Rating: 1.5 out of 4/4 out of 10
With a new season of the Scream TV series less than two weeks away, I thought I’d give my own little retrospective of the first season. I blasted all six-and-a-half hours of this in one go, largely because I’ve always had a weird thing with murder mysteries where, no matter how banal, I have to know who the killer is. I even sat through that truly dire 90s comedy, Clue: The Movie, based on the board game of the same name, just so I could see its “mystery”’s ridiculous multiple-choice solutions. In fact, I think a lot of people to a greater or lesser degree share this mystery hook of mine. The American literary critic Edmund Wilson bemoaned this in his essay on detective fiction, “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?”, in which he speculated that detective fiction, a generally inferior genre in his eyes, invariably did such good business because of the built-in suspense of a character who’s secretly a killer, no matter how bad the stories are artistically.
Because I’d spent so much time on the couch watching this series, I was initially inclined to be generous with my rating of it. But really, it’s not all that good. The show, of course, is based on the film saga begun in 1996 by late director Wes Craven (who executive produced this show) and screenwriter Kevin Williamson. (Responsible for other, less renowned 90s slashers like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Teaching Mrs. Tingle, both based on young adult novels by Lois Duncan. After seeing Summer – having been banned from the set during production – Duncan was profoundly disgusted by Williamson’s transformation of her dark psychological chiller into a stalk-‘n’-slash movie. A cautionary tale, if ever there was one, about how little control many writers have of their works.)
To my mind, of the four Scream films, only the first two are good, although the third is useful in how it concludes The Saga of Sidney Precott, the main character around whom each plot revolves. (The fourth, stylised as Scr4m, is utterly superflous, narratively speaking.) Scream and Scream 2 were smart and engaging satires of the horror film tropes which had been taking shape in the genre since the late 70s; the death-in-the-past which drives the current events, the slaughtered bimbos, the virginial Final Girl, the “I’ll be right back” line, and so on. They were also fairly effective as genuine horror films; Craven, a horror maestro, brought a style and intensity to the stories which even helped distinguish the generally lacklustre third and fourth films. The opening of Scream, in particular, is one of the great horror scenes.
Unfortunately, this TV show is a total snooze in comparison. The satirical tension of the films is gone, possibly just because, as a TV show, the suspense has to be parcelled out as opposed to concentrated into less than two hours. But even when allowances are made for that, the witty dialogue and scares are gone. Playing the Jamie Kennedy role of the-nerd-who-knew-too-much is John Karna as Noah Foster, a techie and serial-killer fanboy. (He’s a lot cuter and more tween-friendly than Kennedy, which isn’t necessarily a good thing; Kennedy felt like a real weirdo, where Karna’s a watered-down nice guy.) He gets some “meta” dialogue, in scenes reminiscent of the college film-class discussions in Scream 2, about how this series supposedly connects with the classical-Gothic genre, epitomised by pre-20th-century writers like Horace Walpole and M. G. Lewis (yeah, you wish, Scream), and how the extended nature of television shows makes character deaths more painful for the audience.
What he says isn’t especially clever or observational, though. Also, the Gothic comparison is a weird one to make. Walpole’s and Lewis’ stories were driven by religious anxiety and the supernatural. Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto kick-started the Gothic genre with its tale of a medieval court besieged by ghouls around every corner; Lewis’ The Monk added physical horror and sex to the formula, with its titular monk’s descent into violence and sadism, led by a devilish woman. How any of this compares to the lives of a bunch of post-Columbine, 21st-century Californ-i-a teenagers, I don’t know.
