'Big Wolf On Campus' at 25: Reflecting back on the show that was the Canadian equivalent of 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer' (2024)

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Big Wolf On Campus

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A wisecracking high schooler is granted powers of strength, agility, and resilience along with the immense duty to protect their cozy suburb from the forces of darkness. With help from their two best friends, our hero battles a weekly rotation of monsters, demons, warlocks, and other occult menaces realized through scrappy, resourceful practical effects during the early burblings of the CGI era, right around Y2K. When they’re not hanging out at the local under-eighteen dance club, the trio of pals muddle through the trials and travails of adolescence, often made into metaphor by the given supernatural baddie. An irreverent sense of humor, a savvy understanding of genre tropes, and a proudly flaunted pop-cultural literacy all combined to create a cult hit still lodged deep in the childhood memories formed by millennials of a certain vintage. Picture the TV show described here; if you’re envisioning Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you’re probably not Canadian.

Around the time Fox acquired The Family Channel and rebranded to Fox Family in 1998, twentysomething TV writers Peter A. Knight and Chris Briggs found themselves in a meeting with new head honcho Haim Saban. Still green and not entirely familiar with the concept of pitching, they presented ideas for ten fully-formed shows on sheets of paper covered in single-spaced print, detailed down to the character names. Sensing that Saban was unimpressed, they moved on to their backup plan of spitballing half-formed single-sentence synopses, one of which pricked up Saban’s ears: “Buffy-lite, with a teen werewolf.” Knight had never seen an episode of Joss Whedon’s breakout series at the time, and still hasn’t, but he figured “we could take the arch tone and kind of spoof that.” Saban looked into buying the rights to Teen Wolf, decided that would require too much money, and challenged the guys to come up with a legally distinct, cost-effective workaround. Under the light of a full moon and the auspices of shrewd trend-charting, Big Wolf on Campus was born with a howl twenty-five years ago.

For sixty-five episodes across three seasons, the adventures of all-star quarterback/lycanthrope Tommy Dawkins (Brandon Quinn) offered a goofier, younger-skewing alternative to the maturity and narrative ambition that’s made Buffy a modern classic. Produced on a humbler budget up in Montréal, Big Wolf on Campus never attained a degree of popularity comparable to that of its Hollywood cousin’s. But its defiant, willful smallness had a charm of its own, the clear handiwork of a dedicated team getting their kicks under a lesser degree of oversight. I watched the show on Fox Family during its initial broadcast run of Saturday mornings at the turn of the millennium, and in the decades since then, my inability to find anyone else who’d seen it almost led me to believe I’d imagined the whole thing — until one night at a bar a couple summers ago, while I was sitting on the jury of a film festival in Montréal. After a few beers, I realized the question might be worth asking, and polled the French-Canadians in my midst on whether they’d heard of this forgotten oddity. Instantly, the entire table burst into the theme song.

“To this day, I get the most messages from Montréal,” Big Wolf alum Danny Smith tells Decider from his home in Toronto. “They kind of claim it as their own.”

Equal parts post-grunge and proto-emo, the infectiously catchy tune was written and performed by Smith, who also starred as Tommy’s trusty sidekick Merton. In keeping with “the traditional TV thing of actors in their mid-twenties playing teenagers,” the pair staved off threats light on subtext and heavy on one-liners with help from Lori (Aimée Castle), brought in at the beginning of the second season as a replacement for initial female lead Stacey (Rachelle LeFevre). “They wanted the new character to be involved in the fights more, a little more athletic, a little tomboyish even,” Smith explains, the profile he describes cutting a distinctly Buffyish figure. They’d receive an occasional hand from Merton’s sullen, disaffected sister (Natalie Vansier), Tommy’s obese, sedentary, TV-addicted brother (Jack Mosshammer), and a pair of dim-bulb twins playing incompetent vigilantes by night (Domenic Di Rosa and Rob deLeeuw). In the sleepy hamlet of Pleasantville, they never had to seriously reckon with mortality, loss of innocence, or post-traumatic stress; some entry-level kung fu, a few semi-witty ripostes, and it’s onto the next episode.

