When it comes to movies, being wrong can occasionally be very rewarding. I thought the Dawn of the Dead remake would be unimaginably awful when I sat down to watch it in the spring of 2004, and ended up loving it almost as much as Romero's original - in fact it remains my favorite film of Zack Snyder's. For years I swore up and down that there would never be a boxed set of the Halloween series due to the tangled rights and distribution history, and yet now I have it sitting on my shelf (and I'm even on it, briefly!). And last year, I wrote about how sure I was that a second season of MTV's Scream would be a letdown after the surprisingly enjoyable (if far from perfect) first go-around, and yet here now I sit ready to type "this season was actually better" for another installment of the same column. For a guy that can see the future I'm a pretty good horror movie reviewer.
Now, I'm not talking about a night and day difference here - if you hated the first season, I don't think there was enough of a course correction to completely change your mind. But I can't help but be impressed with how they managed to turn everything I thought would be a weakness into a strength, including the number of episodes. The first season's ten episode run felt padded to me - I suggested fewer (perhaps eight, like Chiller's Slasher), but they actually went ahead and produced TWELVE episodes this season - and yet the pacing seemed better. Sure, there were some tangents of little use (like the motel clerk who served as one of the new killer's victims), but the central mystery was engaging and nearly every scene either involved the new wave of killings or the fallout from Season 1's events. There was no attempt to build up complicated side stories (like the blackmail stuff with Brooke's dad in Season 1) - just excuses to get people alone or off to a necessary location and return focus to the narrative. For example, Brooke's dad was running for re-election, but this wasn't an ongoing, featured subplot - it was just the reason he used to encourage Brooke to take part in a town pageant. And that pageant was of course ruined by the corpse of a victim falling from the rafters and splattering her and the other contestants with his blood.
(Major spoilers for both seasons follow from here, just a warning)
Brooke survived this trauma and, in the finale, another seemingly mortal wound from the killer, which I guess makes her the Dewey of the TV series. But her seeming invincibility did not extend to other major characters - of the season's body count, several were first season characters, including her boyfriend Jake (in the premiere!) and her dad. Overall, even with more episodes the body count was actually a bit lower than Season 1's, but they made them all count (except for the hotel guy, and one of the interchangeable Lakewood deputies) - the first season's tendency to kill off randoms more often than regulars was seemingly one of the things that left with the original showrunners. The new folks that were killed off had gotten a chance to become more or less full-fledged characters before meeting their demise, so while we may have had to go longer without a new death scene, at least they all meant something when they happened. In fact, I was legitimately sad about Zoe's death in episode 10, despite her only having been introduced in this new season (and not even appearing in every episode until that point).
Part of that sadness was due to the fact that she meant a lot to Noah, the series "Randy" substitute in season 1 who shed a lot of that stuff in this new year, ditching his video game store in favor of running a podcast (more or less picking up from Piper's, since she's too dead to keep it going). He's still the one to drop horror movie references (including a nice deep cut about the deleted "fourth act" of April Fool's Day), but he feels more ingrained in the world and the circle of friends this time around, and less of a "Hey we need a guy like Randy". When Brooke visits him in the hospital after he's attacked (pretty much everyone is this year), it doesn't feel weird - they aren't close, sure, but a scene like that in the first season would have reeked of contrivance. In fact, my wish that the series had taken an anthology route was quickly wiped out when I realized the benefit of the "sequel" route - it's a slasher "part two" that allows us to see how everyone is dealing with their shared trauma. The events of the first season reverberate, and our characters - more of a motley group the first time around - have become closer, and changed in different ways. Emma has some serious PTSD going on, Noah's come out of his shell a bit, Audrey's dealing with her involvement... this isn't something we would have gotten had there been a reset, as I originally wished for.
But in my defense, it's just not how slashers usually work. Due to their "body count movie" formula, this genre's sequels don't exactly have a great track record for character followup - almost none of the Friday the 13th survivors ever appeared again, the Halloween series dropped Laurie Strode in favor of Dr. Loomis (who was kind of nuts to begin with), etc. Usually the MO was either to introduce a whole new batch of would-be victims (and keep the same killer), and/or kill off whoever survived right away (see: Alice in Friday the 13th Part 2, or the Dream Warriors in Dream Master). It's perhaps ironic that the Scream MOVIE series is one of the only exceptions, as Scream 2 brought back five characters and only offed one (Randy), with another dropping in the 3rd film's opening (Cotton). By Scream 4, we had really gotten to know Dewey, Gale, and Sidney, and it was our connection to them that gave those last two films their only real value (I'd argue Dewey and Gale actually had more going on than Sidney, for what it's worth). It was nice to catch up with them every couple of years, even if the writing wasn't as consistent as I would have liked. Same goes for here - by now I've actually grown to care about the "Lakewood Six" (though it's Lakewood *Five* by the end of the first episode), and unlike that core trio from the films, I no longer believe any of the heroes here to be completely safe forever - the series has proven your billing doesn't mean you're immortal.
