With a title like that, Freeform’s vacation offering “Dead of Summer” is inviting any number of headline puns: “dead on arrival,” “dead in the water,” “dead boring,” et cetera, ad nauseum. The puns would not be entirely wrong, either; “Dead Of Summer” is a very silly new show that samples nearly every available cliché in the summer-camp-horror genre all at once, making for a messy homage to “Friday The 13th” that reads partly as satire and partly as meditative gothic horror. Nearly every scene in the first three episodes sent to critics is laden with some kind of terrible portent, which I know because the score histrionically hits the strings every time something is supposed to be shocking. That, and usually someone screams. In the astonishingly bad first episode, our bland protagonist Amy (Elizabeth Lail) screams in horror upon encountering: a mouse, a ghost holding a balloon, her own memories, a cute cop she already has a crush on, a dead body, a boy holding a video camera and a bloody deer.
But “Dead of Summer” does have a satisfying campy layer — new headline pun: “putting the camp back in summer camp!” — which lays it on thick with the lurking horror of the woods around Camp Stillwater and the implausibly sophisticated secrets of this batch of horny teenagers. The story follows a group of camp counselors who stumble into a small town teeming with demon worshippers and disgruntled ghosts. The teens are quickly plagued by nightmares that stir up both their own individual demons and create encounters with the haunted spiritual plane of the cursed Lake Stillwater. But of course, no one goes home, because they are too excited to be teenagers free of their parents for a few weeks. In the grand tradition of moralizing terror, alcohol use, drug use and eating disorders each get dinged for creating vulnerabilities for evil to prey on innocents in the first few episodes, though I am putting that a lot more succinctly than the episode manages to. Mostly, “Dead of Summer” is insinuation and visual tricks, where paper-thin characters are either supposed to be scary or scared.
Beyond the crowded, confusing pilot — which shoves characters’ secrets, standing feuds and clandestine romances at the viewer with all the delicacy of a speeding truck — later episodes of “Dead of Summer” are more comprehensible. But the show never stops being mostly ridiculous. Perhaps the silliest conceit of all is that the show is supposed to be set in 1989. In the second episode, a major plot point revolves around a character experiencing anxiety about being called a “commie” because he has a Russian name. In the third episode, one counselor gives another a mixtape. The first song on it is “Jane Says,” by Jane’s Addiction. And in the pilot, a character showily reads a Rolling Stone issue announcing the upcoming “Batman” with Michael Keaton. Maybe this is all an homage to the decade of “Friday The 13th” — and maybe this is a warmed over idea from a few decades ago that only now got a chance to shine. But it’s perplexing, because this is a show on Freeform, a channel directed at young adults. Will today’s high schoolers, born from 1998 to 2002, even know what a mixtape is?
Somehow, the fact that no one is going to get it makes “Dead of Summer” more fleetingly appealing. It’s not knowing enough to be really campy, but it is not so unsophisticated that it isn’t occasionally frightening. And like so many teen dramas are, it is deadly earnest about its characters’ angst, from the boat-shoe wearing jock kid to the ugly duckling who grew up into a teen swan. Borrowing a page from its sister show (and lead-in) “Pretty Little Liars,” there’s even an adult-teen romance with the 40-ish camp director and a camcorder-toting counselor. It’s all very (melo)dramatic, in a way that it’s easy to get lost in; the ups and downs of girls trying to get laid, the back and forth of boys making bets about who they’ll score with.
And though “Dead of Summer” is a period piece, it has a modern lens on racial politics and queer identities. For example, the backstory to the devil worshipping cult includes the murder of a black piano player; it looks like a lynching that used magic as an excuse to get the deed done. And the counselors include a trans character, Drew, who is still keeping this fact a secret when he starts crushing on one of his co-counselors. This is not a show that is particularly original; every twist is a cliché, and every character is playing to type. But with so many well-worn at play, “Dead of Summer” makes for a schlocky hour that never quite gets boring. At the very least, while escaping the dog days of summer inside with the air-conditioning, there’s plenty of fun to be had in laughing at how bad it is.