Back in June, MTV’s television adaptation of Scream premiered. Film geek and Randy Meeks redux Noah ended the pilot with a speech about the show’s goals as a slasher story on TV (comparing it all to Friday Night Lights):
“You know, you got to remember that the whodunnit may not be as important in our story. … I’m saying you need to forget it’s a horror story, that someone might die at every turn. You see, you have to care if the smokin’ hot lit teacher seems a little too interested in his female students. You have to care if the team wins the big game. You have to care if the smart, pretty girl forgives the dumb jock. … You root for them. You love them. So when they are brutally murdered… It hurts.”
Season one of Scream the TV series wasn’t actually able to make the deaths of the very few characters who were “brutally” murdered hurt and it never came close to the Friday Night Lights territory to which it aspired. Fastforward to September, and Fox’s Scream Queens barely even asks for the audience to root for two characters—the designated final girl that is Skyler Samuels’ Grace and her roommate Zayday (Keke Palmer)—and has no problem making it a series all about the whodunnit and the thrill (not the emotion) of the brutal murders. In fact, the best deaths of Scream Queens’ first two episodes come are those of two characters who are fairly obnoxious in their own rights: the “smart enough to bail but too dumb not to text a killer” Chanel No. 2 (Ariana Grande) and the one cruelly but accurately known as “deaf Taylor Swift” (Whitney Meyer).
Part of that easy disposal also stems from the fact that the chances of seeing the majority of this cast in another Ryan Murphy series soon enough are fairly high, so any potential mourning process isn’t really warranted here. Plus, unlike Scream the TV series, Scream Queens really isn’t desperate to have its audience like its characters (especially the more shallow and cold ones). That’s a point that kind of comes back to bite Scream Queens, but it’s the case for most, if not all, of Ryan Murphy’s work post-Popular.
If nothing else, the first two episode of Scream Queens make it clear that this is a show that embraces the fact that it is a weekly slasher series; and as such, it’s going to do some weekly slashing. Comparing the two projects again (though not for the last time), Scream Queens not only does what Scream the TV series forgot to do on a basic slasher level (actually killing characters and making their deaths interesting), it also also easily outperforms Scream the TV series in the one avenue (other than acting) that was supposed to hook the MTV series (and Scream franchise) to the millennial audience, in just one scene: Its use of technology.
Chanel No. 2’s death is one that’s going to be talked about for a while, even simply as a scene making light of the typical arguments about technology and social media removing true socialization. And it does so while somehow making the character one to root for in such a brief time, as her attempt to tweet—even staving off death multiple times to do so—is so absurd that it somehow becomes an act of genuine courage. A dumb act of courage but a genuine one. It’s a more honest moment than all of Scream the TV series combined, and that is a series that takes place in a supposedly more “real” world.
Also, Scream Queens isn’t so much trying to be a show that deconstructs these slasher stereotypes and gimmicks as it is one that thoroughly embraces them. It’s basically going for B-movie style with an A-movie budget. Joshua Alston’s pre-air review comparing the series to a “rocky, horror-filled Glee” (pun intended) is absolutely correct, right down to the sleekness that implies. The best way to describe everything from the sets to the characters to the acting is in fact a very polished Rocky Horror Picture Show. Knowing the track record of Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan with Rocky Horror Picture Show and Glee, that doesn’t sound all that great on paper, but if nothing else, Scream Queens already succeeds where “Rocky Horror Glee Show” failed spectacularly: It’s simply a love letter to its source material without attempting to “improve” upon or make a joke about it. The lack of winking in these two episodes, despite how heightened and over-the-top everything is, could perhaps be Scream Queens’ greatest asset. The series isn’t as gritty or dark as any season of American Horror Story, which one could argue is because of the difference between Fox and FX, but it’s also not as saccharine and moral-centric as Glee. It’s a medium between the two, though it’s too early to completely decide if it’s a happy one.
By this point, if you’re choosing to watch a Ryan Murphy series (whether it’s one with or without the creative hands of Brad Falchuk and/or Ian Brennan involved), you pretty much know what you’re getting yourself into. It will be a world of sensationalism, horribly inappropriate and naughty dialogue, a nice touch of homoeroticism, and caricatures galore.
