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There’s a moment in Teen Wolf’s excellent third season in which Tyler Hoechlin’s Derek Hale, a former alpha werewolf who once called a burned down house home, has sex with a beautiful woman and his wounds begin to heal. It wasn’t the first time the MTV show—which was loosely based on the 1985 film of the same name—did something downright laughable. And it wouldn’t be the last. But that particularly memorable moment is perhaps the best example of the supernatural teen drama’s approach to storytelling, which relied heavily on gratuitous shirtlessness, rarely adhered to logic, seemingly forgot plot points, and sometimes ignored the show’s own rules. And yet, Teen Wolf managed to run for six seasons (three of which were super-sized) and apparently still has enough interest five years after it signed off that it is slated to return in the form of a follow-up movie on Paramount+.
What started out as a cheesy, but no doubt fun, series about an unassuming teen bitten by a werewolf after his best friend drags him into the woods to find a dead body, somehow managed to beat the odds and cultivate a worldwide fandom while launching several of its stars into the limelight. Some of that success was no doubt due to the timing of the show; Teen Wolf debuted in the summer of 2011, right at the height of the vampire and werewolf craze that followed Twilight and also spawned the popular CW drama The Vampire Diaries. However, it wasn’t just timing; the show’s popularity was also due to the chemistry of the show’s young, good-looking cast, which was anchored by Tyler Posey as the unequivocally good and brave titular teen Scott McCall, and series standout Dylan O’Brien as his loyal and sarcastic best friend Stiles Stilinski. Additional cast members in the early seasons included Hoechlin’s Derek, an irascible and slightly older werewolf who acts as both an obstacle and a reluctant mentor of sorts for Scott; Crystal Reed’s Allison Argent, a young archer who comes from a long line of werewolf hunters but happens to fall in love with Scott; Holland Roden’s Lydia Martin, a popular and fiercely intelligent high schooler who discovers she’s a banshee after an encounter in Season 1 unlocks her latent powers; and Colton Haynes’ Jackson Whittemore, an obnoxious and wealthy jock whose own run-in with a werewolf leads to another set of issues (and who really wants to know where you get your juice).
As the cast came together to form Scott’s first pack—or cause problems for it—Teen Wolf grew stronger thanks to the unabashedly deep and meaningful friendship between Scott and Stiles. As the duo came of age, they tackled not just the familiar trials of young adulthood, but any and all supernatural beings who threatened their hometown of Beacon Hills. Also notable was the show’s expert balancing of comedy, emotional stakes, supernatural horror tropes, and teen angst. This is not to mention an unwavering devotion to lacrosse, a sport that has never been cool and would not be popular in the show’s setting of Northern California. But none of this would have even been possible if the show hadn’t also had a gift for going above and beyond. Sometimes this took the hilarious form of actors intensely chewing scenery, but other times it meant including unusual but compelling supernatural beings not found elsewhere on TV to tell its story.
While most shows of the era were content to feature just the big three—vampires, werewolves, and witches—Teen Wolf pushed the limits of the supernatural, eventually introducing a hellhound (Ryan Kelley), kitsune (Arden Cho), and werecoyote (Shelley Hennig). This was in addition to beings from different cultures, folklore, and legends from around the world, including the oni of Japan, the Beast of Gévaudan, and even the ghost riders of the Wild Hunt. Other villains included a kanima, a darach (the aforementioned woman whose druid powers probably healed Derek during sex but maybe it was something, ahem, else), and the Nogitsune, a dark kitsune who feeds on chaos and who possessed Stiles in Season 3B in a storyline considered by most to be the show’s best. The series even experimented with chimeras created by evil steampunk scientists (yes, really) known as the Dread Doctors in one of the later seasons.
Now, I’m no expert on the matter, but I’m willing to bet a hefty sum that the show butchered the history and folklore of these creatures in an attempt to tell a story about Scott coming into his own as a leader and alpha. But one has to admire the creativity and the ambition that went into it along the way, even if it’s also true the writers often threw caution to the wind and logic frequently went along with it, leading to confusing and/or forgotten plots in addition to plenty of moments that required a serious suspension of disbelief (you’re telling me Derek aged backwards and evolved into an honest-to-god wolf in the same season?). You can chalk up some of the largest issues and plot holes to cast turnover, which was high because actors either left for greener pastures or weren’t asked back, thus leaving dangling storylines (and angry fans) in their wake. But even when that didn’t happen, Teen Wolf got progressively and unintentionally more ridiculous as it aged thanks to both overacting and underacting, a desire to always go bigger (if not always better), and the writers’ inability to understand how time and dates work or double check what happened in previous episodes.
Despite the fact that it was often hard to follow or even believe storylines by the end of the show, it’s similarly hard to argue against the idea that it wasn’t wholly entertaining television from start to finish. From sex potentially healing Derek’s wounds and identical twins who became one giant alpha werewolf, to a supernatural deadpool crafted by a banshee who could hear the thoughts of a comatose werewolf (Ian Bohen’s perpetual antagonist Peter Hale) and a hellhound who could not stop burning his clothes off, there was never a dull moment throughout Teen Wolf’s six seasons. I have no idea what’s in store for the upcoming movie—I don’t even know who’s coming back for it—but I sincerely hope it manages to fit in some of Teen Wolf’s greatest hits. And I don’t mean callbacks to classic episodes like Season 3’s “Motel California.” I’m talking about egregious product placement, an ill-timed lacrosse game, at least one wholly unnecessary shirtless scene, and an elderly man yelling about mountain ash while black goo drips from his orifices. Because as dumb and/or cheesy as Teen Wolf could be at times—Malia (Hennig) spent a decade as a coyote and then immediately enrolled in high school upon turning back into a human—it was extremely fun to watch from start to finish. And that’s the best any show can hope for.
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Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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