Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Teen Wolf Is Pretty Much Just Veronica Mars with Fur

So, you know that thing, where you're supposed to be working on something and devoting all of your mental power to this one thing, and you keep on not being able to do it, but even worse, you keep getting distracted by this other thing, and thinking about that too much and it's bad and you're not supposed to but you can't help it? Maybe that's just me.

Or, in normal person language, last week when I was working on my paper, all I kept thinking about was how I had just realized that Teen Wolf is literally just Veronica Mars but with werewolves. So let's talk about that, shall we? Not because it's important, but because it's fun, and interesting, and kind of because it isn't important. I mean, I can use some pointless fluff every once in a while. Can't you?

For those of you who don't recall my prior theses on these topics, Veronica Mars is a teenage detective show, about a teen girl private eye, Veronica (Kristen Bell), who helps her dad at his PI firm and also solves cases around her high school, including the big mystery of who murdered her best friend, Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried). Meanwhile, Teen Wolf is a teenage werewolf show, loosely (and I mean super loosely) based on the Michael J. Fox movie, it's about a teenage boy, Scott McCall (Tyler Posey), who is bitten by a werewolf and then proceeds to be the most amazing epic human being ever and save the town a lot.

On the surface, not so similar, right? WRONG!

The similarities show themselves when you do two things. First, you have to lose all notions about the genres of these shows. Just throw that out the window. And second, you have to stop thinking of Scott as the main character of Teen Wolf. Admittedly this isn't something I'm very interested in doing, since I love Scott and I love that this show has a biracial lead who is also pretty much the nicest person ever like Disney prince levels of heroic and nice.

But whatever. Let's pretend for a minute that Scott isn't the main character. Why? Because I'm pretty sure the writers of the show pretend that too. The character they like to spend all of their time and energy on is actually Scott's best friend, Stiles (Dylan O'Brien). And this is where the similarities between the two shows start to come out.

And then they get weird, because you cannot tell me this is uninentional.

Stiles and his father (Linden Ashby), who is the local Sheriff, have formed a close-knit family unit in the wake of his mother's death. Stiles is always worrying after his father's health, and even goes so far as to monitor the police transmissions in order to know whenever his father might be going into a somewhat dangerous situation. He's nosy and brilliant and completely ADD, while also being quite snarky and witty (they both are), and likes to get his hands on his father's casefiles. Sometimes he helps solve them, sometimes he doesn't, but he's always looking for answers.

It's just that sometimes the answers are kind of supernatural, and his father doesn't find out about that until halfway through season three, sooo....

The driving force behind the show, the inciting incident that gets everything going, is the murder of Laura Hale, a local girl from a (formerly) prominent family in town. At first, everyone suspects her brother, Derek (Tyler Hoechlin), including Stiles. Stiles even gets Derek arrested for the murder, but eventually he's found innocent. Also Stiles and Derek have a...complicated relationship, fraught with a lot of accidental innuendo and significant glances.

Eventually we find out that Laura was murdered by her Uncle Peter (Ian Bohen), who wasn't a suspect at all because everyone thought he was in a coma.

Stiles' best friend Scott of course gets all mucked up in this, but mostly Scott spends the first season at least being Stiles' eyes and ears. He's a werewolf, so he's good at spying, and also he's all sweet and innocuous and good at breaking into houses without seeming like he is. Scott lives with his mother, Melissa (Melissa Ponzio), a nurse who works as hard as she can to take care of her son, and who has formed a little surrogate family with the Stilinskis (Stiles and his dad) in the wake of her divorce.

Oh, and there's Danny (Keahu Kahuanui), Stiles' hacker friend who feels socially isolated, and Lydia (Holland Roden), the secretly super smart and compassionate but hiding it under layers of snark and classism love interest.

Good? Good.

Veronica Mars, which predates this show by about seven years, for the record, was about Veronica and her dad (Enrico Colantoni), a single father who used to be Sheriff until his dogged pursuit of the truth pushed him out of office and is now a PI, form a closeknit family unit in the wake of the disappearance of Veronica's mother. Keith, her dad, solves cases while Veronica worries about her father and adds her own two cents about the cases, investigating some without her father's permission, both because she worries about him, and because she needs answers. They are both snarky, sarcastic, witty people, ADD, and protective.

The show's inciting incident is the murder of Veronica's best friend, Lilly Kane, a member of the prominent Kane family in town. For a while everyone suspects that Lilly's brother Duncan (Teddy Dunn) did it, but he's eventually proven innocent, and it turns out that Aaron Echolls (Harry Hamlin) killed her. He wasn't a suspect at first because no one had a motive for him.

Veronica's best friend Wallace (Percy Daggs III) is always helping her out by stealing students' files or asking the right questions or being bait. Also, he and his mom, Alicia (Erica Gimpel) are super close, and they only get closer to Veronica and her dad when Keith and Alicia start to date.

Oh, and there's Mac (Tina Majorino), Veronica's hacker friend who feels like she doesn't fit in this town, and Logan (Jason Dohring), the secretly sensitive and smart but hiding it all under an asshole exterior love interest.

Did I cover everything? Wait, there's more! Allison (Crystal Reed), Scott's girlfriend for a fair amount of the show is eerily similar in role to Weevil (Francis Capra), the leader of the local gang and Veronica's friend. They're both the badasses with a past, who sometimes make really dumb decisions, but pretty much always mean well.

Both shows even have an incompetent/jerkfaced usurper coming into the Sheriff's station to get the Sheriff/Keith in trouble with the law, and they both have dreamy deputies. Like, it's pretty weirdly specific down here.

Now, all of this is mostly good fun and silly times, but I do have a larger point here. Namely that I feel like some of this was coincidence, but I don't think it all was. I think someone was actually being a bit intentional on parts of this, because it is hella specific. And that's okay, for the record. I like both of these shows, it's not an issue for me.

It's just funny. Because this is something I teach my students in creative writing: how to steal. When you're stealing an idea, like, say, the basic concept and character structure for a serialized teenage television show, you want to keep the things that made you love that first structure, but change it enough to make it your own.

So, you know, maybe you change the gender of the main character. Maybe you even say that someone else is the main character! Make some tweaks here, some shifts there. It's different enough that no one is going to sue, but close enough that you know you have something that works. Again, I don't mind that they did this. I like Veronica Mars. Steal away.

But I think it's something we should bear in mind when watching shows like this. Nothing exists in a vacuum. No pop culture is not deeply influenced by other pop culture. It's just not possible. It's sort of like when a friend of mine says that they want to write a comic, and when I ask them what comics they read they get all confused because why would they need to read comics in order to write one? Of course the writers of Teen Wolf have seen Veronica Mars. They're making a television show about wisecracking teenagers in over their heads. They did research.

It matters that we know all of this, though, because those influences, subtle as they might be, do end up flavoring the text of the new show too. When you steal characters and structure and ideas, it's hard not to end up with flaws and pitfalls and weirdness too. In fact, I would argue that a fair number of the flaws in Teen Wolf come from the writers not being careful enough in changing the source material. The result was a little bit racist or sexist or weird. They weren't paying close enough attention.

And, if you're going to steal, you should probably do it well, right?

Scott McCall is super dreamy, though.


  1. When I get the time, I'm going to buy a couple thousand gallons of ice cream and hole-up for a weekend to devour Teen Wolf all at once.

    If you want to inspire the above insanity, pretty much all it takes is the phrase "like Veronica Mars." I don't even need the specifics.

    We all have our flaws :)