WIRED Binge-Watching Guide: Teen Wolf
If you remember the original Teen Wolf, a 1985 comedy starring Michael J. Fox as an average teen who becomes a basketball star when he turns into a werewolf, the MTV television series begins in much the same way. Scott McCall (Tyler Posey) is an awkward, asthmatic high schooler before he receives “the bite,” and quickly transforms into a star athlete (though the favored sport at Beacon Hills High School is lacrosse instead of hoops). He’s got a best friend named Stiles (Dylan O’Brien) and desperately wants to win the heart of his beautiful classmate Allison (Crystal Reed).
But the show diverges sharply from there, swerving from comedy into straight-up horror—including body horror—that mimics the pains and anxieties of young adulthood in much the same way as Buffy the Vampire Slayer once did. Bodies change overnight in frightening ways; friends and lovers turn unexpectedly into monsters; and parents, of course, just don’t understand.
But Teen Wolf also explores some new ground that Buffy never quite did, in part because it adds something to the mix that was still frowned upon by networks in the late ’90s: gay male teen romance. Created by a gay showrunner, Teen Wolf doesn’t just include gay characters and relationships at the margins; it imagines a world where homophobia simply doesn’t exist. Not only are gay characters so common that they’re unremarkable, they’re fully integrated into every aspect of high school life. The first prominent gay character we meet, Danny (Keahu Kahuanui), is not only the best friend of the school’s biggest jock but an athlete himself. When he makes casual, joking comments about his sexuality in the men’s locker room, no one bats an eye.
While Scott himself is straight and his romances with women often take center stage, Teen Wolf is also the rare show that seems more interested in appealing to the gaze of women and gay men than straight men. Rather than scantily-clad girls and lingering shots on cleavage, it is the bodies of attractive men who get the most attention from the camera. If there were a blackout-inducing drinking game for Teen Wolf, it would likely involve the instruction “take a drink when you see a shirtless man.”
Scott himself demonstrates a very nontraditional sort of masculinity, compared not only to mainstream ideas about how men should behave, but also to the men around him. While his werewolf mentor Derek (Tyler Hoechlin) is more than willing to gain power through violence and even murder, Scott refuses to kill—and instead focuses his energies on supporting and caring for his friends. This ultimately grants him the greatest power of all; rather than becoming a pack leader by killing an “alpha” werewolf, Scott eventually becomes a “true Alpha,” which is achieved not through mere force but by strength of character. Scott has his own ideas about what it means both to be powerful and to be a man, and refuses to let anyone else define those things for him. Rather than how many points he scores on the athletic field or how many foes he defeats, that’s what makes him the hero.
Here’s how to binge your way through MTV’s forward-thinking teen wolf drama.
Number of Seasons: 5 (70 episodes)
Time Requirements: Watch one or two hours a day, and three on Saturday and Sunday, and you can tear your way through the series in a month to a month and a half. Start now and you’ll have more than enough time to finish before the second half of the current season begins in January.
Where to Get Your Fix: Amazon Prime, Google Play, and iTunes. Newer episodes are available 21 days after they air on Hulu.
Best Character to Follow: When we first meet Lydia Martin (Holland Roden), she’s the girlfriend of the school’s star athlete: beautiful, popular, and seemingly shallow. But much of it is an act, something only Stiles—who’s been in love with her for years—seems to realize at first. She’s not only a genius who’s been hiding her intelligence behind a mean girl facade for years, but perhaps something more with strange abilities of her own. Much like Allison before her, she responds to the constant attacks by supernatural beings by learning hand-to-hand combat, and soon learns that she can hold her own.
Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip:
Seasons 4 and 5: Best to be up front about it: Teen Wolf goes downhill. The decline begins during the fourth year, and bottoms out in fifth and latest season. Many of the familiar faces from the first season are now absent—including many of its more central gay characters—and much of the show’s charm is missing as well. If you can get through Season 4 and want to keep going, then give it a shot. But if you want to stop at the end of Season 3, no one will blame you.
