‘Scream: The TV Series’ (Season 1): A Slasher Franchise Rebooted and Reborn

scream series

When it was officially announced that the much-beloved (and occasionally reviled) famed “Scream” franchise was being turned into a television show, many balked. After all, how would that even work? Sure, there was the short-lived (pun intended) “Harper’s Island,” which was sort of like a mash-up between “Friday the 13th” and “April Fool’s Day,” but that didn’t exactly light the world on fire, ratings-wise, and was summarily cancelled after only one season. But might it work with an actual name franchise like “Scream”? MTV clearly aims to find out with this show, which premiered last night, on June 30th.

Slasher movies are not the most critically-acclaimed of genres, to say the least. Most aficionados trace the genre proper back to 1974’s seminal “Black Christmas,” but depending on who you ask, the subgenre can actually traced back as far as 1932’s “Thirteen Women,” which featured the titular ladies being offed one by one by someone with a connection to the women in question from the past. Others cite the classic Hitchcock thriller “Psycho” as the more modern iteration, along with that same year’s “Peeping Tom,” both from 1960. The former is infamous for bumping off its seemingly leading lady in the first fifteen minutes or so of the film, while the latter features a killer’s POV of the murders he commits, as he commits them.

Despite these and other examples (i.e. “Bay of Blood,” “Silent Night, Bloody Night”), the vast majority of slasher fans tend to go with “Black Christmas,” however. It’s all there: a mysterious killer with shadowy motives, a group of vulnerable young people just isolated enough to get picked off one by one, a holiday setting, the killer’s POV as the murders are being committed, victims being attacked at their most vulnerable (i.e. sleeping, looking for a pet in a dark location) and/or most distracted (i.e. by drinking in this case), a mystery element (Is the culprit one of the main characters? Was there a reason for it?), and, of course, gory deaths.

“Black Christmas” started it, “Halloween” perfected it, adding a creepy mask, a seemingly moralistically-driven killer (If you have sex, you die), and a somewhat supernatural element- the killer seems to be unstoppable- and “Friday the 13th” drove it home by upping the ante with even gorier deaths, and by subsequently becoming the first proper slasher franchise.

The “Golden Age” of slashers lasted roughly ten years or so, from the late 70’s into the mid-to-late 80’s, at which point the subgenre fell out of favor, emaciated by endless sequels and the MPAA ratings board cutting down on the gore quotient to such an extent that the movies became basically pointless. Then, a funny thing happened.

A generation who, like myself, were raised n a steady diet of movies like this started taking a- ahem- stab at these types of films, making it their own. Chief among them was screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who crafted the original “Scream,” then titled “Scary Movie,” which would ironically become the name of another franchise dedicated to making fun of horror films. Teaming up with horror legend Wes Craven, himself the creator of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” slasher franchise, the two put together an instant classic that rebooted the slasher movie for an entirely new generation.

The original “Scream” was one of the first slasher movies I can actually recall going to see in the theater, and though I’d seen plenty of them on home video and cable by then, it was to be the launch of a second wave of such films that re-established the subgenre anew. This time around, Williamson added a self-aware group of teens, who, like myself, grew up on movies like this, and thus knew the “rules” of surviving a horror movie. Not that it did most of them much good, mind you.

By adding a “meta” approach to the subgenre and a clever, endearing sense of humor to the proceeding, a new franchise was born, spawning three more movies to date, and now, a TV series. Granted, the second wave of slashers, typified by the likes of “I Know What You did Last Summer” and “Urban Legend,” only lasted about half as long as the original crop of such movies, but old slashers die hard, and we find ourselves presented with yet another “reboot” or “reimagining” of a popular old film, only this time in the unlikeliest of places, television.

So, does it work? Honestly, it’s too soon to tell, but all the elements are certainly firmly in place. We begin with a modernized take on the set-up, as we see a video of a teenage girl, Audrey (Bex Taylor-Klaus, of “Arrow” and “The Killing” fame) filmed making out with another girl, Rachel (Sosie Bacon, daughter of Kevin, also featured on mother Kyra Sedgwick’s “The Closer”), which then goes viral.

The main ones responsible, Nina (Bella Thorne, “Shake it Up”) and Tyler (Max Lloyd-Jones, “Switched at Birth”) are then summarily dispatched, after the former receives a series of threatening texts and a video of herself, clearly taken in the present moment. The texts reference the viral video, with the person sending them obviously knowing that Nina was directly involved in leaking the video in question.

This opening sequence is, of course, inspired by the similar one in the original “Scream,” in which one of the biggest names in that film, Drew Barrymore, was taken out in the first fifteen minutes or so, just like Janet Leigh was before her in the classic “Psycho.” (Though older viewers may not recognize rising star Thorne, she is, in fact, huge among younger viewers for her hugely-successful, aforementioned Disney show.)

