Ryan Murphy announced Fox’s Scream Queens in a manner befitting his brand: He declared the camptastic anthology series the genesis of a heretofore unseen genre called “comedy horror.” Ornery internet haters—also known as reasonable people with a cursory knowledge of horror—cried foul and lambasted Murphy in the name of comedy horror trailblazers such as Sam Raimi and Joe Dante. In Murphy’s semi-defense, his claim wasn’t born out of ignorance or grandiosity, it was further proof of his eerily proficient showmanship.
Murphy is an unparalleled salesman, and smart money says he’s fully aware that he’s not the first storyteller to marry laughter and fright, but he doesn’t much care. Murphy has a knack for artfully trolling the media and galvanizing the sizable fan base he’s accumulated over his years working on Nip/Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story. For his steadfast super fans, all Murphy has to do to invent comedy horror is say he did. But conceptual prowess and keen marketing instincts lose their potency in service of a stale product. And even Murphy apologists may cool to Scream Queens, a patchwork of his earlier series that barely feels like a new show, much less a new genre.
Queens bears a structural resemblance to AHS from its first scene, a tantalizing vignette set in 1995. A horrific incident at the ivy-walled Wallace University serves as a prologue to the present-day campaign to discover who is killing off the sisters of Kappa Kappa Tau sorority, clad in a cherry-red devil costume. Emma Roberts stars as Chanel, the sadistic tyrant atop the food chain at KKT, Wallace’s most prestigious and most exclusive sorority. Chanel relishes her malicious monarchy, which gives her domain over a trio of weak-willed KKT sisters whose names she can’t be bothered to learn. Instead, in a nod to Heathers, she refers to them as extensions of herself: ditzy Chanel #2 (Ariana Grande), haughty Chanel #3 (Billie Lourd), and cruel Chanel #5 (Abigail Breslin). KKT’s toxic way of life—which resembles Jawbreaker: The College Years—comes under attack from anti-Greek dean Cathy Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis). Munsch wants desperately to strip KKT of its charter, but she settles for stripping the club of its exclusivity by forcing KKT to accept anyone who wants to join.
The Chanel clique would sooner maintain KKT’s fair-skinned, thigh-gapped legacy, which the sorority’s attorney Gigi (Nasim Pedrad) sums up in an evening itinerary: “We have a Side Boob Mixer followed by a White Party, where everyone is encouraged to wear/be white.” That line is representative of the show’s dialogue, nearly all of which is hyper-stylized and jam-packed with pop-culture references. The dialogue will feel familiar to those acquainted with Murphy’s work, specifically Glee, the fizzled phenomenon he co-created with Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, who also collaborated on Queens. Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan have resurrected their unorthodox practice of writing all the scripts themselves rather than sourcing ideas from a writers’ room, the system they followed in the early days of Glee before eventually incorporating other voices. Judging from the show’s mischievous tone, the trio is thrilled to have the old band back together.
While Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan’s esprit de corps is palpable and infectious, the dialogue gets tiresome in a hurry. Nearly every character speaks like Glee’s strident Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), the cheerleading coach who belittled her squad with the same fat-shaming, ironically bigoted quips now peddled by the Chanels. There’s an early joke about Dean Munsch’s name that should be easy to guess by the end of this sentence, at least for everyone who has completed fourth grade. Many of the lines are funny, but they’re not the type of funny that can be enjoyed without reservation. Each bon mot is a glitter-bowed gift for the people who say the phrase “political correctness” in a derisive tone, and provocation is easy to resist when too much effort has gone into it. The quips are overworked, and Queens seems like an odd show in which to flout the “kill your darlings” rule of screenwriting.
Murphy is due his credit for applying the anthology format to the slasher genre, which resists the series treatment for obvious logistical reasons. Like Harper’s Island before it, Queens follows Agatha Christie’s 10 Little Indians model, with the killer slowly revealed through a bloody process of attrition. The adherence to the slasher genre prescribes populating Wallace U with repugnant meat puppets. But that formula is right-sized for a 90-minute movie. In a series length story, there’s no choice but to spend an inordinate amount of time with irksome redshirts.
The designated final girl is Grace (Skyler Samuels), a KKT legacy whose mother died under potentially suspicious circumstances. Against her protective father’s wishes, Grace rushes KKT along with her roommate Zayday (Keke Palmer), an off-the-rack sassy black sidekick character too devoted to the horror trope Queens is trying to lampoon. Grace burrows into the mysteries of KKT alongside Pete (Diego Boneta), her sleuthing companion and the editor of Wallace’s newspaper, undermining the case for her survival by voluntarily insinuating herself into the murder mystery. Ideally, the only character guaranteed to survive would be more fun to spend time with, but because Grace is KKT’s conscience and voice of reason, she comes across as a schoolmarm. To the degree the audience is enjoying the over-the-top antics, Grace is the girl most likely to suck the energy out of the room, and Samuels’ wan performance doesn’t help.
Murphy excels at creating marketable television concepts, and Queens is perhaps his surest shot yet. It’s perfectly calibrated for Twitter consumption, between the oh-no-they-didn’t punchlines, act-break shockers, and hashtag-friendly title. But like so much of the fuel dumped into the social media furnace, Queens is instantly forgettable. Even the devilish killer, whose homicidal behavior is driving all of the action, ceases to exist whenever he’s not on screen. Even more than it tests the audience’s patience for Diablo Cody-style fanciful youth patter, Queens tests the audience’s grasp of object permanence.