“This is what college is all about: trying out new things and ideas. Learning how not to be afraid to be wrong.”

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You know, a little fear would be nice, Scream Queens. And I’m not talking about when it comes to Grace accusing people of being serial killers. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When Ryan Murphy invented the genre of “comedy-horror” for the purposes of Scream Queens, such a declaration was met with appropriate mocking; that was simply a result of it being the invention of something that already existed. But week in and week out, the sounds of Murphy and company patting themselves on the back for their originality and brilliance of Scream Queens can be heard at times. It’s the sound heard whenever the cast talks about how great of a character Chanel Oberlin is, because she can say the horrible things people (“people”?) want to say out loud. But it can also be heard within the show itself, and that’s certainly the case in the opening teaser of this week’s episode, “Mommie Dearest.” It’s not in the scene with Grace and Munsch, as that’s a scene that only exists to set it up: No, it’s in the scene where Scream Queens has the wholly original idea of having Jamie Lee Curtis do an Psycho “homage.” If “comedy-horror” is what the show is all about, it’s moments like this—and the majority of the episode—that make it clear that there’s really only a surface level understanding of horror. Sort of like the episode’s surface level of mommy issues, which just so happen to be a big part of Psycho.

The sound of back-patting then continues when Munsch uses her “Eurasian”-lover-learned fighting skills (and if this were a Ryan Murphy show in the late 1990s or early 2000s, it would be Tae Bo) on the Red Devils, and it’s full-on back-applause once she gives “Antonin Scalia” a piece of her mind in the spiritual successor to the cafeteria scene.

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In more capable hands, the Dean Munsch scenes in the beginning of the episode could be great. In fact, “Mommie Dearest” could be a pretty good episode of Scream Queens. Unfortunately, it’s weighed down by a lot of bad and mediocre in the first half of the episode, and it doesn’t truly go past exposition o’clock, even after last week’s episode. The biggest problem with the Psycho bit is that its placement in the series is clearly solely because of sweeps. Because in order to truly pay homage to that particular moment in cinema—as well as make a show that’s actually willing to do some consequential killing—it would have either made that one of the first scenes of the series or at least made it a scene fairly early on in the season’s run. Instead, the Janet Leigh of Scream Queens has already come in the form of Ariana Grande, who wasn’t even credited as a series regular in an attempt to surprise people and has shown up more than once since her death. Despite the word “horror” in comedy-horror, Scream Queens becomes less about that (and less capable of that) with each passing week. And the “comedy” really isn’t strong enough for the show to focus on that instead.

It’s not until the death of of Jennifer the candle girl and the subsequent memorial scene around the half-way mark that the episode really starts to pick up, but even with the former, the horror and tension is sorely lacking. In fact, a lot of this week’s moments having to do with the killer are really less about the horror of any of it and more about the fact that the killers have so much time and don’t appear to use it to get any better at killing. In fact, they’re devolving. As the audience learns in the final scene of the episode, there’s really not a much for them to do besides workout and kill people—at least when you’re currently pretending to be dead.

By the way, Boone’s long-awaited return and confirmation of what we already gathered about the situation (much like Gigi’s previous “we’re killers!” phone call) is unfortunately a symptom of this episode’s particular sense of humor; the least funny things are the ones that the episode wants us to find very funny, like Munsch’s “hypothetically” speech with Grace or Boone’s “Joaquin Phoenix” disguise. And Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is a pretty solid sight gag until the episode (again) pats itself on the back for it.

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So far, Scream Queens’ decision to tip its hand with the Red Devils is a choice that doesn’t make too much sense, unless the show plans to flip the script and have them (or at least one of them) killed off in a twist. As it is now, the reveal of the trio of killers comes across less like dramatic irony and more like the Ryan Murphy Special: Have your cake and eat it too. It’s the serial rapist without a penis all over again. Only this is worse, because we supposedly know who’s doing it (two out of three ain’t bad) and why, but that knowledge has turned them all into bumbling idiots who can only kill the lowest of hanging fruits. There are five more episodes of this.

Strangely, the smaller the cast gets, the less the handful of characters still around actually interact with each other. That leaves the episodes feeling oddly sparse, despite everything that happens within them. After all, there’s only been one episode with enough time to even use the full opening credits. It’s actually a wonder that Ian Brennan has Zayday remind Chanel (and everyone watching) that she’s co-president of Kappa Kappa Tau, considering how little she is featured in these two return episodes. This finishing stretch appears to be doubling down on all things Grace and Munsch, despite Grace being a dud of a character and Munsch really working in small doses (as last week’s overexposure sort of proved). Up is down, and down is up—and it’s not just because it’s a Ryan Murphy series.

This is an episode where Chanel not only has the best lines of the entire thing, she just so happens to make a lot sense throughout. She calls Grace a “talking bowling ball on a stick,” and you know what? It kind of tracks, especially with the combination of all of Grace’s dumb hats and hairstyle and how brain-dead (like a bowling ball) she must be in order to constantly accuse potential murderers (and actual murderers) right to their faces, with absolutely no back-up. Early on, the greatest asset the Grace character had was her friendship with Zayday, but that has since been abandoned, to the point where their only scenes together are apparently just for blocking purposes. They sit together, they stand together, and they walk together, but they don’t actually interact with each other. Now, Grace is only allowed to have scenes with Gigi, her douchebag father, Pete, Munsch, and Chanel, and that’s not that great of a bunch when you really think about it. At least not as often as she’s seen interacting with them.