After that, we meet some of the others involved in the viral video, including main character Emma (Willa Fitzgerald, “Royal Pains”), who used to be friends as kids with Audrey and had a falling out with her when they got older and she got more popular and started running with a hipper crowd. Needless to say, when Audrey finds out, she is none too happy with Emma, despite the latter’s best efforts to make it up to her for it, although, to be fair, though she was present when the video was filmed, she didn’t participate in the leak itself, but only knew of the video’s existence.

Much more directly involved are her on-again-off-again boyfriend Will (Connor Weil, “Sharknado”), a basketball player; his best bud Jake (Tom Maden, “Make It or Break It”), who is later revealed to have other, much-more privately-taken videos of Nina that may or may not be done with her permission; the catty Brooke (Carlson Young, “True Blood”), who’s having an affair with her hunky English teacher; and the adorkable Riley (Brianne Tju, also of “MIOBI”), who has a crush on the similar Noah (John Karna, “Bindlestiffs”), the show’s geektastic equivalent of Randy, aka the original movie’s Jamie Kennedy.

Noah, naturally, lays out all the “rules” of this new-fangled configuration. After a quick rundown of the basics, he acknowledges what many fans have been wondering themselves: “How can you possibly make a slasher movie work as a television show?” His answer: you don’t, really. (Not exactly encouraging!) However, he does posit a possible way it might near the end, which amusingly addresses a major gripe most old-school slasher movie fans have about the new ones- that the characters aren’t particularly likable, and thus, you can’t wait for them to die, unlike the old-school variation, where you actually cared about the character’s respective fates.

So, Noah suggests, to make it work, you could delve deeper into a wide range of characters, each with their own secrets and back-stories, and get to know them better, which a TV show inherently affords more leeway with than a ninety-minute or so movie could. It’s too early to say whether the show achieves this, but going on instinct, I’d say about half of them are red-shirt d-bags that aren’t going to progress much further than that on the show, and thus, are likely to be offed that much sooner- or one can hope, at least.

That said, it would be clever if the ones you think will likely still be standing at the end, like Emma and Audrey, were actually the ones killed off sooner than later. The downside of that is, of course, you’d also be taking out two of the more relatable and likeable characters on the show, which wouldn’t be good for viewers, for obvious reasons. Thus, my hope is that they will split the difference, going back-and-forth between killing the more unlikable characters and the more mid-level, semi-likable ones, which is exactly what I predict will happen.

Of course, if that does happen, it also means the show itself will be thoroughly predictable, which isn’t good, either. One potential sign that might not be the case is the presence of a much more elaborate back-story involving several of the characters, including, promisingly, one of the parents. That would be Emma’s mom, Maggie (Tracy Middendorf, “Boardwalk Empire,” as well as director Wes Craven’s likewise “meta”-flick “New Nightmare,” which itself preconfigured “Scream”), aka “Daisy,” who was involved in a sketchy past situation we’ll delve into in a future article.

The pilot, as it stands, is actually more like “Pretty Little Liars” (creepy texts, snarky notes, student/teacher affair, et al.) with gorier deaths and lots more-modern pop culture nods than a slasher film-turned-TV-series, for better or worse. (As fans of that show know, it tends to traffic in the old-school, a la Hitchcock and Film noir.)

There was some clever dialogue here and there, admittedly. My favorite line of the night was when incognito smart hottie Riley baited Noah when he mentioned he was trying to get internship with Elon Musk by saying: “Oh, I love perfume!” LOL. The best part was, it was actually intended as a joke, not a dumb comment by a clueless teen, which was charming.

Worst line of the night, by default, was when Brooke tried to comfort Emma after the fallout of her former friend and film geek Audrey’s viral video and the part she played in it by saying: “Maybe Audrey will ‘Taylor Swift’ her anger into creative energy for one of her little films.” It’s not that it was a bad line, and the notion of Swift becoming commonly used as a verb is admittedly funnier than the joke being made. Instead, it’s that MTV themselves did practically the same joke on “Awkward” last season, and it was ten times funnier then, and thus, they should have known better than to repeat themselves like that. For shame, MTV. Or at least their writers.

For now, though, I will quit while I’m ahead- which may well be what we’ll be saying about this show if things don’t improve. In the meantime, it was a decent enough foundation for a potential series, and I do like that it’s only a ten-episode run, which should allow for the show not to overstay its welcome if they play their cards right. The set-up was passable; let’s see what they do with the series proper. Join me in a few weeks to find out!

What did you think of the “Scream” premiere? Was it novel enough to keep you watching? Or is it just a thinly-veiled retread of the original movies? What did you think of the main cast of characters? Or the actors playing them? Were you disappointed that Kevin Williamson wasn’t involved? (Craven himself is onboard as an executive producer, but “Faking It”-vet Jamie Travis did the actual directing honors.) Did you like the show’s in-joke pop culture references, or find them annoying? Should they keep them up, or will that get old fast, in light of how commonplace that has become in the meantime?