The show’s basic plot was promising, however. It begins with a cyber-bullying incident, where two female high-school students – one an important character, Audrey Jensen, played by Bex Taylor-Klaus – are secretly filmed kissing in a parked car, footage which is then uploaded to YouTube. (A site so vigilant about bullying that a fake video made for the cyber-bullying-themed horror film Unfriended was almost-immediately deleted, thus nullifying that film’s plot.) The school’s top mean-girl, most responsible for the incident, and her boyfriend are brutally murdered (a scene which, scare-wise, pales so much in comparison to the similar one that opened the first Scream film, that it feels like an amateur-dramatics remake of it). Whodunit? Classmate Emma Duvall (Ella Fitzgerald) might know, as she learns of her own connection to the community’s local horror story: a couple of decades ago, a deformed and isolated teenage boy was shot dead by police after supposedly killing several of his tormentors over the course of one night…
This is pretty standard slasher stuff, right down to the silly, cliched, and borderline offensive deformed-innocent-bullied-and-killed subplot. (Why does crappy horror think that deformed and/or special needs people are invariably treated with suspicion, contempt, and outright hate by everyone around them? In this show, even the poor kid’s family kept him locked in the basement. It’s not the Dark Ages, people!) Which is a shame because the initial incident of the cyber-bullying could have been used to tell a darker and more socially-relevant story. If the producers of this show really wanted to update the franchise for the new generation, dealing head-on with the subject of how the internet and fresh technology are used by bullies would have been a strong move. This angle isn’t explored and used only for its novelty value, however; instead of exploring the issue and making it a truly important story element, they use it as just another narrative device, a way of moving the plot forward.
Emma Duvall, the show’s Sidney Prescott, and her relationships with her classmates are ripped straight from Mean Girls and other such tweeny-bop fare. Strange, seeing as the audience for that type of high-school story aren’t likely to be watching a grisly slasher. I think that the show was trying to draw in the teen soap-opera crowd. Friday the 13th meets The O.C., if you will. Duvall isn’t interesting or very sympathetic, at least when compared to Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott. This may be because Campbell was a better actress than Ella Fitzgerald, or just that Sidney was better-written (she certainly had a more interesting backstory; both characters have a mother-with-secrets, Sidney’s having been dead a year before her story starts, and while the Scream films aren’t emotionally or psychologically deep, the sad fate of Mrs. Prescott did have a certain poignancy and resonance). All that Duvall’s character really is is Lindsay Lohan from Mean Girls grafted onto a slasher plot; she even has the same butch-female (Audrey) and Milquetoast-male (Foster) friends. With whom she fell out after joining up with a trio of popular mean-girls. Two of whom are really just sweet, easily-led fashionistas. (Jesus, now that I think about it, this show is just Mean Girls with corpses.)
There’s even a moment where one character compares squeaky-clean, goody-two-shoes Duvall to Pollyanna. Because, yeah, that’s totally a reference that a 17/18-year-old would make. Those crazy kids and their 1960s Disney films. (Or maybe they’re fans of the original post-Edwardian novels?) That detail sums up how much the writers of this show know and understand teenagers. The information they have is culled from other pop-culture properties, so the story quite often feels like a loose stitching of borrowed elements.
Of course, one can’t dissect a Scream story without bringing up the violence. The movies’ slashings were heavily stylised, gory, and nail-biting in their execution (no pun intended). I recall the gutting of the football player on the patio gripping me when I watched the first film, aged around 14/15. Bizarrely, the show’s murders are relatively tame until in the later episodes it takes a sudden detour into Saw territory (in plausibility as well as gore). Otherwise, the deaths are fairly close in style, intensity, and imagination to the stuff you’d see in a Final Destination film, which isn’t a bad thing. One thing I do like about this show is that it is creative in the death department. Especially effective is a scene where a victim is made to seek out their own noose.
Amusingly, and despite all its ripping-off from recent properties, TV Scream is closer to being one of the cheapo teen-thrillers that inspired the franchise than any of the movies ever were. It even concludes, so help me Lord, with a talking killer on a lakeside dock beneath a full moon. (A “talking killer”, if you don’t know, is a killer who rambles on about their evil ways, explaining the plot in as much detail as possible, when they should just be killing everyone else on the scene. Although, to be fair, TV Scream‘s killer has a sadistic reason to draw out the climax.) Not all of the show’s mysteries are explained by the first season’s conclusion; those remaining will make up the meat and bones of the second season. Meanwhile, the answer to the question of whodunit (or whodunmostofit) is neatly explained, and the clues are there for anyone who wishes to follow them. (I picked up on one and guessed who the killer might be, though I was by no means certain.) I’m not sure if I’ll be bothering to watch the second season, as I now know enough about the mystery to satisfy my curiosity, and don’t feel like any further revelations will be all that interesting. Ultimately, TV Scream is thin gruel.