scream tv show

Scream

I’ll be the first to admit that MTV’s Scream doesn’t make the best first impression. The pilot episode is rough around the edges, never allowing its characters to emerge from typical teen show templates and relying a little too much on the self-aware horror movie commentary that was fresh when the original movie opened in 1996 but feels stale now. Then a funny thing happens. Over the course of the first season and throughout the second season, Scream stops being a lackluster imitation of the original movie starring blandly attractive white people and starts being an inventive, darkly hilarious blend of slasher horror and melodrama that recalls the best days of Buffy the Vampire Slayer…while still starring mostly blandly attractive white people, albeit blandly attractive white people you have grown to like.

The pure MTV-ness of Scream will offer a barrier that some viewers simply won’t be able to overcome. Every actor on screen, from the goofball nerds to the popular kids, looks like they were cast from the same modeling agency. Every episode is scored with pop music anyone over the age of 25 probably can’t name. There’s a specific, glossy sheen to the show that will be familiar to anyone who watches The CW’s DC superhero shows. Everything is a little too pretty while often looking a bit too cheap.

And yet, like Arrow and The Flash, the candy shell surface of Scream is only a temporary distraction from one of the most purely entertaining examples of great junk food television of the past five years. Scream quickly finds its legs in the early hours of the first season, taking this cardboard cut-out characters and infusing them with real personality…before brutally stabbing them to death. The first season of Scream is often shocking in its mercilessness, eventually reaching its gory apex with a scene involving a piece of construction machinery that left my mouth hanging agape.

More importantly, those kills start to feel like they matter. Willa Fitzgerald‘s Emma, the bland “good girl” in the pilot, quickly evolves into the kind of smart, vulnerable badass every great slasher tale demands at its center. John Karna‘s Noah, the horror movie-obsessed dork whose overbearing commentary drags down much of the first episode, becomes the audience surrogate, the charmingly awkward nerd whose pop culture knowledge informs his character instead of giving the show an excuse to mock itself. And as Audrey, the abrasive and antisocial bicurious filmmaker who used to be Emma’s best friend back in the day, Bex Taylor-Klaus provides a necessary blunt edge in a show that initially threatens to feel a little too soft.

Scream is home to a large ensemble that waxes and wanes based on how many people have been stabbed to death in a current season. The dynamic between the characters reminds me, once again, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another high school-themed horror story that used a violent threat to unite disparate characters together. Watching these kids survive together, and grow closer in the process, makes for satisfying television, especially as the actors find their groove and start forcing us to care about whether or not they make it to the end of the episode alive. The fact that none of them ever feel safe and that major characters tend to get killed off makes every new friendship feel like a tragedy waiting to happen.

There is a definite difference in the two seasons of Scream that have aired so far. Season one is the more inconsistent and sloppy of the two, finding its voice as it goes and course correcting early mistakes, but it achieves higher highs. Its rough edges have personality, and its “anything goes” set pieces are wild and unpredictable. Every episode is a roller coaster of teen angst and murder, flying by in an instant. Season two is more polished and far better made than its predecessor. There is more confidence behind the camera, and the show becomes far better at filming chase sequences and fights to the death. It’s also more playful with form, like how an episode set at a party where everyone is dosed with hallucinogenic drugs feels free to manipulate the aspect ratio for a gag that is both creepy and hysterical. And yet, season two can’t help but feel more safe, especially as it becomes increasingly clear that certain characters simply aren’t on the chopping block anymore. The second season achieves a consistency that season one never reaches, but it can’t quite match the gnarly free-for-all insanity of those first ten episodes.

But both seasons are ultimately a rewarding mix of slasher horror, Agatha Christie-style mystery, and soapy teen melodrama that is delivered with just enough tongue-in-cheek to work. Like the best slasher movies, you’ll cringe and cover your eyes as a masked killer hunts characters you’ve grown to like. Like a great mystery story, you’ll try to root out the red herrings and determine which of the many suspects could be the maniac behind the mask. Like the best soapy teen melodramas, you’ll let go of your pretensions and just accept that sometimes it’s okay to enjoy watching attractive young people exchange witty banter and agonize over each other.

The first five episodes of The Exorcist are streaming on Hulu and available through the other usual suspects. The sixth episode of the eight-episode season airs this Friday on Fox. Seasons one and two of Scream are both streaming on Netflix. A two-hour Halloween special aired last week.

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