(By the way, I realize here that it would be oh so easy to say Keke Palmer is playing one of said caricatures, but honestly, based on every interview I’ve seen with her, I think she might just be playing Keke Palmer in this show.)
You’ve probably heard this before too: The typical description of a Ryan Murphy program is that it starts out extremely well, only for it all to crash and burn in just as extreme of a manner. When it comes to Ryan Murphy’s track records with original series, the only examples that may be the exceptions to that are The New Normal, which was a mess to begin with, and American Horror Story, which is blessed with an anthology twist that works as a reset button. Scream Queens falls more on the American Horror Story side of things simply because of the obvious genre classification—despite being a comedy in a way American Horror Story has never been, barring “The Name Game” and “surprise, bitch”—but it’s really more of a more crass, horror-infused version of Popular. Really, Ryan Murphy productions have bled together more and more as the years go by, and Scream Queens feels like the pinnacle of that.
To compare it to horror films however, it’s not even Scream. It’s Black Christmas (either one will do) with flare, or it’s Heathers or Jawbreaker or even Pitch Perfect with horror. It’s all of this combined, with Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan at the wheel. No matter what, you know exactly what you’re signing up for when it comes to Scream Queens. The Heathers comparison is especially apt when you consider the show’s ’80s soundtrack (despite its mid-’90s backstory), which is even more prominent in Grace’s otherwise lackluster scenes with Pete (Diego Boneta) and at its most Nip/Tuck with the “Sunglasses At Night” scene.
The first half of Scream Queens is rather slow for a Murphy/Falchuk/Brennan comedy endeavor, not really getting interesting until the Kappa Kappa Tau pledge mixer begins. (In one of the better, subtler satirical moments of the first two episodes, when Nasim Pedrad’s Gigi Caldwell starts her speech about ushering the sorority into the 21st century with “a global community free of cliques,” there’s a quick shot to a group of girls who all look exactly alike.) The slowness and build-up to a quick pace could work and be seen as a good sign perhaps on other projects, but here, it’s a slowness that forces the audience to really dwell on all things Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts). Emma Roberts not playing a likable character isn’t Scream Queens’ problem, because Roberts wouldn’t be believable in the final girl role in the first place (see: Scream 4). Describing the character in Murphy terms, she’s Nicole Julian meets an edgier Mary Cherry meets Quinn Fabray, only she’s not the supporting character—she’s technically the lead. That right there is the problem.
To call the world of Scream Queens a satire, there’s merit in that argument, as it works whenever any of the Kappa Kappa Taus (and their prospects) go on about newscaster aspirations or white parties (“where everyone is encouraged to wear white-slash-be white”) or even when big man on campus Chad (Glen Powell) comes up with the idea for She’s All That (directed by Michael Bay). But nearly everything that comes out of Chanel’s mouth (and often by extension, her henchwomen’s mouths) is absolutely hateful, without a fun or humorous side to it. The intent of the character is for a sick, guilty pleasure to be gained from everything she says—that she’s the character who says what people wish they could say, though anyone “wishing” they could call a person “white mammy” is just as bad as a person who actually says it. Chanel is supposed to be fun, and she’s not—she’s just the vessel for hateful words that Ryan Murphy and company take far too much delight in putting on page to screen. Emma Roberts has been playing a lesser, far less entertaining version of Popular’s Nicole Julian since American Horror Story: Coven, and this is just the bloodier version of that (the flashback with the former KKT president is even reminiscent of one between Nicole and Marley Jacob).
That’s not to say the audience should have to grin and bear it. In fact, the sheen has mostly worn off of Roberts playing this character. In its first two episodes—especially in its pilot—Scream Queens quickly falls into both Murphy and company’s greatest weaknesses (while also featuring the signature style and sharpness that brings their typically jaded audience back again and again). With Scream Queens, American Horror Story: Hotel, and American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson all on slate so close to each other, there is certain to be months of discussion about what makes Ryan Murphy tick and why. One of the biggest discussions is the one on race, and Scream Queens makes itself an easy target for that. In fact, it absolutely invites such discussions by continuing Team Murphy’s habit—despite being three white men—of having characters be outwardly despicable (yet supposedly entertaining) in the form of conversational racist, bigoted, hate speech.
“You see, out in the real world, people just don’t talk that way to other people. It’s not normal.”
