archer) and figuring out how much she wants to be involved with supernatural drama, and exactly whose side she's on.

The bus gets stuck in a traffic jam and is forced to pull off the road and stop for the night. Next week's episode, Motel California, will hopefully be taking place in the present tense-- and moving the story forward more effectively. You can watch a trailer for it here, and let me know what you're looking forward to in the comments! 

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