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TV Weekend: Teen Wolf

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Say what you will about what MTV: it is a channel that has always known what it is, even if “what it is” changes every three years or so. In its early years, there was a distinct idea of what an MTV video looked like. There was, with Beavis and Butt-Head and Daria and experiments like Liquid Television, an idea of “MTV animation.” And there have been, in phases and changing with shifts in the youth culture, distinctly MTV reality shows, from The Real World to Jackass to The Osbournes, Cribs, The Hills, Teen Mom, Jersey Shore.

So what should an MTV scripted series look like? With the raunchy RJ Berger and the controversial Skins, there seemed to be an emerging idea: a kind of irreverent, sex-obsessed show that owed a little to movies like Superbad and a little to saucy British TV. (Berger has a little of the superior The In-Betweeners in it.)

But MTV’s new drama Teen Wolf, debuting Sunday, seems to believe an MTV scripted series is, more or less, a CW series, except less original.

Teen Wolf is ostensibly based on a Michael J. Fox movie from 1985, and it retains some elements of the original. A few characters have the same names. The protagonist, Scott (Tyler Posey), discovers his confusing new strength as it manifests in sports. (This time not basketball but lacrosse.) But this is neither a remake in the silly spirit of the original, or a dramatic rethinking with equal parts humor and ideas like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The idea, in a nutshell, seems to be: “One of those vampire shows that girls like now, except with werewolves.”

Which is not an inherently terrible idea. By adapting the Vampire Diaries format this way, the channel could bring in a built-in audience, with the added possibility that the genre might also have more appeal to boy viewers. (Not only is the protagonist male, but whereas a series like Twilight is designed for the emotions of adolescent girls, this werewolf story like many others ties the transformations to the raging hormones of teen boys.)

What I miss in Teen Wolf, though, is any sense of freshness or play with the idea. The pilot isn’t bad, exactly—it’s well-paced if a little dour in spots and there’s some decent CW-esque banter—but it’s pretty much entirely what I would have expected from any supernatural teen drama: some romantic complications, the quasi-outsider protagonist discovering his new power, the mystery surrounding just how many werewolves are out there and what they’re about.

It may well please bigger fans of the genre who want something to watch this summer. But considering the chance to fiddle with the original story and the relatively untapped field of TV werewolves, Teen Wolf feels like a missed opportunity to put the channel’s original stamp on a popular genre. It feels a little sad to see MTV for once chasing a popular youth trend here and seeming a few pawprints behind.

You might watch Teen Wolf and find a diverting if familiar, brooding teen drama, and that’s fine. I found myself watching it and thinking: I want my MTV.