When you think of MTV’s Teen Wolf, the show where everybody who isn’t Dylan O’Brien is destined to take their top off like it’s the TV adaptation of Magic Mike, what do you think of? I’ve probably just outlined the entire premise of the show in that one sentence, but the point still stands: what is Teen Wolf? Yes it’s about a bunch of teenagers, some of whom happen to be wolves, and yes they all happen to be sitting firmly at the top of the chart when it comes to looking good while sweaty, shirtless, and baring fangs, but the show is, believe it or not, about more than just that. It’s not all cosmetic; it has a heart.
But here’s the problem: that heart doesn’t beat like it should. It never has. It’s constantly trapped within an arrhythmia, fluctuating between a staccato beat and vicious palpitations. Sometimes it stops entirely, crushing the entire show inside a vice-like grip. But when it’s beating regularly, Teen Wolf is a compelling look into its own bizarro world filled with werewolves, banshees, Tyler Hoechlin’s impossibly perfect beard, and actors in their mid-twenties forever trapped in the skins of sixteen year olds. It’s a strange, weird little show that has no right to carry such compulsion with a name like Teen Wolf.
Being a show infused with all the makings of an internet phenomenon–high school; habitual toplessness; sharp, snappy dialogue written with almost Whedon-esque precision–Teen Wolf has naturally infected hundreds of thousands of passionate, energetic fans. It has a wide and extensive fanbase, and with such dedication to one singular cause comes with it an overt willingness to create, to explore, to unearth. We see it all the time with the likes of fan-created art, videos of emotional moments spliced with soul-destroying music that we just have to watch three dozen times, emotions be damned, and most of all, with fanfiction. And it is through the community of Teen Wolf, through their desire to rip open the iron bars gating the show’s characters inside confined quarters like rats doomed for experimentation, that the strangest thing has happened: they have created a world more illustrative and interesting than that of the show to which they belong.
Let’s talk about fanfiction for a moment. Easily dismissed as a literary sub-genre populated by sex-crazed fans making use of the opportunity to unleash their various fantasies via their favorite characters (even Diane Lockhart’s housekeeper is in on it), fanfic has nevertheless rapidly grown over the years to become a legitimately exciting and thoroughly acceptable form of fiction. Admittedly a lot of fanfic takes the form of elaborate copulation between two potentially unlikely-to-hook-up-in-canon characters, but underneath that erotic over-layer lies the occasional strong story thread connecting the intimacy to the world in which the characters belong.
Above all, fanfiction is particularly interesting from certain perspectives because of the way it allows the writer to toy with the rules of traditional story construction. Working with characters created elsewhere, the produce of someone else’s imagination, isn’t as easy as it may sound, and stitching them into a story of moderate plausibility is difficult. (Fanfic without story is basically porn, after all, though that’s not to say that porn can’t be creative.) But it is in that process, that exploration into the mind of a character you’ve only seen interpreted through the words or performance of someone else, that fanfiction becomes so exciting a prospect. Because it allows you to take characters, break them free from the restraints they’ve been put into by their creator, and let them loose upon a world you’ve created. If you want character A to fall in love with character B and grow old together to have children and garages and carrot cake at the weekend, that is what you can do. It’s almost akin to theft; rather, it’s more similar to freeing a caged animal.
Characters are, after all, the driving force of any fictional construction. No matter the complexity of the narrative, the conveyor belt still needs to move smoothly, and the characters are the only ones capable of making that happen. A story cannot progress or function without them, nor can it survive the turbulence when they make uncharacteristic decisions or walk in the wrong direction because the writer lost track of their movements and blindly picked one to compensate. Fanfiction awards a writer the chance to set their own destination for the character, to watch them every step of the journey and approve alternate courses when required, always keeping them on track. Because testing characters and giving them new things to do is, of course, the bedrock of a person who lives on the page.
Just like in life itself, fictional characters need to be challenged. They need to be able to take the knowledge gained from that challenge and use it to build themselves up–or break themselves down. They need to go from one place to another. Simply never being challenged at all, especially on an emotional level, results in stagnation, of them revolving around the same totem pole repeatedly until that’s all they become. Fanfic gives you, the one watching this frustrating procedure take place, the chance to cut the cord connecting them to the pole, allowing them to spin away into a better world. Unfortunately, however, in Teen Wolf’s case, almost all of its characters are endlessly spinning.
