“Scream: The TV Series” (9 p.m. Tuesdays on MTV) knows what it wants to be. As is the tradition in this increasingly meta franchise, the format of the series is explained by one of the characters: Noah (John Karna), this show’s answer to Randy (Jamie Kennedy) from the 1996 movie.
In lit class, the teacher tries to get his students interested in early gothic horror novels by pointing out the similarity to “The Walking Dead,” “American Horror Story,” “Bates Motel” and “Hannibal.” Another student asks if there’s any link to films like “Friday the 13th” and “Halloween,” and Noah points out that those are of the slasher-movie tradition, and those only work as 90-minute movies that burn fast and bright; they can’t work as TV series.
Later, Noah tells his friend Riley (Brianne Tju) that they are in a teen TV drama, not a slasher movie.
Noah: “You need to forget it’s a horror story, that someone might die at any turn. You have to care if the smoking hot lit teacher seems a little too interested in his female students. You have to care if the team wins the big game. You have to care if the smart girl forgives the dumb jock.”
Riley: “Sounds like ‘Friday Night Lights.’ “
Noah: “Exactly. You root for them, you love them. So when they’re brutally murdered, it hurts.”
Noah’s not entirely wrong, but his TV geek cred is a little thin considering we live in a geek world, which slasher-film-loving outcast Randy did not in 1996.
First of all, Noah knows nothing that would suggest the first victim, Nina (Bella Thorne), was killed by a serial killer. (Indeed, the lead suspect is Nina’s missing boyfriend, although we as an audience know he was also murdered.) He should assume his town of Lakewood is experiencing a murder mystery like “The Killing” or “Gracepoint.” Perhaps “Twin Peaks” would be the most well-known parallel, in that Noah is suggesting character drama will be placed ahead of the murder mystery.
Of course, this actually is a slasher TV series, even if Noah can’t know that yet. Once he does learn as much, he should notice that “Scream: The TV Series” most closely follows in the footsteps of “Harper’s Island,” the only slasher TV series I know of. (“Scream” executive producer Jill Blotevogel also worked on “Harper’s Island,” so perhaps she thought it would be poor form to highlight her own resume.) In that 13-episode summer series from 2009, characters get gradually picked off during an island wedding and vacation.
Unlike most murder mysteries, on “Harper’s Island” the killings were ongoing. With a traditional murder mystery, everyone is a suspect until the final reveal. With a slasher series, the roster of suspects gets whittled down. In a way, this is a worse setup because instead of the plot thickening, the plot thins; instead of picking between a dozen suspects, eventually you’re down to just a few. And indeed, I felt diminishing returns as “Harper’s Island” went forward, although I still recommend the series: It’s fun, and it’s ambitious.
“Scream” can certainly break free from its forbearers and become its own thing (and since it’s not a limited series like “Harper’s Island” was, it will have no choice but to reinvent itself if MTV keeps asking for more episodes). But there’s not much indication from the pilot episode – which structurally is the opening act of a slasher movie, just a bit more drawn out — that this will happen.
After Noah’s line about how it’ll hurt when a character we like gets killed, we cut to Audrey (Bex Taylor-Klaus). Having been victimized by having her makeout session with her girlfriend videotaped by her classmates and uploaded to YouTube, Audrey is a broadly sympathetic character, and Taylor-Klaus has a legitimate pedigree, having appeared in “The Killing’s” third season (also as an androgynous teen). Her bedroom door opens, and we assume Audrey will be the embodiment of a victim we care about. But it’s a fake-out scare. It’s just a visit from former bestie Emma (Willa Fitzgerald).
“Scream: The TV Series” is presumptuous. It announces that we’re supposed to care about the characters, but it still has to make us care. Through one episode, it mostly fails: While Audrey, Noah and Riley have potential, “Scream’s” character roster mostly consists of indistinguishable selfish jerks (the guy who cheats on his girlfriend, the girl who is having sex with her teacher, the guy who doesn’t give a rip that Nina is dead) and archetypes such as Noah and The New Guy. Sorry about the lack of character and actor names; even by searching the show’s IMDB page, I’m not sure who’s who.
(Speaking of the IMDB page, be careful about looking too closely at it if you want to avoid spoilers. The number of episodes a character appears in is a precise tip-off of when they will be killed off. Also avoid watching the “This season on ‘Scream’ ” teaser at the end of the first episode, as it blatantly reveals some of the upcoming victims.)
There are small signs that this show will broaden into something good. It looks like it will stray a bit from the idea of the film series’ knife-wielding maniac. For one thing, the mask is slightly different and he wears an “I Know What You Did Last Summer”-esque rain slicker rather than a black cloak. Additionally, an almost-killing later in the episode is in the vein of the lake camp-based “Friday the 13th” movies rather than “Scream.”
The original “Scream” had somewhat of a backstory about Sydney’s mom’s murder (although that was mostly to define Sydney’s character and provide a red herring). “Scream: The TV Series” has a meatier backstory about a disfigured teen who loved Emma’s mom, Maggie/”Daisy” (Tracy Middendorf). After a brief killing spree, the man was killed by the authorities, although there’s a definite “I Know What You Did Last Summer” vibe where it seems the new killer could be the same as the old.
The opening sequence is purposely derivative but admittedly fun. It’s essentially a remake of the Drew Barrymore sequence from the 1996 film except with modern technology. So instead of the killer telling the victim he’s spying on her, he sends to her smart phone a video of herself from mere moments earlier as she gets ready for a dip in her backyard pool: Definitive proof that he’s watching her. Then, when the bikini-clad Nina is being chased down, she has nothing with which to dry off her smart phone’s touch pad. She tries to use the voice function to “call 911,” but it dials Pottery Barn.
But this sequence, like the episode as a whole, isn’t remotely scary. TV shows are never as scary as movies; that’s a simple reality of watching something in the comfort of our homes and having the escape of commercial breaks. But TV shows can be tense and moody and creepy; “Scream: The TV Series” isn’t.
It’s another indication that “Scream: The TV Series” knows what it wants to be, but doesn’t succeed in its endeavor. Another truth about TV, though, is that some series don’t hit their stride right out of the gate. I’m loyal enough to the “Scream” franchise – I’ve considered all the sequels to be must-watches upon their release – that I’ll give it a few episodes to improve before killing it off.