When Jamie Lee Curtis’ Dean Cathy Munsch (who is basically the Dean from every movie about fraternities) says this, it takes on two meanings. The worst, more obvious meaning is the one where it’s basically an excuse for this show to have most of its characters speak to each other with total disrespect and absolutely no filters. By saying that there’s an awareness that this is not a great way to speak to or treat people—especially those that are considered “other”—it covers the bases for the show to continue to have characters speak and act that way. There’s the real world, and then there’s this world. It’s a pre-dismissal of the arguments against Murphy, Falchuck, and Brennan writing such hateful (no matter how exaggerated and creative—and sometimes juvenile) speech in this and any of their shows.
The other, less frustrating meaning of the quote is perhaps the key to the entire series: Scream Queens does not take place in the real world as we know it, and as such, every possible gaudy and heightened aspect of it is to be taken at face value. It’s that aspect of the series that makes it absolutely fine—great, even—to watch Chanel No. 2 text the Red Devil, even when the killer has made it clear they’re going to kill her. It’s that aspect of the series that explains everything about Chanel Oberlin’s on again-off again boyfriend Chad, who quite possibly wandered into the show from Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp’s Camp Tiger Claw.
Despite both having “scream” in the titles and telling the stories of masked serial killers who have far too much time on their hands (which appears to be the case for most serial killers, really), Scream and Scream Queens couldn’t be more different. Not even comparing them on a quality level, Scream the TV series is a show that takes itself almost too seriously, using a constant stream of pop-culture references to tie itself to its self-aware cinematic inspiration. The humor derived from most of the freshman MTV series is unintentional, as it is a bone dry occasion from top to bottom. Scream Queens, on the other hand, comes out of a love of horror (and pop culture in general) but any winking part of the series isn’t that of “This is a film in TV form, and we’re going to remind the audience of that every week.”
In fact, the characters in Scream Queens—unlike any iteration of Scream, especially the films—are nowhere near as aware of their roles as archetypes or characters in a slasher film. With the exception of Munsch, these characters are barely aware they’re living in a surreal world in the first place, whether they accept the world or not. It would ring false if their characters started talking about the rules of horror conventions as though they were in a slasher film, because to them, this is the world that they live in. It’s exaggerated and gothic and it allows for more room to shock and entertain—it’s a world of potential.
The closest the series gets to having a set of rules comes from Niecy Nash’s Denise Hemphill, the funniest non-slasher part of the first two episodes. Denise Hemphill explaining (mostly in the third person) the protocol for her to come and protect the Kappa Kappa Taus (and the concept of her 866 number) is a scene that goes on and on, getting funnier with each second and utilizing Ryan Murphy’s close-up-heavy direction to the fullest. In her limited screentime in episode two, Nash commands the scenes she’s in, especially when she’s informing the girls to run out the door instead of going up the stairs when there’s a killer in the house—a moment that also substitutes for the “rules.” There’s also the great moment of her driving in terror over to her friend Shondell’s (Deneen Taylor) death, only to brake quickly to push the dead body out of her car before continuing. Nash and Nasim Pedrad bear the brunt of being the series’ truly comedic characters, and they both nail it, as characters who don’t have to resort to mean-spirited humor. In fact, the series is at its best when it serves irreverence—the entire STD discussion or even the “weiner” discussion—alongside the darkness.
Jamie Lee Curtis, however, is able to take that mean-spirited nature and darkness and harness its power perfectly. She delivers every line with an amusing coldness, to the point where one can easily see Murphy favorite Jane Lynch in the same role (but not quite). It’s a little embarrassing to watch Emma Roberts face off with Curtis early on, because they’re on separate planes of existence when it comes to talent. Roberts is far better in her subsequent one-on-one with Skyler Samuels’ Grace (which at least hints at a deeper humanity in the character), and her character’s reactions to a candle vlog and constant denial of Ms. Bean (Jan Hoag) actually being dead are the best moments for Chanel. If she’s going to be the focal point of the series—despite not fitting the final girl description that Samuels does—it’s important that the show recognizes her strengths and weaknesses. Scream Queens’ start is an uneven one, but there’s obviously something there, as disjointed as it is right now. The parts just have to fully come together.