It would be inaccurate to suggest that Teen Wolf lacks the ability to design an imaginative set of obstacles to place in front of its characters. What would be accurate, however, is that it does such so infrequently that one would be forgiven for thinking this was the case. Teen Wolf’s sizeable character roster often runs in circles for entire episodes–seasons, in some cases–treading the same ground over and over again until the artificial path becomes concrete. For example, the supposed romantic connection between Stiles and Lydia has been an ongoing story arc since the show’s pilot episode, yet the amount of actual progression displayed since that time is minimal at best, despite the show continually offering hints that it hasn’t forgotten this is a thing. Portions of the fanbase are still invested in the relationship in spite of this, but what could have been a story element with developmental opportunities for both characters involved has instead become the steady drip drip of a broken tap–always present, never wanted, destined to remain broken forever until someone whacks the damn thing with a hammer and magically corrects it.
For want of another example: the twins, Ethan and Aiden, were introduced at the beginning of season three yet have never once felt like actual characters existing within a narrative. At best they are flat-pack characters unfolded and controlled by strings until they’re no longer needed. We know so little about them outside of what’s necessary to the plot. Their sole purpose on the show, it seems, is to growl and take their shirts off while accompanied by dubstep music. Of course, nobody is going to complain about such activity when they’re watching a show of this nature (and also because hot damn, those abs), but when it’s all a character–two, in this case–does, it’s emblematic of a larger issue. And that issue, of which causes the show’s arrhythmia, is Teen Wolf’s frustrating penchant to hold plot in higher esteem than character.
Ever since the show began, Teen Wolf has seemingly placed its focus on progressing its many often-outrageous plots at the expense of, well, pretty much everything else. The consequence of such is that its many characters only truly receive what could be construed as development and growth when the plot demands it of them. If it doesn’t demand it, then they get nothing. It’s regrettably that simple. And when it does happen, once every full moon (pun definitely intended), the chances that the character will regress back to their original self at same stage, all traces of growth and development erased as though from the timeline itself, are quite substantial. Mud sticks, but not on Teen Wolf.
The current second half to Teen Wolf’s third season is quite glaring evidence of the aforementioned point. Instead of using the conclusion to the first half (in which Stiles, Scott, and Allison were all promised a shroud of darkness around their hearts for the rest of their lives, a consequence of their sacrifice) as a significant turning point for the characters involved, it has instead become ostensibly insignificant–yet another story element lost at sea. In its place is, to be brutally honest, not much else. The main story of the half-season, featuring an evil Japanese fox spirit taking possession of Stiles’ body (no, I haven’t been tasting odd mushrooms, before you ask), is really quite progressive to no character in particular. If anyone is to grow because of this plot it’s Stiles, and I’m not sure the repercussions will stick beyond the obligatory first few episodes of season four. Consequently the entire storyline feels…temporary.
This is where we return to the subject of fanfiction, and more specifically, how the creativity displayed in that world, alongside the more adequate balance of character and narrative, is far more explorative than that taking place in the show itself. One thing I’m especially fond of in stories of any particular medium is the process of pairing together, whether romantically or otherwise, two characters that by all definition should not work together. But that clash can yield beautiful results; it can introduce new story threads for both the narrative at large and for the characters themselves. As a show, Teen Wolf does not venture into this kind of unknown territory perhaps out of an insistence on maintaining the relationships it knows engender positive responses from its fans, but as a community, its fanbase has embraced the opportunity with aplomb.
You only have to go scouring through the library of Teen Wolf fanfiction to unearth a selection of unusual character pairings to understand the advantages to be gained from exploring particular dynamics. Whether it’s in coapting characters like Stiles and Isaac (who pretty much ignore each other on the show unless forced to do otherwise), or exploring more angles of the friendship between Allison and Lydia, for example, the wealth of fanfic writers existing on the internet have formed their own character relationships–or enhanced existing ones–out of the void the show has created. They’ve taken characters that, as previously mentioned, really shouldn’t work together as a collective unit, and, through the power of writing and maneuvering a plot in between them to provide the foundation for the relationship, grown a flower in the middle of a concrete floor. And anyone familiar with the world of Teen Wolf that exists outside of the show’s perimeter should already know that the strongest example of this is the infamous ‘Sterek’ pairing.
