Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
A lot about Freeform’s new mystery/thriller Dead of Summer bathes in overkill ’80s camp in the best ways possible. The music is synth-heavy and obnoxious to just the right extent, the setting is ominously idyllic, and its characters rock their mysterious backstories as much as their tubular nicknames (“Cricket” and “Blotter,” for starters). The show’s cheesy thrills, wherein rodents and “innocent” counselors sub in for jump scares 100% of the time every time, are just energetic and economical enough to wrap you up in a script that, unfortunately, shows its tween-friendly Freeform-ness more often than not.
And that’s where Dead of Summer stalls; creators Adam Horowitz, Edward Kitsis, and Ian Goldberg have worked on Once Upon A Time (the latter two on Lost, so keep an eye out for the Apollo bar) for years now, and they weave together main stories into information-teasing flashbacks with the best of ’em. But they feel like they’re working with kid gloves on Dead of Summer, and that’s even with the family-friendly context of Once Upon a Time in mind. The first three episodes of the show are promising – far more than some recent TV mysteries – but they lack edge and guts, in a way that makes Dead of Summer‘s decidedly supernatural approach to this type of mayhem feel ghostly thin.
But at least they nail a tone. Things start off when Camp Stillwater reopens its doors in the summer of 1989 to a busload of popped-collar, Batman-quoting, Geraldo Rivera referencing teens each with a past more hazy, and potentially dangerous, as the camp itself. There’s virginal final girl Amy (Elizabeth Lail), seersucker-obsessed Alex (Ronen Rubinstein), budding pothead Blotter (Zachary Gordon), promiscuous wannabe Cricket (Amber Coney), film buff Joel (Eli Goree), bad boy Drew (Zelda Williams), and token gay Blair (Mark Indelicato). Heading everything up is camp owner Deb (Elizabeth Mitchell), who doesn’t escape Dead of Summer‘s closet full of skeletons backstory trope.
It’s not as exhausting as it sounds, fortunately. The pilot is probably the weakest episode of the first three (which hints at a positive uptick for the show moving forward), playing up an opening ghostly reveal that goes nowhere fast within the framework of the series’ first 40 minutes, and not giving any of its side characters endearing dimension. The focus of that hour is timid Amy, whose the only newbie in a gaggle of kids who have grown up together, and is at camp to escape her past. The show is, at times, a red herring and urban legend factory, full of lakes that “stare back at you” and bleeding trees and weird stone structures in the woods. It’s to Dead of Summer‘s benefit then – and a showcase of Kitsis and Horowitz’s talent – that its flashback structure fits into the pseudo-slasher/murder mystery genre like a grim glove; by the end of the pilot’s twisted little flashback, Amy isn’t so innocent anymore.
The flashbacks are pretty consistent, as well, with further hours delving into the origins of *gasp* Alex’s Ralph Lauren collection (it’s funner than expected, and weirdly relevant) and Cricket’s home-grown self-hate issues. Dead of Summer sometimes doesn’t know what to do with this information in the present, though, and it makes a few of the flashbacks feel like stopgaps for generating tenuous tension in the main story, which does a disservice to both. The nuance of a Lost flashback is sometimes, well, lost when Dead of Summer beats you over the head with how something in someone’s past is making them act in the present. But that’s just another indicator of the show’s biggest question mark (or potential downfall): its main mystery is a bit of a mess, and it suffers even more from Dead of Summer‘s lack of a gutsy follow-through.