Though it’s certainly a teen drama about werewolves, Paramount+’s Wolf Pack is also a collection of comeback stories. For one, it marks series creator Jeff Davis’ return to the lupine fold, after he delivered the Teen Wolf series back in 2011. (Appropriately, a Teen Wolf companion film is also coming to Paramount+ on January 26.) But perhaps even more significantly for horror fans, the series brings Sarah Michelle Gellar back to genre storytelling. While she isn’t slaying vampires this time around, she’s still got the sparky wit and emotional nuance that made her a legend in horror television. Even when the new series can’t rise to her level, she proves she was born for this type of work.
Gellar plays Kristin Ramsey, an arson investigator investigating the cause of a forest fire that destroyed a community and left many people dead. She storms into scenes with an air of authority, able to convey Ramsey’s competence and intelligence with the slightest of gestures. She also delivers withering lines to overzealous FBI agents, and fans may sigh with relief to see her signature, biting attitude back on their screens.
In the two episodes provided for critics, the plot starts churning when Kristin suspects there’s something amiss about a school bus that was trapped in the blaze. She’s especially skeptical about a pair of teenagers, Everett (Armani Jackson) and Blake (Bella Shepard), who seem to be hiding something. Both young actors hold their own with Gellar, and more importantly, they give their characters distinct personalities. Jackson is charming as the anxiety-ridden Everett, who makes nervous calls to his doctor, begging for permission to take another half pill from his prescription, just to calm himself down. Shepard makes Blake flinty and surly, and she knowingly marks herself as an outsider when she refuses to use a cell phone. This misfit energy gives the teens an edge, and when they start developing strange powers, it’s obvious they’ll be complicated heroes. (That said, they are delighted to discover that whatever’s happening to them also comes with flawless skin and killer abs.)
But as the show’s title suggests, this series isn’t just about a pair of kids: It’s about an entire group of werewolves and their shadowy world. In the early episodes, at least, the series struggles to make this community distinct. The aesthetic plays like a shallow riff on Twilight, complete with shadowy forests, fussy hairdos, and glowing eyes. There’s also an absurd reliance on moody blue lighting, which not only gives scenes a numbingly similar look, but also makes the actors look distractingly unnatural. Since most of the supporting characters are one-dimensional -– parents, law enforcement officials, and supernatural pack members who are either “angry” or “sad” -– this visual flatness is even more draining.
Still, there are glimmers of possibility. The tone is consistently sinister, true to the spirit of the Edo van Belkom novels that inspired the series. The werewolves are designed to be bigger and more brutal than creatures in similar shows, and as they creep through the shadows, they give the impression of truly hideous beasts. This leads to several moments of grisly terror that suggest the series could become a serious work of horror. It may get there, particularly if the lead performers continue to deepen their already good work.
To that end, Gellar herself serves as a reminder that genre series often need time to find themselves. Even the biggest Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans would admit the show wasn’t perfect right out of the gate, and Wolf Pack has a similar spark inside its rough exterior. If it grows into itself, then it may become its own comeback story soon enough.
Wolf Pack premieres January 26 on Paramount+. New episodes Thursdays. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Leila Latif is Contributing Editor to Total Film, the host of Truth & Movies: A Little White Lies Podcast and a regular at Sight and Sound, Indiewire, The Guardian, The BBC and others. Follow her on twitter @Leila_Latif.