“You can’t do a slasher movie as a TV series,” Noah Foster (John Karna), the resident entertainment geek of MTV’s “Scream: The TV Series,” says during Tuesday night’s premiere. “Survivor movies burn bright and fast. TV needs to stretch things out.”
As much a nod to the original films as a cheap thievery of their clever spirit, the above lines — bound to be oft-quoted by journalists looking for a quick intro — are obviously meant to be disproven by the new, 10-episode television series inspired by Wes Craven’s late ’90s horror satire. Instead, they serve as its tombstone, as well as an explanation for exactly what’s wrong with networks’ recent revival obsession.
This aughts version of “Scream” still follows a group of young teens who are hunted and killed by a masked murderer, but this time around Ghostface is hounding high schoolers who have a knack for cyber-bullying their peers. His first victim is linked to slut-shaming (and kind of gay-bashing) a bi-curious teen by recording her making out with another girl and then uploading the video to YouTube.
That moment, seen in the first eight minutes of the pilot released online last week, is as close to “Scream” gets to living up to its meta-narrative promises; promises inherent in not just the new series, but the franchise itself. The original film was constructed to satirize slasher flicks. Alas, the briefly depicted topical content in the latest entry of the franchise serves as a reminder of what could have been instead of what’s to come, as showrunners Jill Blotevogel and Jaime Paglia’s attempt to subvert cliches instead embraces them.
Partly due to formal inefficiency, partly due to an uneven focus, very little of the first episode of “Scream” works. Exposition is delivered either in huge, unwieldy chunks or so quickly after a question is posed (either through direct or indirect dialogue) that it eliminates even the pretense of suspense. For instance, as soon as presumed-dead serial killer Brandon James is brought up, our leading lady Emma Duvall (Willa Fitzgerald) storms off. Before I could finish typing “who’s Brandon James” in my notes, the remaining group of high schoolers gave me every last detail about him. Worse yet, they expose secrets the characters don’t even know about, effectively doubling up on the same gasp instead of trusting that the audience can wait 20 minutes to find out through the natural flow of the story. (Emma’s mom is Brandon’s unknown love interest? Thanks for telling me twice.)
Yet the main issue with “Scream: The TV Series” is how it confuses meta-references with fresh, topical storytelling. There are plenty of great programs on right now that rely on self-referential constructs — “The Comedians” and “Episodes” are top tier — but none of them base their premise in a world of yesteryear; nor is their target audience as young as those watching MTV. Simply acknowledging how old slasher movies work isn’t a fresh take anymore. The story needs to deconstruct new cliches found in the emerging genre of television horror, not tell a young generation what doesn’t work about what used to scare their parents (or simply state “the Gothic genre is all over TV right now,” as the show does before failing to engage with its own claim).
Wes Craven’s “Scream” films (at their best) took down the established formula of slasher flicks so effectively they’ve been all but tossed aside by modern filmmakers. Since the 1996 debut of the original “Scream,” the horror genre has been taken over by torture porn (“Saw,” “Hostel”), found footage films (“The Blair Witch Project,” “Paranormal Activity”), art house fare (“The Babadook,” “It Follows”), twist-heavy thrillers (“The Sixth Sense,” “Shutter Island”) and apocalyptic zombie flicks (“World War Z,” “Zombieland”) — and that’s without even crossing over into television, which has implemented elements of all of the above in “American Horror Story,” “The River,” “Penny Dreadful,” “Wayward Pines” and “The Walking Dead.”
Found footage seems like the ripest choice for TV satirization, given our modern youth’s obsession with documenting their every movement (and because there’s an absence in our culture of suitable mockery), but “Scream: The TV Series” could have tackled any one of these rising contemporary genres and remained relevant. Because “Scream” is an excellent model on which to base a horror show. It’s got the brand recognition studios crave and the timeless concept a savvy showrunner can make fresh for today’s world. Hot teenagers will always be a horror staple. Television is becoming the new medium to watch horror. You don’t have to be a Wes Craven-level auteur to figure out this combination holds promise.
In accepting this conceit, the show’s utter failure to strive for significance — or even understand why it should — spells doom for much more than just “Scream.” As previously reported, we’re in the middle of a resurrection boom. Anything once popular, be it a film, TV show, book or toy, is getting a second (or fourth) chance on television. While some hold more merit than others — I think we can all agree “The Comeback’s” comeback was a success — many choices seem wholly illogical. While “Scream” was certainly a product of its time, it at least offered an easy path for adaptation. So if something this promising falls well short of the mark, what hope do far more dated and far less accessible shows have at a successful “rebirth”?
Will “The X-Files” tap into modern conspiracies with a post-9/11 mindset or merely settle for another monster-of-the-week monstrosity? Can “Twin Peaks” live up to expectations built from more than 20 years of waiting? Can “Fuller House” function in a day-and-age when multi-cam sitcoms are dying out? Can “Coach”? Can “Married With Children”? In all our haste to “stretch out” our beloved programs, we may have missed out on what — and when — made them so beloved in the first place. And the consequences are truly scary.