One of the comforting things about a Ryan Murphy show—whether you’re a viewer or just Ryan Murphy—is that the exploitation-lite experience is now disseminated so efficiently by the internet that you can land a beat amid a sea of uncertain choices and still come out the winner. And the more gaspworthy the moments, the more the internet pays attention; Emma Roberts has not for an instant before or since been anywhere near as ubiquitous as “Surprise, bitches” made her.
For a showrunner, it would be difficult not to chase that high repeatedly. It’s how shows stay in the public eye. The architecture behind any show is, essentially, a case of giving creators the benefit of the doubt. Viewed earnestly, you’re a genre-savvy sausage-maker with all the enthusiasm of a museum curator and all the creative leeway a successful track record can provide; viewed cynically, you’re chasing audiences via a slickly manufactured brand of pulp exploitation that goes for the gold moment at the expense of anything else.
Luckily, we’re all past the point of wondering which side a Ryan Murphy/Brian Falchuk/Ian Brennan show is on, and with Scream Queens they get to use horror-movie tropes as signposts, abandon any pretense of narrative, and go right for Roger Corman filtered through a meme generator. And in fairness to them, that setup is essentially ironclad in horror: the foolish victims surrounded by dramatic irony, the anvils of foreshadowing, the cathartic laughter of the chase. With sufficient cannon fodder and enough plot twists, they can devote all remaining energy to tone. And since this is more or less the one-third mark of the season, the tone is established and the stakes are mounting. Since Zaytay’s escape from the Red Devil’s clutches, the KKT presidency now hangs in the balance; the Red Devil is smoked out but escapes, and another supporting character meets their maker.
But the show doesn’t actually care about any of those things. The greatest tension in any Murphy/Falchuk show will never play out between characters onscreen; it will be the struggle as its creators attempt to manufacture camp. The stylized dialogue in which characters go on at length without interruption, the lengthy awkward silences, the attempts at searing satire—Murphy and company are trying to recreate something they love while being painfully aware of postmodern TV and the smugness that accompanies a cool remove. What’s left is neatly staged, pitched a click high, and mostly hot air: camp under glass. The general skill of the cast aside, this tension is the source of much of the series’ humor. You’re absolved of responsibility for what you laugh at if everybody’s in on the joke.
Some of this is amusing tangents into the absurd—Chanel directing costume plans in the cold open is the swiftest sketch imaginable of everyone’s current characterization, and it works a treat. Some of it is cheap merely so these scamps can snicker behind their hands at how timely their cultural commentary is. (The Orange is the New Black pastiche, which included a Laverne Cox lookalike and familiar taupe uniforms, was too lazy to even discuss.) And some of it is so tedious that time seems to telescope out around it. Chanel bringing her on-retainer “Asian” to consult on math and science tests was an old joke when many of the films Scream Queens lifts from were first released, and feels ten minutes long. But even here, the show can’t even commit to its awfulness; just in case you want to laugh at some old-saw stereotypes, the show has Chanel arrested afterward. It’s, like, narrative justice or whatever!
Amid all this, at least we have the comfort that the cast is enjoying themselves. Niecy Nash and Nasim Pedrad manage to sell a scene that sounds like a disaster on paper, and Emma Roberts positively shines as a repulsive person. Don’t worry, she’s fine; the show’s other tension is in the conflict between its bitches-get-comeuppance horror-story setup and the fact that it adores Chanel. (It enjoys most of its KKT sisters, in descending order of bitchiness—Roberts, Lea Michele, and Billie Lourd at least make it worth the investment—but Chanel is the jewel in their crown.) She gets a remarkably sympathetic framing when she’s arrested, and a slo-mo walkout from jail that was perhaps meant to be a triumph, though it’s more likely just meant to be a gif-friendly moment of stylishness that requires no context (you’re welcome, Tumblr), performed around a plot so thin it snaps at practically every commercial break.
The show cribs from the best; in this episode, it spends quite a bit of time on The Shining and Silence of the Lambs. But both of those became iconic because of their careful craftsmanship and deliberate pacing, neither of which carries over. The episode’s big reveal—that Gigi is in league with the Red Devil—means nothing. Not because I’m only here for a week, but because you wouldn’t care even if you’d been watching religiously. (It’s not a reveal if everybody already knows.) It’s a beat in a show that is following the prescribed genre conventions with if-we-must dutifulness. Its heart, such as it is, is given to the mean-girls machinations of Chanel and crew; the closest it comes to having any life is when the girls of KKT are snapping dark-comedy nonsense at one another (the toenail cookies are eyebrow-raising, but that kitchen scene is the closes to engaging characterization we got all episode). That’s going to be par for the course, I expect; Scream Queens isn’t interested in creating a horror story if it can manufacture some water-cooler camp instead.
- “That is such a Mary Todd Lincoln thing to say.”
- Sometimes you forget the sheer reptilian intensity of Lea Michele’s screen presence; then you sub in on a recap of a Lea Michele show.
- If anyone wants to update the Conceptual Dictionary entry for “trying too hard,” the “Sluttiest Night of the Year” speech is now available.
- By the time we reached, “It just happened a few hours ago and I’m still really traumatized,” I couldn’t decide whether this was lampshading the show’s pacing, a horror-trope commentary joke, or just a note about how long it took for Chanel to slo-mo out of jail.
- Don’t get me started on “This plan involves a lot of circuitous logic.”
- Of all the reaches and falls of this episode, the party was the saddest. That design is like the fall fair at a gnostic elementary school. And wanting a candle in every jack-o’-lantern is standard Halloween procedure; for less than a thousand lanterns that shouldn’t even register as a demanding request. That was the plot point you had to settle on? Did you hit the budget ceiling manufacturing architectural columns and fake snow?
- Scream queen of the week: LaToya, for whom I got to step in tonight to experience what was absolutely, undeniably, an episode of television.