‘Scream’ and ‘Dead of Summer’ make Tuesday nights great again (TV review)

MTV

For the first time since “Gilmore Girls” and “Veronica Mars” aired back-to-back nearly a decade ago, Tuesday night has become appointment-TV night again. A couple of unlikely shows have propped up Tuesday night’s status: “Scream” (10 p.m. Eastern on MTV) and “Dead of Summer” (9 p.m. Eastern on Freeform). Whereas other nights have a decent show here and there (such as Wednesday’s “Penn & Teller: Fool Us”), Tuesday is the only night that currently gets me excited to come home from work and fire up my DVR.

“Scream” had a mediocre first season, even by the standards of apologists like me. (Some, such as the AV Club, weren’t so apologetic; its reviewer utterly loathed the show before dropping it from the review lineup.) The second season is light years better; a glance at IMDB reveals a lot of new names among the writing credits – no big names, but apparently the writers’ room is clicking more this year.

Season 2 respects its audience more. Every time a character goes into a dangerous situation, it gets commented on; the most extreme example came in Tuesday’s episode, “Village of the Damned,” when Brooke gives a drunken rant at the microphone during a festival celebrating 100 years of Lakewood – or as she and other cynics call it, “Murderville.”

The killings are sparser but also shockingly vicious. Even the acting is somehow better. In the first season, there was a sense that Audrey actress Bex Taylor-Klaus, who had burst onto the scene in “The Killing’s” third season, was slumming. But now she seems like the best of a solid batch of actors. This season, Santiago Segura — as sheriff’s son, comic-book artist and ladies’ man Gustavo – in particular seems like a breakout star.

“Scream” has given all its characters more agency. Emma was the typical Final Girl victim last season; this year, she actually goes after the Brandon-James-masked killer by breaking through a window and scaring him (or her) off. Brooke gets “Carried” when her boyfriend’s bloody corpse falls from the rafters while she’s at center stage; later, she attacks the person she thinks is the killer. (The downside of her actions, of course, is that he obviously wasn’t the killer; it was far too early in the season.)

I’m not the type of viewer who studies every frame of every episode to solve the mystery – partly out of laziness and partly because I don’t want to spoil it for myself. Still, I agree with a popular theory among fans that a Kieran-Zoe team-up makes sense. Both spent a lot of time off-screen, and both have mysterious pasts: Zoe was a new student last season, but didn’t know anyone till this season; Kieran reacts violently when Eli threatens to tell Emma his dark secret. It’s a “Scream” trope for the killer’s motive to be revealed soon before he or she is unmasked (which isn’t to say that clues about that motive aren’t dropped earlier in the narrative).

Although Kieran appears to have been captured and set up to take a fall by the killer in Tuesday’s episode, the scene calls to mind the first “Scream” movie when Skeet Ulrich’s character seemingly could be crossed off the suspect list when he’s a “victim.”

Meanwhile, Eli and Stavo feel like red herrings, and Brooke, Emma, Audrey and Noah have been targeted too often to be prime suspects. I’ve always been slightly uneasy about Noah, though, considering his passion for his “Morgue” podcast. Also, his lack of heartbreak over the death of girlfriend Riley last season could have been bad writing and acting, but it could also suggest he’s involved in the murders.

Considering that Piper dropped a clue that she was the killer in a throwaway line last season, I’m drawn to Noah’s listing of the 11 victims so far in Tuesday’s episode; did he perhaps list someone that only the killer would know about? So I consider him a wild-card candidate.

Whereas I’m willing to defend “Scream” as a flat-out quality program, “Dead of Summer” is a bit more in the “guilty pleasure” category – like “Scream” was a year ago – but it makes for a fun appetizer on Tuesdays.

Although it is a horror-mystery, “Dead of Summer” doesn’t inspire “whodunit” theories. So far, it seems that a gang of bikers is conjuring up the old spirits of Camp Stillwater as they seek a chosen one of some sort, for some reason. One camper, Blotter – who everyone thinks went home voluntarily – is a victim, at least of losing a hand. But other than that, the terror has been of the creep-out and nightmare variety.

While “Dead of Summer” effectively conveys a horror mood, it’s storylines are more in line with “Degrassi” – I partly get this vibe from the 1980s setting and partly from the high school themes (the camp counselors who make up the main cast are recent graduates).

Each episode focuses on one of the seven counselors; four have aired so far. A highlight came in Tuesday’s episode, “Modern Love,” which if it isn’t the all-time best TV episode highlighting the struggles of a transgendered person, it has to rank up there. We see the upbringing of Drew (Zelda Williams, Robin’s daughter), who — as a young girl named Andrea — insists to her mom that she’s a boy. When it turns out this isn’t merely a childhood phase, the mom doesn’t react so well, but a viewer – thanks largely to Williams’ turn — gets an excellent sense that Drew self-identifies as a boy, even though he’s in a girl’s body. It’s a great personalization of transgender struggles that seem abstract to most of us.

Then when the gay kid, Blair – who had promised Drew that he could confide in him about anything – recoils when Drew reveals his status, it illustrates Drew’s pain further. It also illustrates that many people can’t accept the whole diversity of the human race all at once; they need to do it step by step, usually through meeting individual people. Blair talks a good game about inclusion, but having never met (and possibly never even considered) a trans person, he isn’t ready. While I consider myself open-minded, even I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around Drew, who in addition to being trans, is also gay, as he’s attracted to Blair. Still, the show makes it clear why Drew identifies as a gay transgendered male rather than a straight female; it’s about abnormal internal wiring, not about the easy life path.

I also liked the storyline in the Cricket episode, “Mix Tape,” as she gains genuine self-confidence, even though the process of fattening her up in flashback scenes by giving her multiple layers of clothes was absurd; “Pretty Little Liars” makes a similar gaffe in flashbacks to the formerly fat girl.

“Scream” started off as a scary show and gradually got better at making the characters seem real. “Dead of Summer” is focusing on characters first. That means the horror and mystery leave a bit to be desired, but I’m nonetheless hooked, even if it’s for different reasons than the showrunners intended. They’re not exactly “Buffy” and “Angel,” granted, but these two shows have made me look forward to Tuesdays again.