MTV’s summer serial Scream concluded its first season this week, unmasking the Lakewood slasher to round out a ten-episode foray into the TV-14 hack-n-slash market. Bearing the tag of a genre-redefining film franchise gave this small screen spinoff an added boost of cool, along with an audience privy to the obvious positive associations attached to the brand. It also meant that the producers, writers, and directors saddled with the task of regifting the series to a new demographic had to reach — or at least match — the high standards of Wes Craven’s original. In light of its first season denouement, it’s clear that was not the goal.
Right off the bat its aspiration to merge bloodshed and teen angst twenty years later was met with mixed critical opinion. A large number of responses to the show’s contemporary measures single out its insistence on current trends — you know, to make it relatable for the kids — as one of its weakest aspects, along with a multitude of other slips.
If the inner workings of network strategising have taught us anything over the course of television’s lifetime: quality is not necessarily a harbinger of success. The network ordered a second season before the show hit its midway point. Whether or not anyone is gagging for another round, Scream will return. Did it live up to my expectations, and more importantly, does it even deserve a second chance at redemption?
What ultimately causes the show to miss the mark are two major elements: character and story. As our own Winston Cook-Wilson pointed out in his early review, the establishing episodes roused a nugget of story intrigue, yet it was “the moment where the caricatures start to turn into meaningful forces” that baited us. Would flat stereotypes balloon into real human beings? Barring a couple of exceptions — Tracy Middendorf’s medical examiner mom and Carlson Young’s faux-bimbo Brooke Maddox — the leading roster of gorgeous young thangs struggled each week to respond with any dynamism towards the horrific violence unfolding around them. As cute sweethearts Emma and Kieran Willa Fitzgerald and Amadeus Serafini coast along barely able to deliver realistic everyday banter. If it’s demanding of the audience to believe a character when they ask “how was your day?” then expect a big ole flatline when those paper-thin personas are in peril.
Case and point: when Kieran learns that his father has been savagely murdered does he break down, his fists balled in rage at the almighty above as he falls to his knees screaming “Why?” No. That would have been better, though, implying an emotional reaction toward his father’s death. Instead, he looks slightly bemused. Like he’s just heard a joke he doesn’t quite understand. Or is trying to keep it together after coach tells him he’s getting benched. It’s this failure to respond to tragedy in an affecting manner that undercuts the strengths of the show.
Looking back on the tangle of plot lines untethered at the start, and following them through as they unite for the conclusion, it’s somewhat telling that the story overtook character concerns. As we all know by now, character development is key. It’s not just something for film geeks to wield in battle whenever a vapid blockbuster lurches into view. If you can’t believe in a character, that they’re an actual person, then it’s that much harder to impart happiness, anxiety, amusement, or terror into the rich context of a narrative. This is, in part, one of the shortcomings of serialised storytelling.
When Randy knockoff Noah waxes meta on the nature of slashers, a format that can’t survive the transition to television, the show is asking for you to be kind by pointing out its own shortcomings. “Slasher movies burn bright and fast,” he says, “TV needs to stretch things out.” Underneath the ‘please go easy on me’ schtick there’s truth to his point.
Elongating a murder-mystery, no, specifically a slasher, across ten weeks was a gamble that never truly paid off. Slashers operate on the understanding that all the bloodshed occurs within a small window. It’s rarely more than a week. And it works because teenagers are complex, emotionally-driven creatures, both fragile and explosive at the same time. If they had to endure anything longer than a week of masked killings then the fallout wouldn’t make for good TV. They’d all be getting psych evaluations and knocking back their parents’ stashed prescriptions. Scream forgets this. It forgets how human beings respond to trauma. The 1996 film unravels over a handful of days, with heroine Sidney Prescott’s inner turmoil matching the events taking place. All of Kevin Williamson’s three-dimensional characters echo that same fear and anxiety at the killings, even if they’re all bravado in public.
The nature of the weekly format saw those responses cast aside, in favor of forwarding the mystery. In total seven people die in the “small, sleepy” town of Lakewood. The teens of this lil’ burg let the spree wash over them, barely registering the savage butchery before it’s onto the next self-spun drama. Loss is acknowledged fleetingly, with one brief teary exchange summarising the entire grieving process. If they don’t care, why should we?
And so, weeks go by until eventually the killer was revealed - the finale’s title of “Revelations”, a bold assumption that we’ve not already figured it out. One neat twist did present itself in the aftermath, a last minute dangled carrot to ensure our viewership next season. The rather likable Audrey, Bex Taylor-Klaus’ bi-curious goth quirk, is implicated in the killings along with the now-dead podcaster-turned-killer Piper Shaw. And while Noah’s podcast voiceover piles on the last swipe at cleverness (“So my question is simple: Is it finally over, or is there more to come?”), the matter of another season is already redundant. But it’s going to take more than brazen referencing and smug self-awareness for Scream to do its namesake justice. We need to care about its teenagers before they’re hacked up.