Today I’m Discovering Teen Wolf and Death Valley

In my last check-up on MTV, a network in the process of turning a new leaf re-defining its image once again after its 30th birthday, I noted that many of the new scripted shows on the network have a sort of shaggy-dog aesthetic — with one notable and very ironic exception. It’s not that the shows are not well produced. It’s just that they are made to seem appealingly underproduced — they’re rough around the edges, slightly unpolished, a little messy. Like the clothes of much of their demographic, it’s not that no one bothered to iron out the wrinkles or check for holes in these shows. It’s more that the shows — Awkward, Death Valley, I Just Want My Pants Back — are intentionally made to look wrinkly and full of stylish, well-placed holes… ‘cuz that’s the cool thing to do! But, fortunately for MTV, these shows are kind of cool. They’re knocking on the door of trying too hard — to be hip and shaggy and loose. But while no one pays serious attention to MTV’s scripted television, these shows manage to stay out of the limelight, where they would be perceived as sell-outs; and so they do keep, on a network still known primarily for trashy reality, a bit of their shaggy-dog, underdog, cool dawg luster.

Except for Teen Wolf, the only show on MTV that is actually about shaggy dogs! This show is overproduced, commercial, relatively wholesome, soggy… It’s a CW/ABC Family hybrid that managed to find its way over to MTV like a lost puppy, as if Pauley D called it up and asked it to make a cameo on his network and then didn’t know what to do with it. And I kind of like it…

Gosh its schlocky, and when you can watch so many other shows that are exactly like it but with a different classic movie monster changed out in the title, it’s surely not original. But something about a few of the performances in this show (like Stiles and the witty but mean dude who plays the now dead Alpha) and its younger, more innocent (but not intentionally chaste like Twilight) spirit is refreshing.

I’ve only see two episodes of this show, and they are the last two episodes, so they needed to be stacked with action and silly mythology, so take what I say with a grain of salt. When you’re bored on a Saturday, lying on the couch, nothing to do, and you flip to a channel you’ve never watched or liked in your like because there’s really nothing else on, I guess you’re grading things on a bit of a curve. Still, from what I saw, there’s not an ounce of jaded or stilted Edward Cullen-ness to this show. It’s unabashedly young and hopeful and concerned with school dances and school sports (though not as much as the ’80s movie it’s based on!), which I don’t mind. While it would definitely be more fun and less predictable if it let loose every once in a while like the MTV scripted comedies, it’s a pretty good watch. It’s never going to break the genre bank like Buffy did ten years ago, barring some sort of creative miracle in subsequent seasons, but this strait-forward teen soap uses it’s horror elements well enough and uses humor to cut some of its seriousness, and… despite it’s drawbacks, it works effectively as a teen drama. Really it’s not much worse or much different from season one of Buffy, which hadn’t found its way quite yet, though it’s nowhere near as smart or as charming.

Which makes it the odd man out on the new MTV by a mile. Just look at the other show on the same network with werewolves! Death Valley — a gory, joke-a-minute, cops-‘n-zombies mockumentary. This show couldn’t handle the subject of monsters more differently (no suggestions of becoming a monster as a metaphor for puberty here) — and it handles it in more of what seems like the new “MTV spirit,” which the network will need in order to distinguish itself from the CW and ABC Family.

The brand new Death Valley is a bit of a thematic and tonal mess — a show that wants to repeatedly state it’s conceit (vampires, zombies and werewolves are loose in Los Angeles and a bunch of jaded beat cops have to deal with their criminal activities) but that really doesn’t want to stick to any one direction for more than two minutes. When is it funny? When it reminds me of a really well-done combination of Hill Street Blues and Shaun of the Dead, two things which should have been brought together soon. The idea of normal city cops being weary at having to deal with zombie attacks and vampire prostitution is a genius idea, and the pilot pays off on that conceit a few times. When is it not funny? A lot of the rest of the time.

The laughs didn’t make a huge impression on me honestly. The execution of the core conceit though, the idea of werewolves and zombies taking the place of drunk drivers and robbers… it dazzled me. The effects are kind of wonderful, the gore is… awesome! But this show hasn’t found the Shaun of the Dead balance of big scares that have you laughing, and its characters seem unlikely to reach the level of familiarity we reach with characters on a great cop show like Hill Street Blues. Death Valley is my least favorite of the new scripted shows because it feels the most like the show which thinks it can exist solely because some showrunner said “People like vampires and werewolves right now. I can make that funny!” I think a lot of people think that show is Teen Wolf , which is a rip-off (it’s totally not) of an already dubious ’80s movie (which it takes almost nothing from except for the notion of adolescent lycanthropy, which would totally be a better title for the show). But no, it’s Death Valley which feels hollow and uninspired despite a great concept and awe-inspiring effects. It’ll be interesting how these two shows are seen, over the next few years, as MTV shows, considering one seems utterly unoriginal, familiar, yet it entertains and has room for growth, and one which seems to have all the ingredients to do something new and inspired but is unlikely to grow beyond its admittedly genius premise and become truly scary, funny or transcendent.

It would be easy to say that MTV, with these two shows, is just riding the wave of the most obvious, most ridiculous trend we have going into this new decade — that horror monsters aren’t taken seriously anymore. Actually I’m just going to go ahead and say it. MTV is totally riding this wave. They’re not even a little shy about the fact that they are riding it and they hope that riding it will make them money and will turn them into a legitimate player in scripted television. Fortunately for them, their commercial move is paying off. They’re riding the wave really well, taking a really confident step in two different directions. I’m intrigued to see which direction will prove to be the right direction for MTV, and which will ultimately prevail when the nuetered monster wave crests and crashes.