'Dead of Summer': TV Review

Dead of Summer Still Elizabeth Lail H 2016
Katie Yu/Disney
A cruel, cruel 'Summer,' indeed.

Freeform's new period summer camp drama has a 'Lost' pedigree, but little sense of its own identity.

This isn't a spoiler because I know nothing for sure, but there's at least a chance that Freeform's new drama Dead of Summer will turn out to be a Scooby-Doo story in disguise.

If that's the case, if all of the supernatural occurrences transpiring around Camp Stillwater in 1989 turn out actually to be the product of a rival camp owner attempting to buy up land to expand his empire, I may owe Dead of Summer the smallest of apologies. If it's all a contrived ruse, a masked conspiracy, then some of the woeful horror execution, belabored faux spookiness and wooden performances will be explained and partially justified by the narrative, and the producers will be able to say, "We weren't trying to be scary and clever at all, since this was just a poorly evolved plan executed by a bunch of amateur criminals."

I get the feeling that reveal would probably tick off some viewers, because that's not how Dead of Summer is being marketed or how it presents itself. The series lacks the tonal consistency and pervasive fun to achieve even a low level of Scooby-Doo-ishness, but deciding "We're being this bad intentionally" at least covers a few sins.

I suspect, though, that Dead of Summer is just run-of-the-mill unintentionally bad — a mishmash of genres and structures and stock characters that maybe aspires to something original and falls flat. After watching three episodes, I'm not all that interested in seeing if its badness becomes meta.

Actually, to give credit, the fault in Dead of Summer is not completely conceptual. Created by Once Upon a Time veterans Adam Horowitz, Edward Kitsis and Ian Goldberg, the show could be pitched as something along the lines of Friday the 13th meets Lost, in which the horrifying events at a summer camp are interspersed with flashback episodes for each counselor, playing off the familiar trope that summer camp is a place of reinvention, a three-month escape from the identities we're stuck with in the real world and the slasher genre's inevitable unmasking of killers. In a place where you can be whatever you want to be, what if it turns out that what you want to be is a hatchet-wielding maniac? Sold! This is a show I would watch with some eagerness.

I would also watch a show tied to summer camp experiences circa 1989. Though I'm a couple years younger than the main characters in Dead of Summer, who are fledgling counselors at a camp reopening after a five-year hiatus of unspecified cause, there are enough little details here that feel accurate and universal. From the nose goes "Not it" game to cabin raids, nights off at local bars, poorly chosen movie nights and tetherball ubiquity, enough things had me nodding in recognition that I was sometimes able to ignore the nagging inconsistencies. Those include Dead of Summer's uncertain sense of how big its central summer camp is, what its general geography is, how many campers and non-featured counselors there are or why a summer camp would be able to open one day after a corpse is found in the communally used lake.

In the broad strokes, Camp Stillwater isn't the least bit convincing, but I believe Horowitz, Kitsis and Goldberg went to camp and just happened to be more invested in the little things. The '80s period details aren't bad either, with a couple solid soundtrack choices and the occasional decorative or costuming decision that earned a smile.

That, unfortunately, is where the credit ends.

Dead of Summer isn't really Friday the 13th meets Lost at all, because rather than keeping a close focus on a single slasher and a growing body count — a circumstance that would have made it impossible for the camp to remain open — the scary backdrop involves paranoia about Satanic cults, somewhat embellishing a very real media fascination from the late '80s. There's also an assortment of paranormal happenings including possible hallucinations, possible camp-controlled dreams, malevolent townies, spectral images appearing on video, Tony Todd as a mysterious figure initially only dubbed The Tall Man and the inevitable crime that took place on the camp's land a century earlier.

You name the non-slasher cliche and Dead of Summer fulfills it, with the non-slasher restriction limiting the show's body count to "Almost nothing relevant" and limiting the scare factor to "People shrieking at things that aren't there or aren't scary." In the pilot alone, Elizabeth Lail's Amy, the new girl in this camp circle, shrieks at least four times about things that are no threat to her, as the series commits aggressively to the cheapest of cheap shock scares as a substitute for any real terror. Subsequent episodes are less heavy on Amy shrieking, thankfully, but they fail to introduce any real primal fear.

Wicker Man quickly proves to be a primary influence, but costumed cultists who may or may not be there prove more funny than scary, yielding a really uninteresting muddle over what is or isn't happening. Are genuinely haunting things happening or is it Hypothetical Old Man Jenkins from across the lake who would have gotten away with it if it weren't for these meddling kids? With casualties either implied or kept offscreen, there are no stakes and no reason to care.

There's also very little reason to care because none of the meddling kids is especially engaging, even when we start getting their backstories. Playing Cricket, a counselor who feels insecure about her weight and is unable to distinguish between good and bad romantic attention, Amber Coney is the young cast's standout by several orders of magnitude, even salvaging the third episode's dumpster fire of a backstory that was both predictable and, in resolution, truly irksome. Coney's also notable because she wrote the recent Lifetime remake of Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?, a flawed but still intellectually engaged piece of genre examination/deconstruction. It's not a good sign when the best performance on your show comes from a supporting actor and the most promising writer associated with your show isn't actually writing on your show.

Coney is somebody to watch, but she's not a reason to watch Dead of Summer, which is weighted down by entirely too many clunker performances. It's an act of mercy that I won't list the mostly unknown actors who are unable to redeem sketchily written parts best glossed over as The Preppy Guy With a Secret, The Enthusiastic Young Filmmaker Who Keeps Saying Dumb Things About Movies, The Stoner Who Isn't Portrayed as a Stoner But Lets the Show Do a Bad Acid-Trip Sequence, The Gay Guy Who Can't Figure Out a Really Really Really Obvious Secret, The Local Deputy Who Isn't Convincingly the Age He's Supposed to Be and The Girl Who Didn't Used to Be Hot But Now Is Hot Making Her Identical to The Other Hot People.

There are no winners here, and this is the kind of ensemble that actually makes you root for a weekly death toll (of characters, not of actors — I'm not a monster) that Dead of Summer is sorely lacking.

Other than ties to the creators from Lost and Once Upon a Time, Elizabeth Mitchell's role as camp director has little to recommend it through three episodes, but most smart viewers will make the same guess regarding what might lure an actress like this to a project like this. I admit to some amusement at Andrew J. West, actually really good as the leader at Terminus on The Walking Dead, playing a ridiculously scruffy townie possibly tied to a Satanic cult, with the comically on-the-nose name of Damon Crowley. What, "Loucifer Koresh" and "Seitan C. Manson" were taken?

There's a different version of Dead of Summer in which having a character half-named after the Antichrist and half-named after the 20th century's most notorious occultist prophet would be part of a general wink-and-nudge approach to a slew of genre conventions. The actual version premiering Tuesday night on Freeform is not that fun, smart or creative, and not satisfyingly scary, mysterious or disturbing either. Somebody else will have to let me know if Shaggy and Scooby end up unlocking the secrets of Dead of Summer, a twist that would make the series understandable, but not better.

Cast: Elizabeth Mitchell, Elizabeth Lail, Amber Coney, Mark Indelicato, Eli Goree, Ronen Rubinstein, Paulina Singer, Alberto Frezza, Zelda Williams, Zachary Gordon
Creators: Adam Horowitz, Edward Kitsis and Ian Goldberg
Airs: Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Freeform)