"The moon...is it my imagination or is it always full around here?"
Finally having a chance to catch up with the series on home video, Wolf Lake isn't all that much like I thought it would be. Then again, Wolf Lake isn't all that much like it thought it'd be either. In the space of the ten episodes on this long overdue DVD collection, Wolf Lake kind of plays like installments of three completely different television series. There are some definite...y'know, birthing pains, but by the end, the writing was on really steady footing, and it had the sprawling ensemble and mythology to shoulder several season's worth of stories. 'Course, by then, the plug had been yanked. As much as I'd liked to have seen where the series would have headed from there, I guess I'll have to settle for having what little of Wolf Lake there is on DVD after a decade-long wait.
Although reruns of Wolf Lake have been making the rounds on cable ever since the series went off the air in 2002, this DVD set marks the first time its original, unaired pilot has ever (officially) made it out into the wild. Aside from sharing much of the same cast and the same general premise -- a sleepy Northwestern town is home to a clan of werewolves -- creator John Leekley's vision bears very little resemblance to the series that would later premiere on CBS. Here, Wolf Lake is to be the battleground between two warring factions of skinwalkers, with the town's less lycanthropic residents caught in the crossfire. Like most pilots, it spends forty minutes laying out the board and setting up the pieces, but there's not a particularly strong hook mixed in with all the setup...mostly just introductions to not-terribly-interesting characters and lots and lots of exposition. A series about a looming war between werewolves in a remote town ought to deliver some combination of action, horror, and suspense, and this pilot doesn't really tick off any of those checkboxes. The writing, direction, and production values are so rough that I wondered if this was even meant to air or if it was simply a proof-of-concept.
The first episode to be beamed across the airwaves would be "Meat the Parents", by which time the world of Wolf Lake had been drastically retooled. The remote Washington State backdrop of Wolf Lake remains the same. With some alterations -- Jeff Fahey is out; Mia Kirshner and Sharon Lawrence are in -- the cast largely remains the same, although most of them have been transplanted to entirely different roles. Before, Lou Diamond Phillips played a shadowy figure posing as a wildlife official to infiltrate Wolf Lake; in the series proper, he stars as Seattle detective John Kanin. He hasn't known his girlfriend Ruby (Mia Kirshner) all that long, but...well, he knows enough. Minutes after popping the question, he looks out his window to see Ruby in some sort of struggle in her sedan. By the time he makes it downstairs, all that's left is a man's severed hand. John's every waking moment is consumed by a desperate search for his missing fiancée: a woman, he soon learns, doesn't officially exist. Then, months later, John receives an anonymous tip that brings him to a remote speck on the map called Wolf Lake.
In a lot of ways, these first couple episodes of Wolf Lake bring to mind The Wicker Man. A missing person brings an investigator to a small, strange, and hopelessly remote town where he finds himself stonewalled by the united, distrusting locals and pitted against their dark, ancient secret. In John Kanin's case, he's kneedeep in a town of werewolves. Just to be clear, this isn't the monstrous Howling variety we're talking about here...the townsfolk just occasionally shapeshift into wolves. They're hardly mindless, bloodthirsty creatures, but knowing the world at large can't possibly understand, it's a closely guarded secret just the same. As you'd probably expect for a series named after a town, Wolf Lake has an enormous ensemble cast: Tim Matheson as the sheriff tasked with keeping Wolf Lake safe from threats both within and outside its borders, his teenaged daughter on the verge of her first transformation (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the industrialist and his wife who essentially run the town (Bruce McGill and Sharon Lawrence), their brash, rebellious James Dean of a son (Paul Wesley), the young upstart who doesn't mind getting his hands bloody in a grab for power (Scott Bairstow), the town drunk-slash-chanteuse (Kellie Waymire), a puckish Native American with an agenda all his own (Graham Greene), and...well, the list keeps going from there.
While the unaired pilot is clearly mapping out an enormous mytharc, Wolf Lake as a series concentrates more intensely on characters and relationships. I mean, at the end of the day, it's a supernatural-tinged soap opera. What kind of caught me off-guard is that while I didn't feel all that invested in the individual strands and subplots dangled by the series, there's something about the town of Wolf Lake as a whole that kept me drawn in. There's a pervasive sense of unease and mystery. It doesn't have the Gatling gun barrage of surprises or staggering body count of, say, The Vampire Diaries -- a series which has a couple of Wolf Lake alums on the payroll -- but the series feels completely at ease with that lower-key approach, and there's always plenty going on.