As both a fount of information on all things macabre and the trusty comic relief, Merton most closely embodied the soul of the show. A card-carrying (literally) goth in spite of his squirrelly dorkdom, forever carting the gang about in the hearse he drove as a starter car, he was always quick with a left-field allusion or a corny knee-slapper. His best running gag combined the two: he’d point out that the week’s predicament reminded him of a certain movie, and then when someone would demand to know what happened, he’d describe the meta-narrative of the release instead. Over the last quarter century, he’s gotten the occasional chuckle by mentally applying the bit to more recent releases. “If the show was still on, we definitely would’ve done a ’This is just like in Get Out!’ ‘What happened?’ ‘Well, Jordan Peele came from a sketch background but parleyed that into…’ he says. “It works for everything. ‘This is just like Oppenheimer!’ ‘What happened?’ ‘After years of disregard from the Academy, an overdue Christopher Nolan was…’ It’s fun for me.”

'Big Wolf On Campus' at 25: Reflecting back on the show that was the Canadian equivalent of 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer' (2)

Amusing themselves was a key part of the production process during the years Smith recalls with a fond sheen of nostalgia. An average day on set might see Merton’s green-haired imaginary friend escaping from his brain to cause havoc, or a Haitian witch doctor using voodoo to make Tommy do the moonwalk, or Corey Haim and Corey Feldman dropping in to portray vampiric parodies of themselves (Season 2, Episode 11: “Blame It On The Haim”). And after the cast and crew wrapped for the night, the actors, directors, writers, and even the twin brothers handling special effects further bolstered their genuine camaraderie off the clock. “We all clicked right away, and infused the show with so many of our own things: inside jokes, movies we liked, music we liked,” he says. “We’d shoot all day, and then — I want to say every night, but it can’t have been every night — we’d get together and talk about what we’d do the next day. Everyone was awesome. We regularly had house parties, went to bars together. Honest-to-god lovefest.”

The modest scale of the operation fostered a closeness and collaboration evident in the loose, convivial atmosphere onscreen; the kids at home had fun because the people they were watching did too. At the time, the production team came to understand the lightened-up tone as the main difference between their show and Buffy, an occasional topic of conversation between takes. “Maybe it’s silly, maybe the comedy’s not for everyone, but it works for the right age and the right taste,” Smith says. There’s an unexpectedly personal dimension to what might seem like a fly-by-night bandwagon-hopper to the passing glance of an untrained eye.“Everyone’s gone on to work on lots of other things, but for me, I’ve never been able to do what I wanted like I could then. We all had free rein to suggest things, try things, have fun. There weren’t network people hanging over us, telling us what to do. We had a small show, but that meant we got to do it just for us.”

However derivative its origins, inspiration and care went into the making of Big Wolf, a spirit of resourceful gumption that spoke to youngsters with interests off-center from the mainstream. Those who found the show while waiting for their parents to wake up developed a faint sense of ownership for its relative obscurity, as if they’d discovered something hidden or secret. For Canucks, that feeling was amplified by regional pride, the state-sponsored mandates for Canadian Content (lovingly referred to as “CanCon”) finally yielding something for pint-sized weirdoes. Smith still identifies as one of them, albeit slightly more grown-up, though he readily admits that his personality overlaps almost perfectly with Merton’s. While his peers fought for their lives, Merton took unabashed delight in the rotating carousel of foam-and-rubber abominations, just glad to be along fo the ride. Looking back, Smith knows the feeling: “Watching them now, the episodes feel like home movies.”

Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevassse) is a film and television critic living in Brooklyn. In addition to Decider, his work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Nylon, Vulture, The A.V. Club, Vox, and plenty of other semi-reputable publications. His favorite film is Boogie Nights.


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'Big Wolf On Campus' at 25: Reflecting back on the show that was the Canadian equivalent of 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer' (2024)


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