Tuned In: 'Teen Wolf' turns into light drama

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Although the 1985 movie "Teen Wolf" was largely a comedy and star vehicle for Michael J. Fox (and then Jason Bateman in the 1987 sequel, "Teen Wolf Too"), MTV's re-imagined "Teen Wolf" (11 p.m. Sunday after the MTV Movie Awards) is pretty much a genuine drama with a cinematic visual look.

To be sure, it's a lighter drama with moments of humor but in the continuum of monster movie characters, it definitely hews closer to "Twilight" than it does the original "Teen Wolf."

In Sunday's pilot episode, it's also surprisingly earnest. It's not a crass, sarcastic show like MTV's "The Hard Times of RJ Berger" or envelope-pushing like "Skins." Tonally, MTV's "Teen Wolf" is probably closest to The CW's "The Vampire Diaries" without the complex mythology (at least at its outset).

Although this play-it-straight approach may be a surprise given MTV's track record, it's less startling when considering the creative forces behind the show: "Criminal Minds" creator Jeff Davis and writer Rene Echevarria ("Castle," "The 4400," "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine").

The pilot episode opens as asthmatic teenage lacrosse player Scott McCall (Tyler Posey, "Lincoln Heights") gets dragged into the woods by wisecracking best friend Stiles (newcomer Dylan O'Brien), who's heard police are looking for the other half of a dead girl's body that's been found. Scott doesn't really want to go -- he'd rather rest up for the first lacrosse practice of the season -- but he can't resist even as he quizzes Stiles on what he plans to do if they find a body.

"Just out of curiosity, which half of the body are we looking for?" Scott asks. Stiles acknowledges he doesn't know. "It's comforting to know you've planned this out with your usual attention to detail."

It's clear early on that Scott is a responsible, smart kid. Stiles even teases him, saying, "You're dragging me down to your nerd depths. I'm a nerd by association."

On a network where "Jersey Shore" is the biggest hit, it's sort of low-bar gutsy to see the network put forth a series with a smart kid in the leading role.

But before I oversell "Teen Wolf," let me be clear: This is still pretty much a teen fantasy soap. Scott has an arrogant lacrosse team rival, Jackson (Colton Haynes, "The Gates"), and he falls for the new girl in school, Allison (newcomer Crystal Reed).

And eventually, Scott wolfs out after he's bit while wandering alone in the woods at night. He goes through the usual disbelief at first -- he hears, sees and smells things better than the average human and his lacrosse skills improve markedly -- and then the show's genre elements kick into higher gear.

Not only does Scott acquire a more experienced werewolf mentor (Tyler Hoechlin, "7th Heaven"), he also discovers a nemesis in the least convenient, most complicating of places. (Beginning next week, episodes of "Teen Wolf" will regularly air at 10 p.m. Monday following its Sunday premiere.)

As with any pilot, there are questions about whether the show's initially strong production values and special effects will remain high quality in subsequent episodes. And it remains to be seen how the characters and their relationships will develop. But at least "Teen Wolf" puts its best foot, er, paw forward.

'Teen Wolf' behind the scenes

Since this new "Teen Wolf" basically changes everything about the '80s film -- basketball becomes lacrosse, campy humor gives way to darker, more serious drama -- why retain the title? At last summer's Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., MTV executives said it was all about name recognition in the same way that "Battlestar Galactica" was reinvented by Syfy.

"I think it's very MTV to take a brand like that and turn it on its head," said Tony diSanto, MTV programming president. "And I think that's what MTV is all about, right? It's kind of busting genres, reinventing."

But even Mr. Davis wondered about the wisdom of retaining the title when MTV approached him about the remake.

"I am a huge fan of the original movie. I was a kid. I saw 'Back to the Future,' I saw 'Teen Wolf' immediately thereafter, and we just loved it. But ... it's a basketball movie, and it's a comedy."

Mr. Davis said MTV executives wanted to take the metaphor of puberty, likened to transforming into a werewolf, further into edgier, sexier territory. (That said, the pilot did not seem like it pushed the envelope content-wise.)