I also appreciate that Wolf Lake is so willing to experiment and reinvent itself. For the first few episodes, John Kanin is an interloper trying to break through the longstanding walls protecting Wolf Lake's secrets, but, well, there are really only two ways that could go. One, he tries and fails, week after week after week. How could an out-of-work cop realistically carry on this sort of investigation on his own in a town where he's not wanted for years on end? The other option, of course, is that he succeeds, and...then what? The series makes the inspired decision to bring Kanin on as a deputy sheriff in Wolf Lake, allowing Sheriff Donner to better control what he sees and hears while giving Kanin the illusion of being closer to the truth. Keep your friends close and all that.
Wolf Lake takes a lot of chances that pay off beautifully. One definite standout episode is "Tastes Like Chicken", which kicks off with the darkly quirky premise of a werewolf twelve-step program, complete with testimonials and recovery affirmations. The local hairdresser has been having a tough time keeping her animal side in check, and she has a thing of Tupperware labeled "Sandy" with a heart inside to prove it. It's gleefully absurd and scores the laughs it's aiming for, but when Nancy targets Sophia (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) as her next late night snack, all of a sudden the episode is startlingly intense and suspenseful. Another favorite is "Leader of the Pack", which documents the shift of power in the wake of the town patriarch's death. Rather than structure it like a normal episode, the camera is instead aimed squarely at Sherman Blackstone (Graham Greene) as he weaves a batshit insane story to a group of wolven investigators. He's a wildly unreliable narrator, there are all sorts of deliriously random cutaways, and there are even a couple of double-digit IQ, possibly incestual bank robbing brothers tossed in for good measure. It's also hyper-meta, commenting on the fact that the writers seemingly don't know what to do with John Kanin, exactly.
It's so strange to think that I was pretty much indifferent as I plopped in that second disc, but an episode or two later, I was completely addicted. I'm genuinely surprised by how invested I found myself in the backroom machinations and politics of Wolf Lake, thanks in large part to Sharon Lawrence's commanding presence. I kind of love that Wolf Lake doesn't have an out-and-out villain. Sure, there are unsavory folks like Tyler Creed (Scott Bairstow) who are peddling drugs and relentlessly scheming, but from his perspective, he's trying to save the town. The most compelling antagonists are generally the ones who view themselves as heroes, after all. Wolf Lake really has such a great cast from top to bottom. Graham Greene in particular steals every last scene he's in, Tim Matheson does a terrific job as a sheriff willing to make difficult decisions in the town's best interest, and I've already gushed about Sharon Lawrence. Another standout for me is Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Of all the characters in Wolf Lake, hers is the one that feels the most like a person, perhaps because Sophia's subplots are more internal in nature. Like a lot of teenagers, Sophia is generally trying to come to grips with who she is and what she's becoming, and that mix of being hardworking, ambitious, somewhat reluctant, kind of brassy, demure without being a vanilla good girl...I dunno, it just really works, and Sophia points to the sorts of strong female leads Winstead has often portrayed in the decade since.
As shortlived as Wolf Lake wound up being, many of the key questions its raises are answered before the end. Though there's still plenty of territory the series could've explored from there, at least this DVD set doesn't feel incomplete or cutoff at the knees. Wolf Lake starts off somewhat shakily, but as the series draws to a close, it's remarkably engaging, and it's a shame that this is where its story ends. Creator John Leekley argues that Wolf Lake was ahead of its time, and I don't think he's wrong. It's a drag that these three discs are all we're ever going to see, but I'm still thrilled that Wolf Lake has found its way onto DVD all these years later, and it's especially heartening to see that it's been lavished with several extras of note as well. Recommended.
Yeah, yeah, in a perfect world, I'd be tearing the shrinkwrap off a shiny new Blu-ray set right about now. Wolf Lake did premiere in high def on CBS, after all, and it's made the rounds in HD on various channels several times since then.
The unaired pilot has a decidedly different look to it than the rest of the series. It's sporting a boxier aspect ratio, for one, and it's marred by purplish blacks, chunky grain, and a distractingly digital look to it. It's not exactly a world-class presentation, but it's markedly better than anything you're gonna get from boots or YouTube rips, and unaired pilots of shortlived, decade-old TV seies kind of have to be reviewed on a different scale.
The other nine episodes are in anamorphic widescreen, and in a lot of ways, Wolf Lake looks terrific. These DVDs are rather sharp and very nicely detailed throughout. Black levels are substantial, and color saturation looks spot-on. On the other hand...well, I'll let these sample screenshots do some of the talking for me.