The running joke surrounding press and discussion about Scream Queens is that Ryan Murphy has done it—he’s invented the “horror-comedy” genre. Of course, this genre existed even before Ryan Murphy first decided to parody I Know What You Did Last Summer back in 2001. In fact, 2015 is a year when Ryan Murphy joint Scream Queens isn’t even the only horror-comedy series on television, as Ash Vs. Evil Dead is coming around the mountain, and it comes from people who know a thing or two about the genre. The thing is, there’s plenty of room for both of these shows and any more that come along. While Scream Queens is far from perfect, it has room to improve in this time. Plus, if there really is one constant for a Ryan Murphy show, it’s that it pretty much hooks for you for far too long anyway.
What should we expect for the future of Scream Queens? Well, as the show is the return of the three-headed Murphy/Falchuk/Brennan monster, I’m reminded of this quote from Ian Brennan (from an interview with the dearly departed Todd VanDerWerff):
“It’s a little reductive, but early on in the process Ryan sort of remarked, ‘Well, I’m sort of the brain. Brad’s sort of the heart. Ian’s sort of the funny bone.’ That is true in a lot of ways.”
- What’s a weekly review without a weekly segment? Here it comes, the Scream Queen Of The Week: For the pilot, it has to be Chanel No. 2, and for “Hell Week,” I’m giving it up to Denise Hemphill.
- Scream Queens has made some pretty great music choices so far—especially with the very important jam, “Waterfalls,” and the surprise inclusion of T’Pau’s “Heart & Soul”—with the exception being the Twilight song. As a sentimental moment between father and daughter, it reads like a scene from a completely different series, one that’s not even a little bit fun.
- I will admit that I’m predisposed to like final girl Grace simply because I watched every single episode of The Nine Lives Of Chloe King. What can I say? I love a show about a cat people messiah.
- Keep in mind, Scream the TV series had its final girl have numerous fake Twitter exchanges with the show’s killer, who couldn’t even bother to spell “Unknown” right during them.
- Until they confirmed that Oliver Hudson was Grace’s father, I completely believed he was supposed to be her boyfriend. Her much older boyfriend but her boyfriend nonetheless. There’s an 18-year age difference between the actors, so it’s possible to be father and daughter, but unlike Zayday, I would never guess that he is Grace’s father.
- There is one perfectly “normal” moment in the pilot that is just a subtle touch you don’t usually see: When Grace first sees the Red Devil and tries to approach it, the Devil gets away by running. It’s not by “disappearing” when the trio of sorority girls pass by. It’s legitimately running away. It’s a little touch that establishes—for the most part—this isn’t a killer character that’s supposed to be omnipotent. Plus, the Red Devil apparently thinks “MYOB” is an intimidating threat.
- In a show that has characters named Chad and Chanel, Nick Jonas plays Boone, who is gay, loves golf, and is apparently in league with the Red Devil. Only Ryan Murphy.
- Lea Michele’s Hester goes from zero to lunatic in episode two, and it’s… it’s something.
- At one point, when Grace is in the basement, the score is spectacularly Halloween-esque. It’s the little things, you know?
- Scream the TV series does Serial with Piper, the Sarah Koenig-meets-Lisa Loeb podcaster who spends too much time hanging out with teens. Scream Queens does Serial by making a quick joke about nothing bad ever happening at a Best Buy parking lot. It’s quick and effective.
- As this is a Ryan Murphy joint, there’s also the question of his use of actors with disabilities in roles, which often teeters on the line of humanitarian (for lack of a better word) and wanting to make these people the butt of the joke. While “deaf Taylor Swift” Tiffany may appear to be the latter, the show also hired an actual deaf actress and really only used her deafness as a punchline in her final moments. Also, the only thing that differed from her and a stereotypical Taylor Swift fan was the fact that she was deaf—the character could have been the same either way, minus Chanel’s commentary on the deaf community.
- Chanel No. 5 is a character I haven’t yet gotten a read on because of Abigail Breslin’s (so far) less than stellar performance. In most the pilot, I was somewhat certain she was a secretly “good” person just kept up appearances for Chanel, but that went completely out the window in “Hell Week.”
- Alright, let’s get out theories out there for the aftermath of the 1995 incident. Is Grace being the baby (and whoops, not knowing she’s 20) too far-fetched or just far-fetched enough? She throws an accusation at soon-to-be-20 Pete, but that’s too obvious, no?