Seasons/Episodes You Can’t Skip:
Season 1: Episode 1, “Wolf Moon” Like most pilot episodes, this packs a lot into a single hour. It’ll give you an intro to the full cast of characters in Beacon Hills, and a brief glimpse of Scott McCall’s life before a werewolf bite changes it forever, for better and worse.
Season 1: Episode 3, “Pack Mentality” Scott worries that he may have accidentally murdered someone in his sleep; his long-awaited date with Allison somehow turns into a group bowling date with his enemies.
Season 1: Episode 7, “Night School” Several students who don’t know Scott’s secret—including Allison—end up trapped in Beacon Hills High School at night with a monster while he tries to save them but refuses to explain what’s going on. When they escape, Allison does what any reasonable person would do: Says his behavior is too weird for her, and she’s done.
Season 1: Episode 9, “Wolf’s Bane” Allison gets tired of being a damsel in distress and decides to learn how to fight; Derek hides from a manhunt by hanging out in Stiles’s room and pretending to be his cousin “Miguel.”
Season 1: Episode 12, “Code Breaker” This season finale ends the suspense and finally brings Scott’s secret out into the open.
Season 2: Episode 1, “Omega” The Season 2 debut brings Gerard Argent aka Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan) to town as Allison’s werewolf-hating grandpa, and introduces an abused teen named Isaac (Daniel Sharman) whom Derek empowers with a werewolf bite.
Season 2: Episode 4, “Abomination” Derek and Stiles spend a lot of this episode treading water in a pool together after a paralytic bite from a monster called the Kanima. It’s pretty homoerotic.
Season 2: Episode 9, “Party Guessed” Lydia throws a birthday party and spikes the punch with wolfsbane, because that’s a good idea.
Season 3: Episode 1, “Tattoo” As Season 3 begins, Isaac has amnesia, two sexy identical werewolf twins arrive in town, and Derek gives Scott a tattoo with a blowtorch.
Season 3: Episode 2, “Chaos Rising” Stiles almost loses his virginity to a childhood friend who disappears, Coach (Orny Adams) teaches economics by making everyone play Quarters, and everyone breaks into a vault and fights each other. Also, it turns out one of the werewolf twins is gay, and Danny is alllll about it.
Season 3: Episode 5, “Frayed” Badly injured and believing that Derek is dead, Scott ends up stuck on a long bus ride with the cross-country team and considers giving up on life.
Season 3: Episode 6, “Motel California” One of the best episodes of the season traps the whole teen cast overnight at a roadside motel where the werewolves are increasingly destabilized by hallucinations and it’s up to their human friends to save them.
Season 3: Episode 11, “Alpha Pact” In order to save their parents, Scott, Allison, and Stiles learn they need to become “temporarily dead.” Since that sounds like a normal Monday at this point in time, they agree.
Season 3: Episode 23, “Insatiable” Everything changes when one of the core characters of the show dies tragically. If you’re looking for the point where the show jumps the shark, this is an easy one to pinpoint.
Why You Should Binge:
Not everyone likes teen dramas, and not everyone likes horror. If you do, then this is must-see TV for you. If you’re a younger viewer, you probably already know about Teen Wolf, if you’re closer to Generation X than Millennial, then this is a glimpse into how much more inclusive modern teen dramas can be—and how refreshing that is.
Best Scene—Stiles Goes to the Guidance Counselor
After a series of traumatic episodes and losses, Stiles visits a guidance counselor at his school and expresses the sort of anxiety, fear, and pain that a lot of teens experience, even without supernatural threats hanging over their heads: “the crushing, overwhelming fear that something terrible is about to happen.” He starts to wonder if it’s worth going on, or whether things are just going to keep getting worse and worse. The guidance counselor gives some of the only advice you can really give to someone in pain: just keep holding on.
While the show has diminished a bit after five years on the air, Teen Wolf is still one of the most interesting and subversive teen horror shows in recent memory.
If You Liked Teen Wolf You’ll Love:
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, and quite possibly the film Teen Wolf.