MTV’s Scream the TV series is a tremendously white affair. This is important to remember considering how this television adaptation of the iconic series of self-aware late-90s slasher films exists at a potentially unique intersection of some notably un-unique genres. Small screen teen drama and big screen horror have unmistakably hooked up before to produce an array of hybrid monstrosities and gems, most notably Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, more recently, Teen Wolf. But the spirit of this cliche cocktail has been present throughout young people television for some time, from story arcs of One Tree Hill (“Nanny Carrie” anyone?) to pretty much all of Pretty Little Liars. Even as far back as 1996, when the original Scream was released to theaters, the success of the film relied heavily on the appeal of Party of Five darling Neve Campbell. Subsequent films made sure to roll out Teen Choice and MTV Movie Award mainstays, Tori Spelling (in 2) and Scott Foley (in 3) to name a few, to reinforce the intuitive relationship between youthful melodrama and horrific violence, cheerleaders and bloodshed. But while MTV’s new series doubles down on this style of storytelling with a familiar branding that should signal the looks and smarts that make this sort of thing worthwhile, Scream the TV series does a great job of reminding us of how homogenous those looks can be in this space.
Twenty-five years ago Beverly Hills 90210 didn’t wow anyone with its diversity. The stark lack of racial representation was sadly par for course with television of the time and forced a generation of non-white fans to simply suck it up and accept implicit rejection from the fictional upper-class world of the Walshes et al. (With exceptions: Remember that time Brandon set his white privileged eyes on a young Vivica Fox but her family was basically chased out of town before he could find out how Jungle Fever ended? Or when Cress Williams, as D’Shawn of course, threatened to blackmail Brandon but in reality just wanted help with his homework? Or when Brandon . . . wait Brandon Walsh apparently had a thing for Black people.) But the exclusion of significant people of color readily spread from Beverly Hills to Melrose Place to Capeside to the O.C. throughout the 90s and early aughts. Film wasn’t much different and hasn’t been throughout the history of Hollywood but televisions glowed brightly in homes, each and every day, intimately raising a generation of multi-cultured Americans. When One Tree Hill, a show predominately about basketball in its initial outings, unveiled Black characters consistently speaking on consecutive episodes, many rejoiced. Tokenism goes a long way in this space of teenage angst, perhaps because of the monopoly white youngsters have had on televised emotion for so long. 2008’s rebooted 90210 showcased Tristan Wilds as an adopted Black son in the modern analog to the Walshes, as if to explicitly say that it was not 1990 anymore. Couple this with Bianca Lawson’s multi-decade career of being a Black teenage girl with feelings everywhere from Bayside to Sunnydale to Mystic Falls to Rosewood, and you may begin to think that the bare minimum of non-white representation started to mean something to creators. That it started to mean, at least in 2015, television (and film) should look more like its audience.
1997’s Scream 2 was an exceptional film, if only because it was a film about film. It was about how a horror or slasher movie should play out as much as how it actually does play out. Subversion of these established tropes became the point of the film as well as the goal of the characters that wished to survive. Randy Meeks, played by Jamie Kennedy, consistently presses his wry wit and knowledge of the genre against the fourth wall in all sorts of winks to the audience but with a very real desire for self-preservation. That’s overt. What is more subtle but just as significant is how each and every Black person in the film flirts with the same sort of self-awareness. From the very beginning, Jada Pinkett’s discomfort during the viewing of the movie-within-the-movie (or sequel-within-the-sequel “Stab 2”) is simply due to how threatened and unsafe every person of color should feel in these situations. She and her date Omar Epps eventually and predictably die, but Duane Martin says it explicitly later on in the film, “Brothers don’t last long in situations like this,” before he dies as well. The idea here is that these Black characters are tokens, not simply to any liberal sensibility of the time, but of the form of film itself. Staples of the genre. But Jada Pinkett, Omar Epps, and Duane Martin (which admittedly is a pretty impressive list of alums) aren’t left out of the uniquely introspective nature of the Scream franchise. They exhibit a keen understanding of their status as minorities and their eminent danger in this world, but their existence is nonetheless indispensable to it.
Scream the TV series has seen fit to dispense with any semblance of racial inclusion. Albeit, this type of “why ain’t there enough x in this” argument always has its detractors, rightfully so. The show is exploring a queer teen character and admittedly there is in fact a person of color in the group of young actors. Asian American actress Brian Tju. It’s not much of a spoiler in a series centered around mass murder to acknowledge that her role is short-lived, but, after five episodes as of this write up, it’s more than fair to acknowledge this series to still be severely lacking in color, amongst other things. And it’s unsettling, to say the least. The bland characterizations leave a lot to be desired, but the Scream branding implies something purposeful is afoot. We find Randy Meeks’s television counterpart fairly easily in the character of Noah Foster, played well enough by John Karna. But every other character seems to miss the spot in their attempts at pantomiming the usual suspects: horny jocks, the vapid mean girls, the reluctantly popular belle of the ball, the bad boy, etc. The familiar face of Bex Taylor-Klaus, though always welcome, does nothing to repair the missteps of casting and writing.
Nonetheless, its hearty lineage alone would invite an interpretation of the whole series as satire, just as MTV’s commitment to making this show a reality perhaps hints at some parody. Each time the big bad texts the main character Emma, there’s no way any respectable tween of the past decade would not immediately conjure up thoughts of A’s ominously threatening texts to the Pretty Little Liars set. But time and time again the mark is missed for an effective satire of any sort. And it’s been nearly 20 years since the Scream franchise actually had anything left to subvert or add commentary to. The horror beats of the new series don’t hold up at all against what we consider televised horror to be in 2015: not nearly as artful as Hannibal, not as charismatic as American Horror Story, and decapitated heads are so Game of Thrones season one. So why resurrect Ghostface in 2015 (notably without the actual Ghostface, essentially the mascot of the Scream-iverse) as a lackluster reaffirmation of how perpetually threatened white people feel? It may be the network is simply nostalgic for those MTV Movie Awards of the mid-90s, where teenagers looked to the golden popcorn as a representation of their voice and as a reflection of their generation. MTV is, as Bob Weinstein of the Weinstein Co., the notorious studio responsible for the original film series, has recently claimed, “where the teens reside.” It’s unclear if he’s right or if this was ever actually true. But the only thing the existence of Scream the TV series makes clear is that white people are still very afraid. And generally, it’s at the expense of colored faces.