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TV Review: CBS's 'Wolf Lake' is only a watered-down attempt

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Oh, CBS! You just had to go and ruin a good thing.

I'm talking about the network's new fall series "Wolf Lake." It's a drama set in the Pacific Northwest about "skinwalkers" -- people who shapeshift into wolves.

Never mind that such a show was bound to fail on CBS, a network known for its inability to support genre series. But at least with the first pilot, "Wolf Lake" would have failed as something stylish rather than something pedestrian.

 
 
"Wolf Lake"

WHEN: 10 tonight on CBS.

STARRING: Lou Diamond Phillips, Tim Matheson, Graham Greene, Sharon Lawrence, Scott Bairstow.

   
 

The original "Wolf Lake" pilot was cryptic, spooky and atmospheric. It was somewhat confusing but had a cinematic sheen that made it stand out. Network executives reacted badly to this, scrapping the pilot, replacing some cast members and bringing in a new executive producer.

The new "Wolf Lake," airing tonight at 10, is obvious and lumbers to a start rather than moving in "Twin Peaks"-like mysterious ways.

Ruby (Mia Kirshner), the fiancee of Seattle cop John Kanin (Lou Diamond Phillips), disappears, leading Kanin to devote every waking moment to finding her. He gets a tip that leads him to Wolf Lake, a small insular community that's full of secrets.

It takes far too long tonight before viewers get to see Wolf Lake, and by the time Kanin reaches the town, the introductions that follow are rushed. What's meant to be a shocker at the end is merely ho-hum because viewers know so little about the characters and their motivations.

Tim Matheson stars as Sheriff Matthew Donner, whose daughter Sophia (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) begins to show signs of wolfness. Sophia is intrigued by wolf boy Luke Cates (Paul Wasilewski), whose father (Bruce McGill) is a local industrialist.

Press notes identify Scott Bairstow's character, Tyler, as a "powerful real estate developer" and rival to the Cates family, but in tonight's premiere he just seems like a thug.

Clunky and uninteresting as the premiere is, the makers of "Wolf Lake" got two things right: The casting of Wasilewski and Bairstow as part-time wolves is perfect. Both have a look -- something in their eyes and eyebrows -- that gives both of them a distinctly wolfish believability.

High school biology teacher Sherman Blackstone (Graham Greene) adds some levity to the goings-on thanks to a mischievous gleam in Greene's eye. Only in his scenes does "Wolf Lake" come close to the howling good-time mix of mystery and dark humor that should be intrinsic.

Executive producers Alex Gansa and Rick Kellard, who wrote the script for tonight's premiere, both worked on ABC's lamentably short-lived "Maximum Bob." They attempt to instill some of "Bob's" small-town weirdness in "Wolf Lake," but it's too little to matter much.

Perhaps they'll be more successful in future episodes. The "Wolf Lake" concept remains viable, it just needs stronger execution. But in a time slot opposite NBC's "Law & Order" and ABC's "20/20," chances are it won't be long before "Wolf Lake" is on the receiving end of a silver bullet.


You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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