‘Dead of Summer’ Series Premiere: “Patience” Review (Season 1 Episode 1)

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The latest from some of the producers behind “Lost” and “Once Upon a Time,” the new Free Form (formerly ABC Family) series, “Dead of Summer,” is, at first blush at least, a homage to the multitude of summer camp slasher movies of yore, stuff like “Friday the 13th,” “Sleepaway Camp,” “The Burning” and “Summer Camp Nightmare,” among many others.

I say at first blush, because it’s not entirely clear if the threat here is of the human or non-human variety. Of course, a case could be made that neither is, say, Jason Voorhees, who would technically seem to be a zombie, not a human killer, being as how he drowned in the lake as a child and all, yet inexplicably came back to terrorize who knows how many campers and the like over the years.

Either way, there’s a camp, there’s a freaky back-story, along with a tragic one for the main character; and there’s people dying, so… slasher, murder mystery, ghost story, whatever you want to call it, it still sounds like horror movie territory to me, so I’m in. Nor does it stop there, as there’s also a mysterious head counselor with hidden motives, satanic cult elements, and various people with apparent psychological issues that could be trouble.

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Did I also mention there’s a creepy doomsayer in the “Crazy Ralph” mode who ends up dead by the end of the first episode? Or a creepy campfire story scene, complete with a pop-out scare at the end? Or that blood seems to bubble up out of the lake and trees for no discernible reason? Or that, in the prologue, horror stalwart Tony “Candyman” Todd shows up? Or that the lake was, at one time, filled with dead bodies? Hell, why not throw in a Bigfoot and a sea creature while you’re at it?

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I love that the show’s so ambitious. I just wonder how in the world they’re going to tie all these disparate elements together in the end. On the plus side, it is a series, after all, and unlike, say, “Scream: The TV Series” and “Scream Queens,” there’s a lot more going on here than a slasher or two carving up anyone who gets in the way of their mysterious motives, so it actually warrants the more long-form format.

One thing the jury’s still out on, though, is the likability factor of the main cast. One of the biggest gripes I have with modern-day slashers is how godawful the characters tend to be, such terrible examples of humanity you can’t wait to see them all killed. Compare that to the old-school slashers I grew up on a steady diet of, where you really cared about them and hated to see a lot of them die, even the resident “mean” girls and guys and stoners and sluts and what have you.

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Yes, there were a lot of cliches in play, to be sure, but those films had a good sense of humor a lot of the time that made them eminently watchable, despite the fact that the formula essentially ensured that they could practically be the same movies in theory. As Randy, of “Scream” fame, put it: there’s a very simple formula to it, and most slashers adhered to it firmly.

To its credit, there are early signs that such might not be the case with “Dead of Summer.” For instance, the resident “bad” girl is actually the one “slut shaming” herself, even going so far as to write graffiti on the walls about herself, which is an interesting twist on things that I didn’t see coming.

Likewise, the “bitchy” hot girl turns out to be not so bad- actually both of ’em, if you count the one in the flashback- revealing a method to the malevolence, which is as unexpected as it is welcome. You could absolutely chalk this sort of thing up to post-modern Millennial political correctness, but it works here simply by not being overly preachy. These things aren’t revealed in words, so much as they are in actions, and that works for me.

AMBER CONEY, MARK INDELICATO, ZACHARY GORDON, RONEN RUBINSTEIN

In other words, the writers here leave a lot unwritten, allowing the viewer a rare chance to fill-in-the-blanks for themselves. Instead of having the resident rich douchebag reveal that he’s only human after all through an elaborate speech, we see him cutting tags off of his high-end shirts, subtly revealing that he’s actually not as rich as he seems and as such, is only putting up a front, the way a lot of young people do at that age when outer image is everything.

Another character is presented as potentially being a loner boy that’s angry at the world, only to be revealed as a girl, Drew (Zelda Williams, “Detention”), at the end, who might potentially be questioning her gender identity. Yes, another more post-modern touch, but once again, it worked for me because it wasn’t handled egregiously, but subtly.

