MTV’s ‘Scream’ Adaptation Is a Surprisingly Strong Addition to the Franchise

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MTV’s television adaptation of Scream isn’t shy about its origins. It wears the films’ history on its sleeve, reveling in meta commentary, callbacks, and homages to the horror franchise — for better and worse.

Somehow, though, MTV’s Scream is far better than expected. The announcement of the series, which happened three years ago, was quickly met with a combination of criticism and curiosity. It does sort of make sense that MTV would want to adapt those movies: They have built-in name recognition, and Scream provides an easy way for the network to combine horror-comedy with its growing emphasis on teen drama. Whether or not MTV succeeded in this combination has yet to be seen — ten episodes will air this season — but the pilot is a surprisingly strong start that makes the case for sticking around.

It doesn’t take long for Scream to establish its horror-comedy tone. In a necessary update, the series is decidedly more tech-heavy than the original 1996 movie (think: iMessage instead of Drew Barrymore’s cordless phone), and it’s a change that mostly works. Sometimes this theme is a bit too strong, like in the opening montage that features images of YouTube comments and iPhone messages — the entire catalyst to a murder seems to be a cyber-bullying incident in which a group of popular kids out a lesbian classmate with a “FACE SUCK EXTRAVAGANZA” video. But when it comes to the eight-minute-long cold-open murder (which MTV has posted in a prefew preview), the tech obsession works much better. Scream finds horror in text message alerts, the green light signaling that your MacBook’s camera is on, and even the ways in which iPhones won’t work with wet fingers. The silly humor is there, too: Running away from a severed head that landed in her hot tub, Nina (Bella Thorne) instructs Siri to call 911, but the phone dials Pottery Barn instead.

Scream is predictably meta. Filling in for Jamie Kennedy is nerdy-cute Noah (John Karna), a self-proclaimed obsessive on the subject of serial killers, who likens his fascination to the way other guys get into sports. Noah is tasked with much of the meta-fun in the series. In an English class about gothic horror — The Walking Dead and American Horror Story both get name-checked, updating the franchise’s horror references — Noah explains, “You can’t do a slasher movie as a TV series” because “slasher movies burn bright and fast. TV needs to stretch things out.” It’s MTV’s oh-so-clever way of acknowledging its challenges with this adaptation, of bringing up critics’ criticisms before we can get a chance to. In another monologue, Noah basically lays out the reason why we should care about the series: it’s the characters that make the movie; if we care enough about them, we’ll watch a slow-burn slasher television series.

It’s a good enough reason, although Scream has yet to give us many reasons why we should care about these kids. They are stock characters: popular girls like Nina and Brooke (Carlson Young), who run the school and torture unpopular girls like film geek Audrey (Bex Taylor-Klaus), who is targeted while she’s figuring out her sexuality. There is Emma (Willa Fitzgerald), the nicest of the popular girls, who used to be friends with Audrey, until high school hierarchy got in the way. She ties everything together, not just the students, but the murder as well: her mother (Tracy Middendorf) is a coroner linked to a serial killer from 20 years ago — who may or may not have died, and who may or may not be responsible for the murder that kicked off the series.

The TV series also introduces a new mystery guy, Kieran (Amadeus Serafini), who is hot enough to have chemistry with whoever he looks at, along with rich kid with a rich name Will Belmont (Connor Weil), Emma’s unfaithful boyfriend. There are even more characters to take in within the first hour, which gets a little confusing (especially as some of the teens are interchangeable so far), but MTV has done more with less (Awkward., Faking It) in the past.

MTV has also ruined perfectly good premises before, so any hesitance viewers feel going into Scream is understandable, especially because of the franchise’s popularity. The show does get a little yawn-inducing when it slogs through typical teen drama storylines — popular vs. unpopular, a teacher/student affair. But at least the story remains self-aware through the party scenes (Noah and a friend joke that they aren’t safe from a killer because of “hormones and beer”), and picks up with the actual murder mystery and a good, old-fashioned slasher flick mentality. The violence isn’t too gory, but it’s certainly more than you’d expect from MTV (again, there’s a severed head within the first ten minutes). The moments of real terror aren’t quite up to the challenge, either, but they’re efficient enough. There’s a lot of promise in Scream‘s pilot, and it’s worth tuning in.