Named after Stiles and Derek, the respective characters involved in the relationship, Sterek has grown exponentially to become an omnipresent force within the world of Teen Wolf–despite the fact it does not, and unfortunately will not, canonically exist. Yet through the sheer force, creativity, and strength of the fanbase, the relationship between the two characters feels more real than any other on the show. It’s had more development than any other on the show. It makes more sense than the majority of others on the show, most likely because Jeff Davis hasn’t been able to get his hands on it. But it exists only on the outside, as unwritten text floating above the page. The only reason it’s as dominant as it is is because of the community and their willingness to venture where the show will not go. They have taken an unusual character pairing and ripped it wide open, filling it with alternate-universe stories of high school romance, college experimentation, tales of domestic bliss with cats and dinner preparations, phonesex, and so much more that you cannot appreciate the breadth of until you go looking for it yourself. Through the world of fanfic we have seen this relationship from a googolplex of different angles, and it is via this process that Sterek has taken on sentiency.
Take a look at this one, for example. A current work in progress updated every week, the story has seen Stiles and Derek progress from a chance encounter to fully realizing and embracing the feelings they have for each other, with some genuinely interesting and heartfelt characterization thrown in for good measure, particularly from Stiles as he learns to understand and accept newfound emotions. The story is laden with erotica, as the pair engage in several red-hot sex scenes under the illusion that it really means nothing, and it is written in a light-hearted and almost comedic tone, but the creativity I’ve witnessed while reading through it has, to put it simply, blown me away.
Of course, you will naturally find people unwilling to acknowledge that Sterek is a relationship of such immense depth, most likely because it indirectly threatens their own shipping preferences. Inevitably there will also be people who find the concept of investing oneself in a non-existent relationship a peculiar and ridiculous notion, instead choosing to focus their attentions on the relationships that exist within the canonical narrative. Such activity is perfectly fine, of course, perhaps considered normal in certain circles, but to ignore Sterek simply because the show itself chooses to do so is to deprive yourself of a colourful and vivid world that has been painted by the community–a world comparatively deeper than that painted by the show.
But is there a reason why Teen Wolf’s world is dimmer in comparison to that of the community’s? Teen Wolf is trying to paint its picture as best it can, but every five minutes some douchebag comes along and throws a glass of water onto the canvas, whereas the community can paint, draw, and generally have a jolly old time without disruption. Teen Wolf, like all television shows, cannot explore every nook and crevice like the community can, because the douchebags in the above example take the form of budget and time constraints, cast limitations, and even impositions enforced on them by MTV itself. The show, like the characters fanfic writers set free, is the equivalent of a caged animal, only there is no force that can let loose that particular lock.
So, in that regard, it seems almost unfair to criticize Teen Wolf for not being able to run free with its own self like the community. But here’s the thing: you can work with so little to produce so much. You can tell a story that has ramifications on both character and the universe without needing an excessive budget or vast quantities of time. Though when you consider the type of show Teen Wolf is, and the target demographic it aims for every week, and the success it has with doing what it does, however limited it may be, one has to wonder whether it needs to do anything different, whether I’m expecting far too much from a show with the title of Teen Wolf.
You would be forgiven for reading everything written thus far and believing I have deep-seated issues with Teen Wolf that prevent me from enjoying the show. That is incorrect. Despite what it doesn’t do, what it refuses to do, it still remains a light, not-particularly-thought-provoking show that knows what it is and makes no excuses for it. I can respect that, and my adoration for several of the show’s characters and their personalities (most, admittedly, for shallow reasons because have you seen Dylan O’Brien’s hair?) means that I constantly find enjoyment even during the weeks when everything grinds to a halt and everyone becomes an exposition cipher. But being a fan does not forbid me from ignoring the show’s critical failures, and why entering the world created by the community is the only way I am ever able to fill in the gaps left behind by the writers. Thankfully the community’s insistence on filling these absences means they do not remain forever empty.
And with that we get back to the original point: Teen Wolf is still a show that garners commercial and critical success, with a viciously dedicated fanbase determined to see it continue. But in terms of challenging itself and allowing it to grow and widen its prospects, well, that’s only happening outside of the show. The growth that should be happening inside simply isn’t, or in general happens so seldomly that it’s not actually growth at all, just tastes of it. The show’s writers are willingly shackled to the wall and seem to see no inclination to create more with less. The show’s community, however, are running free, exploring new territory, rejuvenating dead earth, planting more on top, and in general, are creating a landscape around that which already exists–one that has eclipsed it entirely. It’s a strange, but beautiful, thing.