Granted, the show isn’t perfect- another character is so overtly gay they might as well have been waving a rainbow flag while perched atop two shirtless sailor’s shoulders singing “It’s Raining Men.” Not sure why most gay men have to be continue to be portrayed this way, in this stereotypically “flaming” fashion, but I can only assume it’s because they’re being written by straight men who have no idea what an actual gay guy is like.

MARK INDELICATO, AMBER CONEY

Yes, I’m aware some of them ARE that way, but wouldn’t it be nice to see one portrayed as a “normal” guy who just so happens to like guys? And I put “normal” in quotes because gay people are normal, insomuch as anyone else, and not all of them act like idiotic stereotypes- and we could stand to see a little more of that on TV and in the movies. (Whoops- my own Millennial stripes are showing, lol.)

That said, it’s a minor quibble in a show that gets a lot of things right. I can’t imagine a die-hard slasher fan not getting a kick out of all this, even if it’s a bit of a slow burn, at least so far. I mean, technically, we don’t see anyone killed, only the aftermath- save one girl, whose death is essentially self-inflicted by drug-induced paranoia when she jumps out a window to get away from the cops when they bust a party she’s attending.

Still, finding bodies after the fact is its own time-honored slasher movie tradition, so we’ll let it slide for now. Besides, we don’t even know that there is a serial killer or what have you on the loose- it could actually be a ghost, from the looks of things. Or maybe even a zombie, of sorts, as the main protagonist seems to see her dead friend all over the place. Who can say?

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The cast includes the always-welcome Elizabeth Mitchell, also of “Lost” fame, as the head counselor, Deborah Carpenter (her surname is possibly a nod to John), a former camper determined to resurrect her beloved stomping grounds after they were inexplicably- for now- closed about five years prior.

Most of her recruits are also former campers with fond memories of the place, including Jessie (Paulina Singer, “South of Hell”), the aforementioned “bitchy” girl; Joel (Eli Goree, “The 100”), a would-be filmmaker with a crush on Deb; Blair (Mark Indelicato, “Ugly Betty”), the gay character; Alex (Ronen Rubinstein, “Some Kind of Hate”) as the “rich” kid that’s not what he seems to be; and Carolina (Amber Coney, hot off the remake of “Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?”), the self-shaming “bad” girl who may not be so bad at all.

The local deputy, Garrett (Alberto Frezza, “Angel Falls in Love”) is also a camp vet, who it turns out, shared his first kiss with Jessie, which is why she’s being so cranky to new girl Amy (Elizabeth Lail, “Once Upon a Time”)- she’s unwittingly moving in on “her” territory, as it were.

It seems that Garrett didn’t recognize Jessie, who had braces last time they saw one another, and has no doubt done one hell of a lot of growing up since they last saw each other, I’m guessing. He does, now though, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out, what with his already having made a bit of a connection with Amy, who herself made one with Alex, almost doing a little making out her own damn self.

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Amy is there in the aftermath of a pact made to her late friend Margot (Morgan Taylor Campbell, “Spooksville”), the one who took a dive out a window some time ago, as we see in flashbacks, and who she promised she would attend camp there with. Amy also moved to a different town to attend her senior year of high school under mysterious circumstances, so there’s more wiggle room for other past happenings with her as well, making for a suitably enigmatic protagonist.

The show is set in 1989, which allows for a sweet soundtrack (G’N’R- hence the episode title- R.E.M., The Cure, etc.), as well as wonderfully terrible fashion. The woodsy camp setting may also be why “Scream Queens,” which was originally also scheduled to do a summer camp theme, opted to go with a hospital setting instead for their season 2.

Either way, the date and setting gives the show an authenticity that some of these other post-modern slashers lack, so good on Free Form for forgoing the modern-day setting and going retro instead. While it remains to be seen whether the show gets better from here and there’s definitely room for improvement- so good, so far.

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What did you think of “Dead of Summer”? Did you also dig that it’s a period piece? How about the whole summer camp setting? Are you hoping it will be more of a slasher thing or a ghost story or even more of a murder mystery? What did you think of the cast? How about the characters? Did the main plot grab you? What did you make of that opening sequence? Sound off down below and join me next week for episode two!