The image can get unnaturally noisy, as you can see in both of these shots, and...yikes, look at the straight-up macroblocking below. Well, try to picture this splashed across a 60" screen rather than a 700 pixel JPEG, anyway:
Interlacing artifacts are kind of a thing here too. The strange thing is that these three discs each have plenty of unused space to stretch out, but...nope. That sloppy authoring comes as a disappointment, especially given the series' not-inconsiderable $40 MSRP. Those missteps in the authoring aren't a complete dealbreaker for me, but make sure you get a really solid discount before whipping out your MasterCard.
The unaired pilot of Wolf Lake sounds awfully canned and trebly, but you've gotta make allowances for an eleven year old pilot that's never seen the light of day till now. The nine episodes that make up the meat of the series are a definite improvement, although for whatever reason, they're presented at an unusually low bitrate. I don't believe I've ever seen a movie or TV series encoded at 160kbps, but...well, that's what you're looking at here with these Dolby Digital stereo tracks. Even pumping through my overpriced home theater rig, it sounds like I'm listening to Wolf Lake through the built-in speakers on the flatscreen in my bedroom. It's perfectly listenable -- no hiss, no distortion, dialogue is consistently clean and balanced well, etc., etc., etc. -- but there's not a whole lot in the way of sparkling clarity or dynamic range. For instance, there's a bit in the finalé where Kanin is assaulted from behind, and that's where you'd expect the score to roar from every speaker and ratchet up the intensity. Instead, the music's just kinda there, disinterestedly twiddling its thumbs in the background. There are no crystalline highs and definitely no foundation-threatening lows. Overall...? Passable but forgettable.
English (SDH) subtitles are also along for the ride.
Considering the age and obscurity of Wolf Lake, it's a very welcomed surprise that there are any extras at all. The standout feature is the unaired pilot, but since it's listed alongside the rest of the episodes on the first disc's menu and I kind of droned on and on about it already, I'll move on. The rest of the bells and whistles both revolve around that never-before-seen pilot as well.
- The Original Werewolf Saga (27 min.): Creator John Leekley delves into the origins of Wolf Lake, from the way the series draws so much inspiration from Joseph Campbell to the use of lycanthropy as a coming-of-age metaphor. Leekley touches on why he stepped way from the show as well as the very different and more heavily serialized direction Wolf Lake would've taken under his stewardship. Actor Paul Wesley also looks back on his time with the series, including the daunting audition process and drawing some parallels with The Vampire Diaries. Being the greedy, generally awful person that I am, I wish some of the producers and writers who steered the ship afterwards could've discussed that process, along with where the shortlived series could've gone, but the focus is very much on that original pilot.
- Audio Commentary: John Leekey also contributes commentary for the unaired pilot, and he's joined by director Rupert Wainwright. Among the highlights are shaping the look of the pilot, the headaches of working with wolf-dog-thingies, juggling such a sprawling ensemble, and the joys of being completely naked in the great outdoors just outside Vancouver.
Wolf Lake's three discs come packaged in a transparent, standard-width keepcase, and an episode guide is visible on the flipside of the cover art. Even though this is clearly an official release, the cover art looks like some Xeroxed bootleg I'd see on a back table at a comic convention or something.
The flipside of the case mentions that some of the music has been replaced, presumably because of licensing hiccups. Never having tuned into Wolf Lake before, I can't really say how extensive the changes are.
There's also a note that episodes may be edited from the original network versions. Considering how closely Wolf Lake straddles the edge of nudity, I don't think it's cut for content. There is a generic "stay tuned for scenes from our next episode!" tag during the credits of each episode -- including what ultimately wound up being the series finalé! -- that never actually leads into those teasers.
The Final Word
Wolf Lake kind of snuck up on me. I was just about completely indifferent towards the series as I took out the first disc, and I was addicted shortly after shoving in disc two. Part of what I love about Wolf Lake is how eager it is to experiment, continually reinventing itself rather than settling into a comfortable, formulaic rut. It's keenly aware of its shortcomings too, and if Wolf Lake had made it to a second season, I can't shake the feeling that it might've been pretty great. As for what we're left with now...? Really uneven but somehow intriguing anyway. It's kind of a thrill to finally have Wolf Lake on DVD, and although the technical end of the presentation is pretty lackluster, the inclusion of a never-before-seen pilot and a respectable slate of extras help make up for that. Recommended.