2015: The summer of horror TV (Commentary)

Entertainment trends are a funny thing. Horror movie releases have slowed to a trickle, whereas a decade ago there was a new one in theaters every week. But horror TV shows were rare then, whereas today, the boob tube is covered with them. Even though horror is still scarier on the big screen for obvious reasons, TV is making a strong case as a home for horror in 2015 — some of the best horror TV ever made, actually.

“Hannibal,” “The Strain” and “Scream” are in the midst of their summer runs; “Fear the Walking Dead” starts on Sunday and “Scream Queens” debuts next month. “Bates Motel,” “iZombie” and the original “Walking Dead” will return at some point, and “American Horror Story” – which I abandoned awhile back – keeps cranking out new chapters. This summer’s “Wayward Pines” had a significant fright factor with its Abbies, too.

But let’s go back to those three summer shows I started with. They make a case that horror fans are enjoying quality as well as quantity.

“Hannibal” (10 p.m. Eastern Saturdays on NBC), which is 11 episodes into its 13-episode third season, is unquestionably the most gruesome show ever to air on network television. It enjoys a rare benefit granted to shows that are very successful or very unsuccessful in the ratings: The network is leaving producer Bryan Fuller and his team alone. (In fact, the only time an episode was pulled – a Season 1 hour about kids killing their families — it was Fuller who pulled it.)

Unfortunately, “Hannibal” is unsuccessful in the ratings, which is why this is the final season. But it will be talked about and picked apart by TV geeks, critics and teachers of cinematography and style for years into the future. The Onion’s AV Club already salivates over it.

While I get immersed in the moody visuals and Mads Mikkelsen’s mesmerizing performance as much as anyone, I feel disconnected from Season 3. Fuller and his writers have gotten more experimental than ever, playing with nonsequential storytelling. It seems like Abigail Hobbs – one of several characters under Hannibal’s sway – has been killed off at least twice, but she’s still a prominent figure on the show.

Also, I suspect the writers truncated the plot about Mason Verger planning to cut up and eat the title character when they found out “Hannibal” was being canceled. The narrative jumped ahead three years in order to chronicle the Red Dragon saga, where Hannibal assists that killer via telephone despite being locked up and watched by Alana. Fans of Fuller’s rich adaptations of Thomas Harris’ novels can take heart that even if “Hannibal” had been renewed for a fourth season, they wouldn’t have been able to tackle “Silence of the Lambs” and Clarice Starling next, as they couldn’t secure the rights.

I’m a bigger fan of “The Strain” (10 p.m. Eastern Sundays on FX), which is six episodes into its 13-episode second season. It has a lot of similarities to “Hannibal”: It’s based on a book series (by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan) and it is known for its cinematography and gross-out visuals. The ancient vampires transfer their essences into new hosts by vomiting crawly critters into the other’s mouth, making a case that “The Strain” is the most disgusting show ever to air on TV.

The reason I like it, though, is the characters. It’s unlikely Ephraim, Nora, Abraham, Fet and Dutch would come together in any situation other than a vampire apocalypse. I’ve even forgotten the pre-apocalypse jobs of most of them, although Fet (Kevin Durand) is memorably a rat catcher and Abraham (David Bradley) – rather ancient himself — has spent most of his life aiming to take down these vampires. Even if the epic battle of humans versus vamps wasn’t itself compelling – with Eph recently moving into the horrifying arena of medicinal patent politics — “The Strain” would be worth watching just to see Durand and Bradley competitively chew scenery.

“Scream: The TV Series” (10 p.m. Eastern Tuesdays on MTV), which is eight episodes into its 10-episode first season, is obviously not on par with “Hannibal” or “The Strain.” The AV Club, which stopped reviewing it after five episodes, loathes “Scream” as much as it loves “Hannibal.” But if I have an episode of both “Scream” and “Hannibal” on my DVR, I’ll play “Scream” first; it’s shallower, but more immediately entertaining.

“Scream” is not good, per se, but it’s fun. I don’t give a rip about any of the characters, and it totally falls apart if you look at it closely. The writers sort of acknowledged this a few episodes ago when the new student in town describes Lakewood as being OK, except for all the murders.

The classroom atmosphere on “Scream” reminds me a bit of my college math class on Sept. 11, 2001. It wasn’t possible to concentrate on math that day. It’s utterly insane that these students should be expected to focus on “The Crucible” the day after a classmates’ murder. And it’s not just an isolated homicide of someone by someone they know (which is the case with most murders), but rather the latest in a string of killings where any Lakewood student could be the next victim. (In defense of the Lakewood High administration, it would never finish the school year if it canceled school after every death.)

It’s also crazy that Noah continues to spout pop-culture references after the demise of several of his friends – including girlfriend Riley, which he seemed bothered by for about five minutes. He even makes a crack about how he wouldn’t mind if his teachers were possessed by aliens a la “The Faculty” if one of them was Famke Janssen. He doesn’t say it nervously; he’s aloof enough to be a suspect (even though he’s been pursued by the killer – but as the 1996 film showed, there are ways to explain that). That having been said, I dig the fact that there’s a TV show making references to “The Faculty.”

“Scream” turned a corner with the bowling-alley episode a couple weeks back. The show can’t wring any more mileage out of victims being chased by a maniac who wildly swings his knife as he gets pinned by a partly closed door. However, when it finds a good set such as the abandoned bowling alley, it can create some atmosphere.

Although the cast has been whittled down, I don’t know who the killer is. The last hour outright told us the murderer is the long-lost half-brother of Emma, but I figure there will be more twists coming. The biggest mystery of all might be how “Scream” is going to have a second season (it has already been renewed). Perhaps a whole new setting and cast are in the works.

What are your thoughts on this summer of horror TV? And what horror shows are you looking forward to in the coming months?