Studio:E1 Entertainment Year: 2001 Cast: Lou Diamond Phillips. Graham Greene, Tim Matheson, Sharon Lawrence, Paul Wesley, Mia Kirshner, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Scott Bairstow, Bruce McGill, Kellie Waymire, Carmen Moore, Sam Anderson Director: Bryan Spicer, Dwight Little, Joe Chappelle, Rachel Talalay, Po-Chih Leong, Winrich Kolbe, James Head Release Date: November 06, 2012 Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable) Run Time: 07h:45m:00s Genre(s): television
"Now, I ask you one more time. What is the most important thing to the wolf?" - Sherman Blackstone (Graham Greene)
Werewolves. Shapeshifters. That is usually enough to get my interest, but the hook for this set complete series set (nine episodes) of a show dropped after just five episodes were broadcast is the inclusion of the unaired pilot, which shows a path the show could have taken and didn't. Could things have been different?
Movie Grade: C+
DVD Grade: C+
Everyone knows True Blood, Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries, Twilight and any of the other countless successful books/movies/television properties that use the supernatural as a foundation, melding mortals and whatever-they-are into a soapy mixture of drama and action and scares. Yes, Dark Shadows did it back in the old days, but that series has historically received the proper credit as an iconic source of influence on what came after. Ditto for Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The X-Files, etc.
Not so much with John Leekley's Wolf Lake, a 2001 series about shapeshifting wolfen in a small Pacific Northwest town that aired on CBS for just five episodes before getting canceled. The remaining four episodes eventually aired later on another network, but the door had pretty much closed on Wolf Lake, and though it is now easy to see the barrier-breaking it did for future franchises it remains largely forgotten by the masses.
The show follows Lou Diamond Phillips as John Kanin, a Seattle cop who travels to the mysterious Twin Peaks-lite small town of Wolf Lake to search for his missing girlfriend Ruby (Mia Kirshner). As we see during episode one's opening sequence poor Ruby vanished after being strangled in the front seat of her car, and when Kanin arrived just a bit too late to save the day all he found was a man's severed hand. The problem, unbeknownst to our hero, is that Wolf Lake is an ancient gathering place for shapeshifting wolfen, and Kanin isn't necessarily welcomed by the locals. Over the course of nine episodes Kanin forces his way into the community - eventually becoming a deputy sheriff under Tim Matheson - and learns things about Ruby, Wolf Lake and its inhabitants that he doesn't quite want to accept. Unfortunately there is never the proper sort of closure over the show's nine episode run that watching now will satisfy as some kind of self-contained experience, and though things get fairly interesting we're just left dangling in the end. On the plus side there's Graham Greene as a wise old science teacher, whose delivery is casual, funny and easily the best part of the whole series. The guy is a genuine scene stealer of the highest order.
In between the wolf-y material there's a soapy undercurrent in Wolf Lake, what with the sexy Sharon Lawrence - married to powerful town patriarch Bruce McGill - bumping uglies with hunky young Scott Bairstow, a bad boy/good girl romance between wolfen Paul Wesley (ironically enough from The Vampire Diaries) and a fresh-scrubbed Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and enough mysterious glances and odd alliances to fill three shows. Sadly that's where things get a bit dull, largely because it was network television (and CBS at that), though it's not all that much different on the surface than what True Blood does now, minus the gore and nudity. And that's where Leekley and his creation have gotten the short shrift historically, because while this isn't the greatest by any means, it did help pave the way for a wildly popular genre and had this been a premium cable series who knows what may have happened. The glimmers of near-genius here - see the Graham-Greene-centric Leader of the Pack - also show that "what if?"-ness of where this could have gone.
It is difficult, and probably unfair, to overanalyze or criticize Wolf Lake too much. Nine episodes isn't much time to lay a deep mythology (though of course Joss Whedon did just that with Firefly, but I digress). Could the show have eventually settled in? The final couple of episodes show great promise in that regard. Could the characters have become a bit less cliched? Unlikely, if the dominant pouty-bad-boy-with-too-much-hair-product is any indication. What if the budget was larger? Effects are minimal here, and there are only some many shots of wolves running through the woods or staring intently before it all seems repetitive.
Is this required viewing? Not necessarily. For all of its supernatural undertones the show remains fair-to-middlin CBS fare that tries hard to be different. The real truth is the television history books should be kinder to John Leekley and Wolf Lake than they have been.
All nine episodes are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with the exception of the unaired pilot, which is presented in 1.33:1 fullframe. Plenty of night shots throughout the run, and overall blacks are pretty solid, offering up nicely defined edges and detail, while Fleshtones and colors - during the indoor or daylight moments - look strong. The presence of some pesky macroblocking is the biggest detriment, preventing this set of transfers from being anything but unremarkably decent.
Audio is a 2.0 stereo, a woefully understated mix that does nothing to help boost the mood. I wasn't expecting much, but that doesn't help the fact that it's a lifeless and flat presentation. And that is equally unfortunate.
This three-disc set is housed in a clear plastic case, which when opened reveals episode summaries printed on the reverse of the cover art.
Disc one contains the much ballyhooed unaired pilot that was directed by Rupert Wainwright (Stigmata, The Fog remake) and it is a completely different animal from what the series eventually became during its brief run. Sure, there's a lot of expository setup and character introductions crammed into 42 minutes, but the mood is much darker, the feel a bit more cinematic and the overall premise seemed far richer than what it morphed into. It's really an intro for a series that could have gone in a different direction, and I think it would have been for the better. For starters, instead of a cop looking for his mysterious girlfriend Lou Diamond Phillips is Noah Cassidy, some sort of federal agent pretending to be from the Bureau of Wildlife Management while he investigates Wolf Lake, and Graham Greene is Professor Duke Joseph, an all-knowing local with more direct and pivotal ties to the main storyline. Most of the regulars of the series are here in one form or another, as well as Jeff Fahey with a prominent minor role. It's still not perfect, but it's worth a look to see what might have been.
The unaired pilot also features a commentary from writer/creator John Leekley and director Wainwright. The pair offer some insight into the production, especially the use of real wolves, and how certain scenes were difficult and/or challenging to shoot because of that, most notably a scene between a small girl and a large animal. Leekley delves more into his original idea for the series, and both get a good chuckle out of joking about how Tim Matheson must have been paid by the amount of puzzled looks he gives here.
The only other supplement is disc one's Wolf Lake: The Original Werewolf Saga documentary (27m:20s), with Leekley and actor Paul Wesley recounting the series and its influence, whether credited or not. This isn't terribly deep, but Leekley is honest about what he wanted to present onscreen, and he seems to get that he was ahead of the curve on this show and its concepts.