Shallow Gene Pools
Who would have thought that the CBS—notorious home to the most venerable-cum-dowdy series on tv—would come up with its own version of teen angst on parade? Wolf Lake is seriously disturbed and disturbing, conjuring up the visual fragmentation and guitar-driven raging for which its Pacific Northwest setting is, indeed, rather famous—you know, the home of serial killing, grunge rock, Starbucks. The kids who live in this fictional Seattle suburb are dealing with terrible, monstrous meanness, the kind that would give Buffy nightmares. And their parents are not helping.
Wolf Lake is not strictly about the kids. It doesn’t take their point of view, really, not in the tradition of Dawson’s Creek or the movie Disturbing Behavior. And it stars some famous adults, Lou Diamond Phillips as intrepid Seattle cop John Kanin, Tim Matheson as local sheriff Matthew Donner, Graham Greene as high school biology teacher Sherman Blackstone, and even the great and ever-underused Sharon Lawrence as Vivian Cates, ominous-looking wife of town mucky-muck William Cates (Bruce McGill). Still, the Wolf Lake high schoolers figure prominently in every plot point, as victims of nefarious, apparently longstanding adult evil and as intelligent interrogators of their fates as fanged shape-shifters.
The show is conjured by veterans of some other scary and sometimes innovative films and tv series—Rachel Talalay directed Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (the one with Alice Cooper) and cult fave Tank Girl; Bryan Spicer directed episodes of The X-Files, Harsh Realm, Night Visions, and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (and well, gee, he also directed Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie in 1995); Alex Gansa has written for Dawson’s and The X-Files; and Philip Levens wrote for the never-off-the-ground hospital horror series, All Souls. Moreover, it’s clear that Wolf Lake has visions of Twin Peaks and >Roswell dancing in its head. You know from the title that wolves and wolfpeople are involved, but other than that, the show aims for creep-you-out confusion rather than explication (and you have to like a show that doesn’t mark every narrative turn and designated laugh or gasp with a sledgehammer). The premiere episode laid out some basic ground: John proposes to Ruby Cates (Mia Kirshner, the schoolgirl stripper in Atom Egoyan’s Exotica), she goes out for Chinese, and poof, she’s attacked by someone hiding in her car. Her eyes turn yellow, the fight turns brutal, and by the time John arrives on the scene, both participants have vanished, leaving behind a bloody hand. Months later, John is advised by a mysterious caller to look for Ruby in Wolf Lake, where she grew up and still has family, lots of it.
The second episode opens smack in the middle of what looks like an alarming ritual of transformation—it’s the middle of the night, Vivian and a couple of other characters appear shuffling in the shadows, someone’s screaming her head off. You know, the usual wolfperson transformation stuff, amped up just a bit, noise-wise. After a couple of minutes of this murky imagery, the cut to credits/first commercial-patch leaves you wondering if maybe you’ve missed something. It’s not long before you realize that Wolf Lake isn’t so inclined to spell out exactly what is happening or has happened to whom, and that this is actually one of its better inclinations. Too much exposition has never been popular in the Great Pacific Northwest, as David Lynch, Northern Exposure, and Kurt Cobain well knew. Better to leave consumers wondering what they’re swallowing. (As Kurt put it, so memorably, “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my Libido, yay, a denial”—indeed, the very model of ingenious, seductive, and thoroughly meaningful evasion.)
He monitors local police radios, and when he hears something that sounds like it has something to do with her, he’s rushing off to the scene, where he is promptly assaulted and arrested by the uniforms, led by the sheriff, who resents such butting in, for reasons of his own that have to do with… DNA. (Being a wolfperson isn’t merely a matter of mystical mumbo jumbo anymore.) Once John’s safely behind bars, he explains to Sheriff Matt his theory that Ruby is in the vicinity, based on his discovery of a pendant that once belonged to her. Actually, it’s a 5th-century AD amulet that he will soon identify, with the help of a priest who is apparently currently on “forced sabbatical,” for a reason you don’t yet know, but to which the priest refers as “the young coed in question [who’s] still pressing charges.” Maybe this is a joke. Maybe not. Who is this guy John and who does he run with, anyway?