Or, at least, immune from switching sides. I started suspecting Kieran a few episodes back (the one where "Audrey and Emma" threw that big party that was actually run by Haley and the killer), and paid attention to anything that could throw that off, finding nothing - but that doesn't mean there might be incidents in the early part of the season that make zero sense in retrospect. It's the nature of such things and can only be really avoided if the writers know who the killer is going to be from the start, so even if season 2 holds up I don't know if I can say the same for season 1, especially given Kieran's motive (he was a boyfriend of Piper's who had been helping her all along and was now seeking revenge for her death). I'm sure someone has the series memorized and could confirm/deny such goofs (I'd check myself if I had the time), but with that said, if it DOES all hold up from S1 on, I'd be damn impressed. Because I was trying to think of another time where a whodunit sequel allowed a character from the original to be the killer, and couldn't think of one - it's ALWAYS been a new character (closest exception was, heh, Scream 2 being Billy's mom, since she was at least MENTIONED in the first film). Granted, this is a very small pool of options to choose from, as whodunit slasher sequels aren't exactly common as they tend to favor returning villains like Michael Myers. Urban Legend and Friday the 13th Part 5 might be the only other ones, now that I think of it.
Another thing that worked about this year was that more episodes had their own identity. They didn't pull a "Fly" or "Across The Sea" on us or anything, but a focus on big events made them easier to tell apart weeks after viewing. There was the dance/rave one, the town fair one, the lockdown one, etc. Similarly, they hired more interesting directors to balance things out with the show's roster of in-house directors like Jamie Travis and Leigh Janiak. The first season gave us Rodman Flender (who directed Idle Hands and one of the Leprechaun sequels) and Ti West, but there were more than twice as many this time - Daniel Stamm (Last Exorcism), Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes), Evan Katz (Cheap Thrills), and Gil Kenan (Monster House), plus Flender again. But the real nice surprise was Patrick Lussier helming the season finale - not only is he a solid director in his own right (My Bloody Valentine 3D), but he gave the series a rare dose of connective tissue to the series, as he edited the first three films (a job he served on several of Wes Craven's films), making him the first movie participant to take an active role on the TV series beyond a few (ceremonially-credited) producers. The finale had two fine nods to Scream 2 - a police car scene that briefly recalled one of that film's highlights, and a climax where two guys - one innocent, one the killer - are trying to convince the heroine of their innocence (and, alas, the innocent one gets shot to death).
So what didn't work as well? Not too much, thankfully; there was some soapy elements to the earlier episodes, when Emma was striking up a romance with Eli (Kieran's cousin) and Brooke was getting close to Gustavo (the season's weakest new character, a typical red herring who acts suspicious for no logical reason), but eventually it more or less subsided. Plus, it IS MTV after all - this is the sort of stuff I expect going in, and why I keep my phone nearby to check Twitter or catch a Pokemon if I can tell the romantic teen drama is going to take center stage for a scene or two (that said, Zoe and Noah's romance was quite sweet - and the tearing of his "The Virgin Stabbing" poster during the loss of his virginity was a great sight gag). A few too many characters had tragic secrets that would only surface in order to explain why they were being so shady, and while it was an admirable idea, I never bought the possibility that Emma was cracking up and killing everyone herself, making any such scene (i.e. her nightmares) a waste of time. But, considering they had only a few new characters to develop and two more hours to fill, it could have been a real slog - when the season began, I wouldn't have been surprised if we got lots of pointless classroom scenes or even more extraneous padding ("Hey let's see what Noah's parents are like!"), but even before the halfway point I could tell they were more or less focused on telling their (slightly over-convoluted*) story, not filling out time for the sake of doing so.
Like I said, I don't know if the improvements would be enough to change your mind if you weren't a fan of the first season, and it's not like I'm ready to fight anyone who dismisses the show. But I was never more than an episode behind, which speaks volumes for me (to compare, I'm still on the 5th episode of Daredevil. Of season ONE.), and I was downright charmed by how they managed to turn nearly every single one of my fears for the second season into an asset. And the misdirection of letting an "old" character turn out to be the killer after a season's worth of new characters turned out to be red (dead?) herrings was borderline brilliant for a slasher "movie" - how crazy would it be if Scream 2's killer turned out to be Dewey or Randy? The show has yet to be renewed for a full third season, but there is an epilogue of sorts coming this Halloween that will clear up some of the season's questions (presumably, who called Kieran in the final scene, and what the hell is Brooke going to do now that her dad is dead and her mom is permanently MIA), so it's nice to know we haven't seen the end of these characters just yet. But I'd really love to see a 3rd season that retains this relative level of quality - it could finally claim to top the movies on something if their 3rd go-around lived up to the standards of the first two. I'll be watching to find out, that's for sure - no more uncertainty on my part.
*I hope season 3 or the Halloween special explains why Kieran needed to A) involve Seth Branson at all and B) prolong his death. Maybe I just missed something, but it seemed silly at the time and even sillier when Kieran was unmasked and revealed his plan to get revenge specifically on Audrey and Emma - neither of whom had any ongoing connection to Branson.