This review contains spoilers.
1.1 Pilot & 1.2 Hell Week
The zany world of Ryan Murphy is a truly strange place be in. With American Horror Story, he essentially crafted four (soon to be five) different TV shows, and for its run-time, Glee remained a wholesome, relatively innocent confection. When the latter show finished, a space opened up on Murphy’s slate and he quickly filled it with Scream Queens.
From its star-spangled cast to the whodunnit aspect to the great Jamie Lee Curtis in a main role, Scream Queens has a lot going for it. Suffice to say there was a weight of expectation heaped upon it but, now that the first two episodes have landed, did it satisfy? The answer to that question isn’t a simple yes or no.
We enter the gilded halls of Kappa Kappa Tau, a barbarically elitist sorority house, through the eyes of plucky university newcomer, Grace Gardner (The DUFF‘s Skyler Samuels, who manages to imbue her character with a shred of likeability) and are soon introduced to its veteran sisters. Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts) sits at the heart of the sorority like a spider at the centre of a web and it takes the first episode to adjust to how overwhelmingly offensive her character is. She’s racist, homophobic and an all-round nasty piece of work. Calling her a mean girl is putting it lightly. To emphasise how much of a queen bee Chanel is, she’s surrounded by three identical stooges nicknamed after their glorious leader (pop star Ariana Grande is Chanel #2, Billie Lourd is Chanel #4 and Abigail Breslin is Chanel #5), simply because Chanel has forgotten their real names. Everything in Scream Queens centres around KKT but across the opening two episodes, penned by Murphy and fellow creators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, we also get a look into preppy fraternity, the Dollar Scholars, and the private life and inner thoughts of long-suffering dean Cathy Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis). It’s a testament to the writing of Murphy, Falchuk and Brennan that Scream Queens establishes its bizarre, unique style right off the bat in a barmy opening scene – and, boy, what a style it is.
Scream Queens is a comedy-horror series, a genre that comes with certain connotations. Essentially, you either go down the Scream route or the Scary Movie route. A lot of people banked on Scream Queens following its (sort-of) namesake but, surprisingly and perhaps more interestingly, it’s more of an out-and-out parody in the vein of Scary Movie. The scene where Ariana Grande’s glamorous minion is offed is a perfect example, likewise with the death of Shondell, one of KKT’s inept security guards. When the Red Devil attacks her, rather than screaming for help, Chanel #2 tries to tweet an SOS after exchanging text messages with her killer. It’s a piece of satire that wouldn’t look out of place in a sketch show but in this context, it just comes off as goofy. Murphy, Falchuk and Brennan are better placed at satirising the modern world in the dialogue than in the almost slapstick deaths. Their send-up of the rich white girl in the form of pumpkin spice latte-sipping Chanel is delightful as well as the hilarious caricature of modern masculinity in the relationship between Dollar Scholars, Boone (Nick Jonas) and Chad (Glen Powell). Similarly, it’s clear that the writers had fun with new pledge Sam in her brief screen-time, poking fun at the idea of the social justice warrior.
The comedy aspect of Scream Queens is certainly well covered with the best jokes in the scripts, regardless of how goofy the performances are. Some of the characters, such as Niecy Nash’s Denise Hempville and Gigi Caldwell (Nasim Pedrad), feel like they’ve walked in from a sitcom, such is their one-dimensionality. Fortunately Scream Queens has an extensive cast that contains plenty of cannon fodder, with one death promised each week, and the horror side to the show is clearly its strong suit, as evidenced in the pilot and Hell Week.
Across the premiere, we saw more than five characters drop dead in some fiendishly gory ways. The death of KKT’s former president by a spray-tan gone wrong was nauseating, poor old Ms “White Mammy” Bean had her face melted off and we saw the grisly results, and it was curtains for ‘Deaf Taylor Swift’ after a nasty encounter with a lawnmower. Those are just a few of the slayings and with thirteen episodes left (that’s thirteen or more deaths), it’s clear that anyone could be for the chop. Some were shocking, others less so (a celebrity of Ariana Grande’s status was never going to stick around for long), but whoever kicks the bucket in the rest of Scream Queens‘ run is bound to meet a sticky end.
With regard to the Red Devil’s victims, it was initially saddening to see Nick Jonas’ Boone go the way of all flesh because he was an entertaining presence (and one of the show’s only LGBT characters). The revelation that he faked his own death and is in league with the Red Devil was a pleasing curveball and proof enough that Ryan Murphy hasn’t lost his knack for surprising plot twists. As for the Red Devil’s identity? Scream Queens has already proved that it could be anyone behind the mask and at present everything points to a conspiracy.
As Chanel, Emma Roberts defaults to Grand High Bitch, an archetype she excels at playing, and her role here isn’t a far cry from the turns she gave in American Horror Story or Scream 4, but it’s a reliably strong performance. Skyler Samuels is excellent, providing a smidgeon of realism to temper the in-your-face wackiness of everything else. Keke Palmer, Diego Boneta and even Nick Jonas provided solid support but some of the other star names have yet to prove themselves. Lea Michele and Abigail Breslin came off as rather underserved in the first two episodes and as both actors have form, it’s disappointing they had little to do. The same can also be said for Jamie Lee Curtis who, while excellent, was off-screen for far too long and we all know that someone as strong as Jamie Lee Curtis ought to be getting plenty to do.
Scream Queens isn’t a drama in the way American Horror Story or Glee was, it’s more of an uber-camp romp with plenty of inspiration taken from Heathers, Scream and Mean Girls. It’s clear why this project attracted such big names because the scripts probably came with a footnote telling everyone to leave their serious acting hat at the door. Scream Queens works by and large because it’s wickedly entertaining, with killer scripts and some excellent performances in the mix. For his latest venture, Ryan Murphy has gone for a combination of darkly funny horror ideas and a cartoonishly tasteless execution, and while that might not sound like a ringing endorsement, Scream Queens just about pulls it off.
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