Scream, Season 1, Episodes 1-3
Created by Jill E. Blotevogel, Jay Beattie, and Dan Dworkin
Airs Tuesdays at 10pm (ET) on MTV
If one glances around at the Movie-to-TV adaptation landscape, things are looking surprisingly good. Hannibal is the best show on television right now, Fargo was one of the best surprises of last year and looks like it will continue as such in its second season this fall, and now MTV is adding one more Movie-to-TV adaptation to its roster; shout out to MTV’s other Movie-to-TV breadwinner Teen Wolf, a show that is totally unashamed of how ridiculous and heightened it is and succeeds because of it. MTV’s Scream is so far surprisingly not terrible in the same way that Albert Pujols is playing surprisingly not terrible baseball right now–it’s a comfort, but you still expect more.
This new series takes the iconic Scream franchise and fits it to television, setting its tale in the town of Lakewood where a viral video results in the death of a popular girl at school. A string of murders begins that thrusts the town’s hot teens into the center of its dark past.
There are a few clear surrogate characters at play here: Emily Duval (Willa Fitzgerald) is Sidney Prescott, Noah Foster (John Karna) is Randy Meeks, and Piper Shay (Amelia Rose Blaire) is Gale Weathers. In addition to the franchise mainstays, there’s the group’s popular girls Brooke (Carlson Young) and Riley (Brianne Tju), as well as recently-outed lesbian Audrey (Bex Taylor-Klaus). Sal apparently made a move to politics after getting canned from Sterling-Cooper, as Mad Men alum Bryan Batt plays the Mayor. There’s also an abundance of hunks in Amadeus Serafini’s (yes, it’s his real name) Kieran Wilcox, Connor Weil’s Will Belmont, and Tom Maden’s Jake Fitzgerald. Most of the cast don’t do much to either heighten or subvert their stereotypes, but a few do start to shine in these first three episodes. Fitzgerald has the chops to carry the main role as she believably moves from reactive to proactive against the killer. Taylor-Klaus does her best to inject some authenticity and emotion in a character that feels forced together by one-dimensional LGBT character stereotypes, and there’s a real sense of mystery and danger in the way Serafini broods.
Certain scenes mirror those of the film series. There’s a requisite “Kids talk about slasher films in a very meta fashion in class” scene, and the opening kill of popular girl Nina (Bella Thorne) is lifted–but only clumsily inserted into the show–from Drew Barrymore’s iconic death scene in the first Scream. Once it gets past these scenes though, the series starts to grow into its own story.
The showrunners’ efforts to make the series current within the parameters of how they perceive teenage life are understandable but executed clumsily. The killer sends a selfie of themself at Nina’s murder site as a .gif reading “Payback’s a Bitch” to all the high school students. Piper is a true crime podcaster, and from the glasses, dark hair, and profession, it’s clear someone in the writer’s room really loved Serial. The killer DMs Emma on social media repeatedly to harass her. It’s unclear if they are going for satire here, but if they are it’s not working. These episodes try to dig the knife in, but hardly even break the skin.
One of the great things about slasher storytelling is the mythology writers can establish behind the killer, the well of mystery to draw on to hype up the audience. The series sets up an intriguing slasher mythology for itself in the legend of Brandon James: 20 years ago, a young man with a horribly disfigured face fell in love with a pretty young girl by the name of Daisy. He eventually worked up the courage to talk to her on Halloween night, but was attacked by jocks and beaten when she screamed at his face. He reacted by going on a killing spree and was eventually killed by police at the nearby lake, with Daisy there as bait. To absolutely nobody’s surprise, Daisy turns out to be Emma’s mother Maggie (Tracy Middendorf). The killer’s mask is different here–a cross between the classic Ghostface mask and a hockey mask–and it works, drawing on the mythology of Brandon James’s disfigurement to make the look more iconic than just rehashed.
The gore and the kills have lived up to expectations so far and remain the series’ current bright spot. The killing of Nina, while not living up to the same levels of its originator, is still gruesome to witness; the sight of her back getting slashed up is some brutal footage for TV.
At the end of the first episode, Randy Meeks Noah starts talking to Riley about how to look at a slasher story in the scope of a TV series. “You have to care about these characters, so when they do get killed, you feel it.” It’s nice that the showrunners understand that the kills are only as good as the characters getting slashed up. That is a big part of what makes the Scream films so great and iconic, but the series hasn’t reached that point yet. Despite some strong efforts from a few cast members like Fitzgerald, Taylor-Klaus, and Serafini, there’s really not a whole lot to make us care about the characters.
The Scream films, at their best, stood as a state of the union on the horror genre and our relationship with the media format of the time. There are some good elements in this show’s first two episodes, but not enough for it to stand with its predecessors. Noah says in the first episode, almost as a challenge to both the audience and the showrunners, “You can’t do a slasher film as a TV series.” Shit, he might be right.
Fortunately with the third episode “Wanna Play a Game?”, the quality of the show jumps significantly. The opening flashback to the first two victims of Brandon James 20 years ago transports viewers to a much better slasher story than the current day one. Some of the more one-dimensional hunks like Jake and Will get to play quasi-psychotic and the characters start to be proactive in a healthy sense–remarkably, they decide to go to the cops with important information about the lead suspect in the murders. Tim Hunter’s direction milks the gory moments well, the last ten minutes of the episode serving as the high point of the series thus far. The killer slashes Riley’s back and legs as she climbs a ladder and it’s appropriately nasty to witness. A great gag occurs with the janitor listening to some disco jams, unable to hear Riley’s screams, and she ends up bleeding out tragically on the phone with budding romantic partner Noah. With the handling of Riley’s brutal murder, the series finally becomes the equal of the slasher story that it flashed back to.
Two exciting directors are on deck this season, noted horror auteur Ti West (!!!!!!!) and Honeymoon director Leigh Janiak, and I anticipate they’ll make their mark on this show, as it’s been lacking the visual rush and double-cross of Wes Craven’s films. If the quality of the last ten minutes of “Wanna Play a Game?” can be sustained for the next seven episodes though, we could be in for a good time.