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But most importantly, there is now so much less Chad Radwell, and that is the true American horror story. “The Night Of 1,000 Compliments” just doesn’t cut it.

Last week’s episode introduced the asylum setting and “I paint them all” lady, so this week’s episode makes those parts actually important to the greater story. Enter the painting of the Hag of Shady Lane and the two babies (in true Luke and Leia fashion, it’s a boy and a girl), which puts a twist on the plot that could definitely cause a person to raise their hands up and say “I’m done.” The thing is, unlike last week’s very dense detour of an episode, this week’s episode answers some questions that have been there from the beginning or at least point the audience in the right direction. Of course, the problem is that the 1995 mystery has long been eclipsed by a thirst for blood in the form of Red Devil killings, and Scream Queens is simply not delivering on them. The last episode Ian Brennan wrote featured the killing of Coney (R.I.P.) and the “Backstreet’s Back” scene, which revealed the two Red Devils without everything having to be an exposition dump. It also had Zayday practice chainsaw retrieval. For two weeks in a row, exposition has been Scream Queen’s middle name—with its first name being “Spinning” and its last name is “Its Wheels.”

Seriously: There is absolutely no logical reason why Munsch wouldn’t unmask at least one of the Red Devils in this episode. Certain things go beyond the explanation of dumb horror conventions. It’s all just a stall tactic.

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Halfway through another episode with an unfortunately weak playlist, “Eternal Flame” starts to play, bringing forward the promise of a new day. Well, the promise of a better time during this episode. Is this song the only reason there was a candle-obsessed girl on the show? Of course. Has Scream Queens possibly used up most of its music budget, which would explain the use of only this song and part of “Waterfalls” in this episode? Most likely. But a quality shift is a quality shift, and as Dean Munsch announces the closing of the school—as Ian Brennan apparently loves a good press conference with Munsch—and the Chanels minus Chanel lead the memorial for Jessica, the episode works based on sheer force of will from then on. Emma Roberts honestly gives some of her best line deliveries of the season (with better lines, as well) here; despite the school being closed and Niecy Nash sort of sleepwalking through the role now, Denise Hemphill absolutely dominates as the new KKT house mother; the plot does move forward, finally; and the show reminds us all of how big of a dummy Grace’s dad is, both in the present day and the past.

It’s an exposition-heavy episode that at least focuses on the exposition the audience wants to know. And at the very least, it’s an episode that realizes the Chanels are more a group of dumb little rich girls than superior masterminds of anything. Besides maybe Chanel No. 3. She obviously has depths. The Chanels as simps who use their money to get whatever they want works so much better than the idea of them as serious mean girls; they’re not the Heathers or even characters from Jawbreaker, as much as Ryan Murphy may want them to be.

If you’re at home, trying to solve the mystery, then this episode is a necessary one. It’s nothing much overall, but certainly gets the job done better than last week’s return. A warning though: The wear and tear is already becoming a major problem with Scream Queens only eight episodes in. There are 13 episodes in this season—killing off a little guest star a week isn’t going to hide the cracks.

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Stray observations

  • Scream Queen Of The Week: You know what? It’s Chanel Oberlin. Seriously. She earned it before she even revealed that her siblings are named “Harvard” and “Muffet.”
  • By the way, as I mentioned The Carver, I still actually find that character to be the most legitimately terrifying thing Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have ever done. Part of it is how they scored the scary jackpot in the mask choice, but really, The Carver is despicable and terrifying in a way seasons of American Horror Story try to outdo but always completely miss the mark. The problem with that storyline is how poorly it sticks the landing, but that’s just the way these Murphy things happen.
  • Another unimportant character bites the dust, but at least all of the series regulars are still alive. Snark aside, I’ll actually miss Jennifer. Breezy Eslin was easily one of the better actors on this show, and I found myself being delighted by her delivery all the way to her final moments.
  • After “Eternal Flame,” all that’s left is the inevitable “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” scene. Ian had the last one, and Brad had the first one—it’s Ryan’s turn now.
  • Let’s say the boy and the girl are Gigi’s Red Devil sidekicks: Boone and girl twin. How much will be forgiven if Scream Queens completely rips off Nip/Tuck and goes ahead with incest siblings? (I can answer that: all. All will be forgiven.)
  • By the way, Grace’s (and Pete’s, by extension) terribleness as a detective: Is it supposed to be funny? Sad? Something?
  • There really is something perfect about Wes falling for “‘Waterfalls’ is my jam” girl. Everyone is terrible!
  • Hester: “You know what they say: Those who pill together, kill together.”
    Chanel: “No one in all of human history has ever said that.” Given Ryan Murphy’s knowledge about women, I wouldn’t be surprised if he has. Can we trace that back to mommy issues?
  • Chanel No. 5 (with the meaning of Zayday’s name): “I MAY SLAY LIZ DA.”
    Chanel: “What?! Who is Liz Da?”
    Chanel No. 5: “I don’t know! But clearly Zayday is contemplating slaying her! If she’s the next victim, we need to find her and help her!”
    Chanel: “All of these clues are terrible!”

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