Why Scream the TV series should be your next box set
James R | On 29, May 2016
We look back at why the Scream TV series is underrated – and (at the bottom) sum up the big, spoilery surprises for those catching up on Season 1.
“You can’t do a slasher movie as a TV series,” says Noah Foster (John Karna) at the start of MTV’s Scream – released in the UK as a Netflix original. It’s par for the course for the franchise, at once undermining its own existence and yet staying faithful to the rules.
That’s the series’ inevitable weakness: Wes Craven’s original film (and, to a lesser extent, the sequels) was a smart re-imagining of the slasher genre, subverting expectations and traditions at every turn. Now, though, that subversive nature has become the convention. Self-awareness is no longer novel.
That’s not going to be a problem for die-hard fans, though. The opening episode’s introduction has all the patio-splattering, stair-climbing, through-the-house-chasing gore of the 1995 movie, almost word for word, a clear homage but also a reassuring gesture: Don’t worry. This is still Scream. Now lock the doors and don’t answer the phone.
Those tropes continue to turn up, albeit slightly tweaked: there’s Emma (Willa Fitzgerald), the seemingly-innocent heroine whose mum, Margaret (Tracy Middendorf), is hiding a secret from her past that’s linked to the killer. There’s Noah, token school nerd and wry commentator on events. There’s even Piper (Amelia Rose Blaire), the Gale Weathers 2.0, who’s reporting on events for a podcast (hello to Serial listeners).
It’s that kind of savvy nudge into the modern world that helps keep the basic premise of the story fresh – events are kicked off not by some random phone call but by the sharing of a video online showing shy student Audrey (Bex Taylor-Klaus) making out with another girl. Then, all of a sudden, the nasty cheerleader at the front of the pranking pack is bumped off in her Jacuzzi; there’s a sense that this isn’t just any old knife-happy maniac, but a killer with a purpose.
And yet the writers are also aware of when they’re on to a good thing: Kevin Williamson’s original script worked not only because of its post-modern wit, but because it got the right balance of characters. The geeky one; the cop; the journalist; the heroine; the dubious boyfriend. When it comes to fast-paced gotta-stab-’em-all entertainment, it’s a mix that works.
The difference comes, rather, in the format. Because we’re stuck with these characters for more than two hours, they each, by necessity, have more to do and more to say; they become more like people than stock types. “You have to care about the characters,” argues Noah, right on cue, and he’s right. Impressively, the show meets that challenge: freed from a feature-length runtime, these victims actually have time to emote. Gone is the brief “I wonder who did it?” debate between deaths. In its place, people sitting by themselves near lakes listening to sad songs. At one point, someone scrolls through their phone re-reading old messages from a murdered friend; rather than just stretch the greatest hits out for 10 episodes, grief is as much a part of this as gore. Even resident mean girl Brooke Maddox (Carlson Young) is elevated from walking garage corpse in the first act to a fully-fledged secondary lead, caught between an affair with a teacher and her own string of abusive phone calls.
The cast carry their emotions heavily enough to count but not too heavily to become cloying or forced, something that’s helped by the ongoing flashes of humour (including – just to prove how up-to-date they are – one playful jab at Pretty Little Liars). The episodes are stitched stylishly together too, thanks to Jeremy Zuckerman’s soundtrack, which bumps up the classiness several notches with flowing strings that could belong anywhere but the Scream franchise.
If this spin-off is a teen soap in a spooky mask, though, it doesn’t forget to wear it: the directing team behind the camera is a scarily impressive list, including alumni of The Walking Dead and Hannibal, as well as Leigh Janiak (who helmed the eerily good indie Honeymoon) and even, further down the line, Ti West. The re-worked face of the killer is not as striking as the one from the movies, but also wisely benefits from being unfamiliar, while sequences such as the discovery of his or her potential lair halfway through ring with surprising tension.
In fact, the whole thing gets better the more it goes on. As our bit players survive for longer and longer, throwing up red herrings, defending their suspected loved ones or fighting to stay alive, we move further and further away from the formulaic territory we’ve grown to expect: the set pieces become laced with a genuinely exciting element of the unknown. If this character is normally dead by this point in the narrative, does that mean they’re going to make it to end? Or does it mean they’re next?
The cast play up to it brilliantly, from Fitzgerald’s Emma, who manages to make the old question of trusting her sinister boyfriend believable, to Karna’s amusing geek, who enjoys the growing opportunity to joke outside of his post-modern franchise references. (“Maybe someone just spilled their wine,” he says, spying a corpse. “Their thick, viscous, red wine…”) Even Piper becomes more than Basil Exposition, while a climactic party at Brooke’s place juggles teen romance, shocks and suspicious survivors with a mature note.
The result is trashy and familiar, but also highly entertaining. The show’s aim throughout is to make you forget it’s a horror story – and then let that fact creep up on you every episode. You might not scream, but for undemanding thrills, this TV series gets you every time.
Spoilers and further consideration
– Ok, let’s talk deaths. The killing of Rachael in Episode 2 is a shocking statement of intent – not least because it’s a nasty hanging. But it’s the fact that Audrey is romantically involved with her that really sticks the knife in. Even episodes later, she’s still cut up about it.
– If Rachael’s hanging was sad, Riley’s was downright tragic, given she was such a nice gal – and, of course, was Noah’s girlfriend. He might be back to his wise-cracking self a few weeks later, but the fact that the whole ensemble are still referring to Riley’s death come the end of the show is a telling sign of how much effort is going into the characters here; they could all move on, but amid the chaotic bloodshed and Nancy Drew investigations, they still remember Ghostface’s least deserving victim. Also, on a rooftop? Nice.
– The prize for Best Death goes to Will Belmont, who is cleaved in twain by a piece of rogue farming equipment – the goriest and downright most unexpected death in the whole thing. If you wanted gore from Scream’s TV series, Episode 7 was your friend. Nice one, director Leigh Janiak.
– Amid the revelations of her being Brandon James’ old sweetheart back in the day, Emma’s mum also got a nice death scene – fortunately, not her own, but that of the Sheriff, who wound up tied to their tree in the garden, his guts spilling out. Another grisly moment, but a subtle callback to the very first Scream film. If you can call intestines subtle.
– “Brandon’s son. Branson. He picked the name. It redefines hiding in plain sight.” The red herring of Seth as the killer was a commendably convincing fake-out from the show – plus it won bonus points for the sly dig at I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.
– More red herrings came with the idea of Kieran being a deceitful psycho near the season’s close – and Amadeus Serafini was just bearded and slick-haired enough to look well dodgy. More importantly, though, he gave him a chance to dress up as John Travolta for the Halloween dance, complete with Jack Rabbit Slims twisting. (“He’s not gonna kill her during the dance sequence!”)
– Oh, Piper. Piper, Piper, Piper. Forget the idea of Brandon’s son – it was really Piper who was his daughter. After being forcibly adopted, she came back to Lakewood to get closer to half-sister Emma, bumping off her friends in revenge. Huge credit to Amelia Rose Blaire, who managed to lurk under our noses for the whole of the first season – and go out with a double-dip death in the classic Scream tradition.
– The best surprise was left for last, though, as we realised that Piper had to have help – and that came in the form of Audrey. Bex Taylor-Klaus’ outsider was always positioned as the one to feel sorry for, not least because of Bex’s likeable turn. The reveal of her as a possible second killer was a sincerely smart twist, giving that early murder of Rachael a whole new level of cruelty and sadness. Saddest of all? That means her comedy double-act with Noah won’t last much longer in Season 2.