Screenwriters Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver know how to get the party started and keep it lively.
Everyone is looking for the next high-concept hit. With “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” as massive role models, TV developers have learned that audiences like the thrill of not knowing who in the supporting cast will be around for the next episode. And that’s a model that’s likely to increase as other networks try to find similar, social media-shattering success in shows with high body counts and gore levels that would have shocked audiences just a few years ago. Two such shows premiere this week, MTV’s surprisingly successful “Scream,” based on the hit film by Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven, and CBS’s less successful “Zoo,” based on the book by James Patterson.
If you’re wondering how a slasher movie like “Scream” could possibly be turned into a weekly series, you have just cause. In fact, the show itself references the oddity of its own existence with a similar meta-commentary as the feature film. One character literally says, “You can’t do a slasher movie as a TV series.” And yet that’s exactly what “Scream” sets out to be, with a modern update on the horror movie tropes and technology central to the first film. Instead of Drew Barrymore being terrorized and killed by a maniac who keeps calling her, Bella Thorne’s torment begins the series with a Snapchat clip of her in her own house. Clever. Of course, “Scream” the TV series doesn’t have the cinematic flair that Craven brought to the original film, and that’s a bit disappointing, but right from the first scene there’s a unique energy to the piece. It doesn’t feel like a knock-off or a cheap tie-in. It’s a horror movie in weekly series form.
It’s also a murder mystery. A lot of people might have wanted Bella Thorne’s Nina dead. She was a mean girl, who most recently posted a video of a classmate named Audrey (Bex Taylor-Klaus) making out with another girl in her car. She bullied the boy genius Noah (John Karna), the fill-in for the Jamie Kennedy character from the first film—the guy who knows everything about slasher films and horror shows; maybe too much. Noah also knows a lot about serial killers, including the one who was murdered 20 years ago this weekend after going on a teen-killing spree. Has he returned from the grave? Was he ever really killed? And is it a coincidence that the daughter (Willa Fitzgerald) of the infamous serial killer’s object of obsession is now the same age as her mom?
Obviously, there’s a Neve Campbell character, a Rose McGowan character, a Jamie Kennedy character, etc., but “Scream” also carves (pun only slightly intended) its own path. The weekly series format leads to a number of suspenseful scenes in which a movie would take out a supporting character on its way to a climax but the series is forced to go in another direction. And the script has a number of clever moments, such as when a “Call 911” to Siri produces a call to Pottery Barn and references to “The Walking Dead,” “American Horror Story” and even “Hannibal.” Like those programs, “Scream” is very violent.
Unlike those programs, there’s really no visual language here at all. I wish “Scream” the TV series was a bit more stylish and a bit less visually reminiscent of a WB show in the ‘90s. It needs a bit more style, more dread and more atmosphere, which could come with future episodes (I really wish MTV had made more than just the pilot available). But my initial trepidation at the start of the premiere turned to interest in where it goes from here by the end. That’s really all a pilot needs to do—make you want to watch the next one.
Looking for the next “Under the Dome,” CBS turns to James Patterson instead of Stephen King for the Summer series “Zoo,” a surprisingly dull piece given that it’s about a step in evolution that takes us off of the top of the food chain. Jackson Oz (James Wolk) is an American zoologist in Africa whose dad went crazy while studying animal evolution and theorizing that we were on the cusp of a major change. Jackson and his best friend Abraham (Nonzo Anonzie) are running a safari on which things go very wrong through a series of wildlife attacks. The lions are acting strangely. They are working in tandem to take down enemies. Jackson and Abraham get particularly nervous when they notice multiple male lions in a pack. That doesn’t usually happen.
Meanwhile, lions escape a zoo in Los Angeles and kill a couple people, leading to an investigation by news reporter Jamie Campbell (Kristen Connolly). She’s convinced it’s corporate malfeasance that has led to the mysterious animal behavior, and it takes her into the world of the odd veterinarian Mitch Morgan (Billy Burke). Nora Amezeder fills out the cast as Chloe, a French investigator who Jackson saves in Africa. What is going on? Are the animals really taking over the world? And is there anything we can do to stop them?
“Zoo” is one of those shows I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for watching. It’s got a solid cast—although one can’t help but thing Wolk and Connolly are better than the material they’re given here—and it’s got a typical CBS budget. But, to be blunt, I just didn’t care. It’s dull, plot-driven writing that sinks “Zoo” for me. “What’s happening?” “Here’s what I think is happening.” “Here’s what we should do.” It’s one of those genre pieces in which everyone says what they’re thinking and planning with every line of dialogue. It’s a snooze. And it’s disappointingly dull filmically given that Brad Anderson directed the pilot. Like Wolk and Connolly, Anderson deserved a better script. You do too.