At any rate, Matt (whose eyes always look a little yellowish, even in his human shape) responds to John’s charges with the appropriate and wholly baleful question: “Do you have any idea how crazy that sounds?” John does have an idea (and we notice that he has moments where he sounds a lot like Kyle MacLachlan’s much-missed Agent Dale Cooper), but still, he’s determined to find his missing beloved, spooky as that yellow-eye thing may be. John’s best connection in his investigation so far has been with one of the kids, in fact, the sheriff’s daughter Sophia (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). He’s nice to her in the diner where she works as a waitress, and pumps her gently for info that she’s either reluctant to give or doesn’t quite have. You learn more than he does—for the series leaves off from John in order to follow Sophia, a more interesting character, frankly, not so melancholy or prone to hang out in the cemetery writing forlorn love notes to Ruby. Sophia has her own issues, again having to do with her… DNA. In one neat little scene, she’s in biology lab questioning and flirting with the popular boy she’s got a crush on, Luke Cates (Paul Wasilewski)—and yes, all the Cates here are just a little too related (or, as the super-sage Sherman observes, “The gene pool here is pretty damn shallow”). Sophia asks Luke what it was like “the first time.” Technically, she’s not asking about what you might think—she’s asking about his first shape-shifting experience, which this precocious boy had at age 13. It’s painful, he admits, but smiles: the pain is exhilarating, empowering, and life-changing. Like sex. If you had any doubts that Wolf Lake is a teen-angst show, this should take care of it. You can anticipate plenty of Dawson’s-style discussion to come, concerning late-blooming Sophia’s first time. The question is, will it garner the same numbers as Joey and Pacey’s first time?
The adults, meanwhile, do have some fretting of their own to do. It seems that the head shape-shifter, Will, is dying, and so is imagining to whom he might hand over the reins of control. Apparently, there are rules about where you can and can’t go if you’re a wolf, so as not to disrupt much outside of Wolf Lake. The most ambitious aspirant to the position is wealthy real estate developer Tyler Creed (Scott Bairstow), but no one really likes him: as his “job” would indicate, he’s pushy and not so interested in preserving tradition. Or, maybe, Will and Sherman muse, they should tap nice guy Sheriff Matt, even though he’s not into the power-tripping aspect of the whole wolfperson thing. The struggles to come promise to be even more down and dirty than those on Survivor, if only because these characters have access to special effects.
I think, though, that so far, the primary reason to return to Wolf Lake is Graham Greene’s Sherman Blackstone, who seems to be in touch with all the lore and the history of the colony and the mysterious/scientific phenomenon that so afflicts and enriches them. On some level—the level that he embodies—Wolf Lake is all about finding solace in community, in the face of alienation and fear. And on this level, it’s worth noting that of all the new series this season, this is one of the very few to even begin to address differences of race and culture, as these inspire such mixed and confusing feelings, for adults trying to preserve a sense of tradition and cultural value, as well as kids coming up in a world inciting them to leave this sense behind. True, Sherman’s dispensing of wisdom might get tedious and stereotypical very quickly, he being The Native American Character, but Greene is also an actor of rare warmth and depth: perhaps he’ll pull this out in unexpected ways.
And, whether or not John finds his way “in” to Wolf Lake’s secret community, he’s already working a complicated set of circumstances and identities, just because he’s Lou Diamond Phillips. Part Cherokee, part Hawaiian, part Chinese, part Spanish, part Scotch-Irish, Phillips has, ever his breakout turns in La Bamba and Stand and Deliver (both 1987), played any number of racial identities, from Latino to Native to the King of Siam, and he most always imbues his characters with edgy combinations of resolve and ambiguity, desire and frustration (we’ll just discount Bats). Wolf Lake may or may not grant him the room to develop such complications, but for now, it looks strange enough to warrant another look.