In the premiere episode of MTV’s Scream, Noah (John Karna), the town’s resident horror film expert and serial killer junkie, lets us know right away why horror on television doesn’t work: “Slasher movies burn bright and fast. TV needs to stretch things out.” Having been green lit for a second season halfway through its first-year run, the show was certainly a success from a financial standpoint. But the question of whether it was a successful representation of horror still remains unanswered.
For ten episodes, the show incorporated many of the qualities that made the initial film such a runaway success. From unexpected reveals to bloody jump scares, the television show, on paper, possessed all of the elements to be a successful undertaking. But did the franchise’s foray into horror work? The answer is an unequivocal…sorta.
Perhaps the biggest issue in moving a successful film franchise to the small screen is how to convey a consistent sense of dread over ten hours. Interestingly it was the show’s premiere and season finale that best utilized the pacing horror fans expect. Built into those two respective hours (not coincidentally the same running time as a theatrical release) was a steady tension that hooked the audience emotionally. If the premiere contained an appropriately gory first kill that set the stage for the horrors to come, the finale was a classic use of horror tropes resulting in the sequel-baiting shock ending. The problem with the show was what took place between those two episodes.
Initially, I found the acting on Scream remarkably distracting. Granted, this is not a genre necessarily renowned for its thespians, but the Scream franchise has always been unique for its casting of better-than-average actors. The television show was an obvious exception. Similarly, the dialogue did the actors no favors and was often clunky. Consider this comment from brawny but dumb Jake after he takes a knife to the chest and sees his crush crying: “You weep for The Jake?” No Jake, we weep for your stilted dialogue that can’t differentiate between genre-mocking humor and plain old bad writing.
To a degree, the serial nature of television did help to alleviate some of these frustrations. Because we get to know these characters over a ten-week time span, audiences can become almost inured to poor acting and dialogue: it becomes familiar. Also, redirecting audience focus on the acting and writing was the oft-teased prospect of a game-changing reveal.
One of the most predictable tropes in horror is that the story will be motivated by crimes committed in the not-so-distant past. The timing of these atrocities is key because enough time has to have elapsed so that when we first meet the characters, they are no longer actively living in fear. Equally important is that the initial crimes are not so far removed that those directly affected by those events have all died off. After all, the desire for revenge based upon personal loss is key to the carnage that is to come; think Mrs. Voorhees in Friday the 13th or Billy in the first Scream film. To that end, MTV’s Scream gets it remarkably right.
The overarching story of outcast-turned-murderer Brandon James is an enticing one. Not only is his culpability unclear, the events weave in storylines for both the community’s teenagers and their parents—the latter of which is a significant departure from the film franchise, where the parents did not feature prominently in the suspense. It’s a good call on the part of the writers because, while audiences are willing to turn a blind eye to the distinct lack of parental involvement in a two hour slasher film, it becomes much more of a plot hole in a ten-hour story.
Perhaps it is a symptom of my age (I was a teenager when the original film came out), but I was far less invested in what we discovered about Emma (Willa Fitzgerald), our heroine, than what was revealed about her mother, Daisy/Maggie’s (Tracy Middendorf) association with Brandon. The show actually did a better than fair job of marrying the adult and teen storylines, and if they continue that trend going forward they could successfully alter the horror expectation that parents serve no other purpose than to willfully disregard the needs of their children. The potential to update horror tropes is there, but whether the show fulfills that promise remains to be seen.
That the show decided to save its very best episode for its season finale is both expected and frustrating. The finale hour was jam packed with misdirection, jump scares and blood—culminating in a surprise ending. And while the killer was predictable, the final suggestion of the undiscovered involvement of Audrey (Bex Taylor-Klaus) was not. Granted, I think this is another attempt by the show at misdirection, but it created enough of a mystery that I will tune back in for season two. Plus, the focus on Audrey, one of the show’s most interesting characters played by the show’s best younger actor, is a promising move. If the show can find a way to heighten the suspense for the bulk of the middle episodes and if it ditches some of its more cringe-inducing cast, MTV’s Scream could establish itself as self-referential horror for a new generation. Whether it will remains a question.