Last night brought the third season premiere of MTV's Teen Wolf, a True Blood for the Instagram set that's been a big hit for the network and has even snared a devoted adult audience. I am only slightly ashamed to say that I am one of those adults. I've been evangelical about the show in the past, and even thought it was some of the best TV of last year. So, I was looking forward to the new season, curious what surprisingly compelling mystery monster tour the show would take us on this season. But, I'm afraid, if the first hour of the new season is any indication, the show has let me down.
While it was fun to see our old (well, young) friends again — among them dopey lead teen Scott, his funny friend Stiles, and his lady love Allison — and an interesting-enough new plot began to unfold, there was something decidedly off about the premiere. Or rather it was maybe too on. This a frequent problem with television shows that achieve a measure of success, especially cult success. Teen Wolf seems to have become self-aware, and that's a bad thing. Sometimes a show with a small but fervent fanbase starts aligning itself in such a way that it speaks too directly to that fanbase. I hope Teen Wolf avoids that trap.
We've seen it before, mostly on reality shows like the Real Housewives franchise. Once those women get famous and they and their producers get wise to what the peanut gallery on Twitter and elsewhere is laughing at, suddenly the thing becomes solely focused on synthesizing the same fights over and over again, the strained frenemyships, the goofy antics. The show loses whatever organic texture it used to have (not much in Housewives's case, but it was there) and it becomes a strange pastiche of itself. It's a less frequent occurrence in scripted television, but it does happen. Look at True Blood, which went from cutely campy vampfest to a scattered jumble of unfollowable nonsense. I know the world of Charlaine Harris's books gets bigger and more complicated too, but the way the show has introduced character after character, storyline after nonsensical storyline, smacks of the writers trying overly hard to please the fans, piling on more silliness than the show can handle in the hopes that we'll squeal and clap and say "Oh it's even more campy now! How delightful!" We haven't. Or I haven't, anyway.
It's even happening on Mad Men to some extent. That most hallowed of shows (and rightfully so) has felt a bit like an imitation this season, the somber, thoughtful resonance coming with a hint of too much effort, the historical nods doled out without the show's usual careful and subtle grace. Matthew Weiner is known to be pretty protective of his material, so I don't think he's pandering to fans in a completely conscious way, but it does seem to be happening, a few episodes this season playing more like a greatest hits reel of time period references and characters reconfirming their standout traits rather than cohesive, particular stories. If hardcore fans clamor long and loudly enough, it seems even the most respected shows can be adversely affected. (See: Development, Arrested.)
And so we come to Teen Wolf. The first thing I noticed was that the show seems to have lost some of the slyness that once made it such a delight. In the previous two seasons, especially the second, the show's sexy subtext — shirtless boys running around pell-mell and occasionally wrestling, the scary pains and thrills of young coupling — was a winking joke. The show created an environment where the female gaze (and a gay male one) was more commonly satisfied. It also recognized its twinges of queerness — almost always in play in these supernatural stories — in graceful and clever ways. Surprisingly Teen Wolf could be a pretty progressive and gently sex-positive show. And it was genuinely funny, too. But last night it was all way overstated, maybe never more so than the sassy sexpot girl ogling a parade of improbably strapping incoming freshmen boys, a mere scene or two after she had a gratuitously shirtless fella in her bed begging to have sex again. There was also the arrival of two hunk twins, which feels a little over-the-top dirty. I like that Teen Wolf isn't afraid of objectifying the guys for once, but this premiere episode bordered on, in an odd way, crudeness. Mostly because, I suspect, the producers are trying to double down on what has made the show popular. They've altered the amounts in the recipe and the batch came out strange. So far, anyway.
They also stuffed a whole lotta story into one hour, not giving us much time to breathe as an onslaught of new wolfy villains came barreling into town. There were also animals going nuts and offing themselves, strange symbols burned into arms by a strange girl, and a goofy sublot created to explain lead actor Tyler Posey's tattoo. This is a longer season — 24 episodes instead of the usual 12 — so that they felt they needed to rush into things so quickly makes me worried that they've got a lot planned, which could mean True Blood-style trouble. Fans responded positively to last season's knotty plot, but this could be too much. Too many wolves, too many new characters, too many everything. I worry that Teen Wolf has figured out what made it good and now it's too conscious of itself, like when you accidentally think about breathing. (Sorry.) Of course, it's early yet and I could very well be wrong. I hope I am.
I suppose the real problem could be that I've gotten older since last year and the idea of earnestly sitting down and watching a show called Teen Wolf feels increasingly unsavory, but it's easier to blame it on the show, isn't it? So let's go with that. Don't over-think this, Teen Wolf. I know you've got a supersized season and that production has moved to fancy Los Angeles and everything, but stay loose and humble, please. Don't follow Sookie Stackhouse. She's lost.