From 50 miles away in the dark of a foggy night Scream Queens could be recognized as a product by the infamous producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, again joined by producer Ian Brennan with whom they collaborated on their successful series Glee before. If that’s a good or a bad thing, is for you to decide.
The pilot episode starts with a flashback to a sorority (Kappa Kappa Tau) house party in 1995. It takes a nasty turn when one member asks her sorority sisters for help in an unpleasant incident on the upper floor: Unaware that she had been pregnant for the last nine months, a sister has given birth to a baby in a bathtub. Of course her precious friends are rather annoyed by this interruption and don’t want to miss the important social event taking place downstairs, so they decide to handle the delicate situation afterwards. Which unsurprisingly turns out as a very bad decision, as the young mother died of blood loss in the meantime. That only paves the way for another bad decision, namely to let the corpse disappear without alerting the police, while the fate of the baby remains mysterious. Thankfully none of the party guests noticed anything, because TLC’s “Waterfalls” was blasting from the speakers. You see, this starts out pretty tasteless, cheap and platitudinous already, a sign that Falchuk and Murphy managed to successfully squeeze their trademark characteristics into the first five minutes, respect.
Fast forward to 2015, KKT is now under the regime of the upper class chick Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts), a horrible human being who addresses her closest sisters as “Chanel #[consecutive number]” according to their rank. She is confronted by the Dean Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis!), who has an ongoing feud with the sorority system and openly states that she thinks Chanel killed her predecessor, who died because someone filled her tan spray cans with acid. By convincing the slightly confused sorority chief Gigi (excellent: Nasim Pedrad) to force the sorority to accept every girl that wants to be a member, Munsch cleverly attempts to erode the elitist foundation of the sorority system. And really, soon a bunch of colourful outsiders, among them the series’ heroine Grace (awful: Skyler Samuels) who wants to join to honour her dead mother who was also a member, invades the sorority house in hope to become sisters and boost their social status. And that’s not the last shocking moment for Chanel, because a serial killer in a red devil-costume from the bargain bin starts killing off the members and the sisters have their hands full with hiding the corpses that keep piling up to avoid a scandal…. A slasher movie/”Whodunit” scenario filled with plenty of red herrings and creative deaths ensues.
There is no proof of any attempt by Falchuk/Murphy to grow artistically in any way with Scream Queens. It’s practically a blend of two of their biggest hits, a streamlined fusion of American Horror Story and Glee, an unashamedly self-indulgent product right out of the comfort zone. While the genre, the social exploitation angle and some of the camera antics are owed to AHS, the antiseptic look, the squeaky-clean attractive cast and the cutesy, (pseudo-) witty dialogue are right out of hell… I mean Glee. I’d even claim that the tone of the new series veers more strongly to the latter than the former, but thank god they spared us with the singing. “Don’t stop believing..” Yeah, but you make me want to.
Now if you, like me, had your share of F/M shows, some of the elements presented in Scream Queens might appear stale already. Falchuk and Murphy never really placed importance on storytelling values like a sound characterization, a meaningful, logical plot development or a consistent tone. It’s all about sensationalism, exploitation and shock – and show value and if you are aware of and able to appreciate that, they usually deliver, or at least most of the times. In the best case, you are in for a wild yet amusing ride and in the worst case it’s a headache- inducing mess not unlike a morning after a night of mixing alcoholic drinks at the bar.
What should be noted about this approach is that under all the ridiculous pretense of provocation and anarchy, it’s pure calculation. That does not mean it does not work, but it reached the point, which is observable in Scream Queens, where it went from being a shtick to becoming outright mechanical. And then all the damn cynicism. I am myself an admirer of cynical entertainment, but even cynicism has to be earned somehow. The plot of Scream Queens takes full advantage of the implications that come with its setting, the social-darwinist snake pit that is a university/college campus, but it does not really take a clear position or add something new and witty to this well-known scenario, there is no interesting conclusion to be made from all the cruelty on display. This is not nihilism, that’s just laziness wrapped up in a mean-spirited attitude.
On the other hand, we should maybe be glad that Murphy/Falchuk did not try to insert any messages, because that has never been their strength, see the misguided socio-critical subtexts they occasionally tried to cram into some of the AHS episodes. Apart from some cringe-worthy attempts to explain the mindset of Millennials, that are probably based on “research” done by ploughing through tumblr-posts, Scream Queens shuns any real relevance like the devil (sic!) holy water.
Prepare for some passages filled with painful dialogue, a full-on cutesy attack of wise-ass faux-wittiness, like the (assumed) “final girl” Grace’s flirty banter with a coffee-shop barista that starts with introducing herself as “Miss Awesome”. Speaking of Grace, what a charmless, smug and bland protagonist that is, adequately awfully portrayed by Skyler Samuels. I get that Falchuk/Murphy usually don’t include genuinely likable characters in their productions, but shouldn’t the lead in a slasher story possess a few endearing traits? Even Chanel (a serviceable performance by Emma Roberts, who basically repeats her role from AHS: Coven) is more easily to identify with, as her character is more faceted than Grace at least.
Main attraction of the cast is Jamie Lee Curtis of course, the show’s counterpart to Jessica Lange in AHS, but while she expectedly does a great job, the writers already steered her character into a direction I don’t like during the first two episodes and I hope her inclusion does not end up as a wasted opportunity. Most of the other cast members are solid, if sometimes hampered in their performance by the silly lines they have to utter. Awards for standout performances go to Abigail Breslin as the obedient Chanel #5 and Nasim Pedrad as the irritating sorority chief Gigi Caldwell. Leah Michele as the odd “Neckbrace girl”, Keke Palmer as the clever Zayday and Oliver Hudson as Grace’s super-softie dad are also quite funny.
Don’t expect too much from the horror aspect, it’s apart from a few nice kills mostly teen slasher movie silliness. Which does not not have to be a bad thing at all, but a scene that has the killer meeting his victim face-to-face and still conversing with her via text messages -including the line “I am going to kill you now”, followed by the reply “Wait, what?”- is a low point of juvenile humour that would be rejected as too corny by the scriptwriters of Scream 7.
Nonetheless, the show has enough upsides to consider it being worthy to be followed. Its biggest strength must be the flawless pacing that adds a lot to the entertainment value. A particularly bad line of dialogue does not have time to sink in because it is immediately followed by a gnarly death scene or an absurd plot twist, so the audience is not bored for a second and the more awful moments are more bearable as they never linger on for too long. Another plus is the, compared to AHS, relatively focused, straightforward approach that did not set up ten subplots and threw in all but the kitchen sink- yet. Fingers crossed it stays that way, because then Scream Queens could become my “guilty pleasure watch” of this season. Junk will stay junk, but as long as it is good junk and consumed in moderate doses, it can be good for your mental hygiene. Slasher movies are my poison, what choice do I have?
Enjoyably awful, awfully enjoyable.
Scream Queens started on Sept, 22 and airs every Tuesday on FOX.