"The werewolf story is kind of a great metaphor for adolescence, and we also see it as a way to tell a great story for an outsider," Mr. Davis said. "We wanted to do a story about a teenager who wasn't necessarily a geek, a dork, but who is kind of the kid who you remember in class but if they got hit by a bus someday, it would be like, 'I think he sat behind me in class.' He's that kind of guy. So it's a moment of taking the ordinary person and making him extraordinary. And one of those abilities should be attracting women."

Producers also describe the relationship between werewolves in "Teen Wolf" and a group of hunters who track and kill them as a war between two factions that's raged for centuries. Cue the show's mythology that isn't played heavily in the pilot but will evidently come front and center, introducing viewers to different types of werewolves: beta, alpha and omega (the most monstrous).

In the end, this new series clearly wants to be more like other modern, young adult dramas and less like the movie whose name it takes.

"The way we like to put it is, the other werewolf shows and movies have werewolves you can pet," Mr. Davis said. "We wanted to have one you could kiss."

'Locke' sets struck

The sets of the proposed Fox series "Locke & Key" will be dismantled at Pittsburgh's 31st Street Studios by the end of the month, which puts an end to any hope that a cable network may buy the series.

Deadline.com reported this week that Syfy may have been considering picking up "Locke," but late Wednesday a Fox spokesman confirmed that "Locke" will not go forward.

Fox filmed the "Locke" pilot in Pittsburgh earlier this year and there was hope in the local film production community that the city may finally have found its first locally produced prime-time series. (Previously the Spike TV miniseries "The Kill Point" filmed in Pittsburgh in 2007 and several pilots, including FX's "Justified," have shot in Western Pennsylvania, but no locally shot project has become a weekly television series that offers jobs for crew members nine months of the year.)

Based on a graphic novel by Joe Hill, "Locke & Key" is about a family that moves into a haunted New England mansion. Twentieth Century Fox Television developed "Locke" for the Fox broadcasting network, which opted not to move forward with a series last month.

PCN taping

The Pennsylvania Cable Network will team with the Pennsylvania Humanities Council for a second season of "Humanities on the Road," which will tape an episode at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area Pump House in Munhall.

The episode, "Steeltowns, Coalfields and the Unbroken Circle," will feature folk musician Tom Breiding. Tickets to the event are free and available on a first come, first served based. Details: 412-464-4020. Season two of "Humanities on the Road" will air on PCN this fall.

Channel surfing

This week AMC finally announced a premiere date for season four of "Breaking Bad": 10 p.m. July 17. ... Deadline.com reports Paget Brewster will join A.J. Cook in returning to CBS's "Criminal Minds" while newcomer Rachel Nichols will not be back. Series star Thomas Gibson is still negotiating for a new deal to return to the crime drama. ... VH1's "Mob Wives" has been renewed for a second season after averaging 1.3 million viewers in its first five episodes. ... ABC will air "Jacqueline Kennedy, In Her Own Words," based on conversations with historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. recorded in 1964, in September as a prime-time special hosted by Diane Sawyer that will include an interview with Caroline Kennedy. ... NBC will debut the second season of "The Voice" after Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5. ... This fall during "NOVA" and "Nature," PBS will experiment with sponsorship messages during the programs, not just at the beginning and end of the shows. ... Jane Lynch ("Glee") will host the Emmy Awards Sept. 18 on Fox. ... Entertainment Weekly reports NBC will revive reality competition show "Fear Factor." ... The premiere date of the final season of FX's "Rescue Me" has moved from July 12 to 10 p.m. July 13. ... George Lucas says he has 50 scripts for a live-action "Star Wars" TV series completed, but the show is too expensive to shoot with existing technology.

Tuned In online

Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Project Runway," "Breakout Kings" and a WTAE news anchor. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on Bravo's "Million Dollar Decorators," Oxygen's "The World According to Paris" and NBC's "Love Bites." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

Tuned In podcast has the week off. Subscribe or listen to past podcasts at post-gazette.com/podcast, including last week's special video podcast atpost-gazette.com/multimedia.

TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.


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