Sarah Michelle Gellar’s TV Return Lacks Fun and Focus

Jan 24, 2023

At the risk of making us all feel old, it is quite jarring to remember that it has now been more than two decades since Buffy the Vampire Slayer first premiered way back in 1997. It remains a beloved series that still has a legacy that has been tempered by, among other things, the way many of those who worked to bring it to life were treated on set. There is then something nice about seeing Sarah Michelle Gellar back on screen after all this time in Wolf Pack, where she also serves as an executive producer. Playing the intrepid and delightfully snarky arson investigator Kristin Ramsey, who is looking into mysterious goings-on surrounding a massive California fire that roused a dormant creature to torment a group of teens, Gellar is the undisputed best part of the entire experience. For those merely looking for another chance to see her in action, there may be just enough to win you over. However, in the first two episodes provided for review, it soon becomes clear that this series is not really about her. As a result, Wolf Pack is already proving to be far less entertaining and far more derivative than it could have been.

Instead, the series is mostly about an ensemble cast of characters who are all dealing with the aftermath of an attack on a bus that left them forever changed. There is Everett (Armani Jackson) who often struggles with anxiety while also seeing the most clearly of all the characters about what is happening. On the bus with the impending fire approaching, he first meets the outcast Blake (Bella Shepard) who mostly keeps to herself and whose home life is defined by tension.

When chaos takes hold and scatters the teens in all directions, both of them become affected by something that they can’t quite initially explain. This draws them to the moon as well as another duo of characters, Luna (Chloe Rose Robertson) and Harlan (Tyler Lawrence Gray), who have secrets of their own that they are carrying with them. While these youngsters are all giving their all to the characters, there is still the unfortunate sense that this is a series stuck looking to the past without any idea of what is ahead. At one point when they all take off running through the woods, one of them shouts out, “do they even know where they’re going?” which serves as a particularly telling moment in all the wrong ways.

Image via Paramount+

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Following the opening sequence of catastrophe that sets everything in motion, the series then spends the next several scenes in a scattering of locations that start to feel oddly mundane. Be it when at the hospital, a motel, a home, or the woods, there is little to grasp onto. Each episode thus far feels like they run rather long, with only occasional bursts of energy to keep things moving. Structurally, much of this comes from how there was nothing to build to when we already were thrust into disaster. While designed to be an explosive introduction to the narrative that leans into CGI spectacle, it lacks a greater weight. We didn’t really get to know any of these characters before they were dropped into this scenario. Any attempt to subsequently backfill these foundational details ends up feeling rushed and clunky. Everett, Blake, Luna, and Harlan all feel more like stock characters than they do actual people with a variety of disconnected scenes straining to give them some sort of dimension. When that struggles to come to fruition, it makes all subsequent developments less gripping as a result.

The moments of Wolf Pack that show the most promise are when Gellar actually gets some room to leave a mark on the experience. The way she plays her investigator character as a no-nonsense grounding point proves to be refreshing and engaging where little else around her is. She seems to be having quite a lot of fun with the brief glimpses we get of her, and that does wonders for the series. One almost wishes that there had been an entire story built solely around her piecing together odd occurrences and getting up to various supernatural shenanigans.

Image via Paramount+

It is clear that Gellar is more than game to give the role a humorous hard-boiled sensibility that could be quite fun, but Wolf Pack almost wants to hold her at a distance. Instead of being one of the leads of the story, her character is always stepping in from a different and far better show every time she appears. There is something almost comical about how she will keep coming back to seemingly deliver important information or have some influence over the story only to fade into the background shortly thereafter.

For those hoping for Gellar to be made central to this series, that unfortunately doesn’t seem to be its goal. There is still room to do some interesting things with her character, but the opening episodes don’t provide a lot of optimism about this coming anytime soon. Perhaps this framing is all meant to be a misdirect to give her eventual ascendance into the forefront of the story more of an impact. Still, what we have thus far feels misguided and without direction. What it goes for instead, with the classic horror as metaphor where it is also about teen angst and growing up, is undercooked. It doesn’t have the same sense of personality or passion that the other past works it is drawing from had. One hopes that further simmering will amount to something more, but the initial preparation does not exactly inspire confidence. The potential was all there, but this is only as good as the way it is actually executed. Despite the joy to be had in seeing Gellar chew up the scenery once more, Wolf Pack is a series that remains lost in the woods, with little promise for it to find its way out.

Rating: C

Wolf Pack premieres January 26 on Paramount+.

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