Here’s a fact of the cultural landscape that is probably not as widely appreciated as it should be: Glee and American Horror Story were created and written by the same triumvirate. The fact that Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan are responsible for two hugely successful and, on the surface, strikingly dissimilar franchises makes one wonder: What have they pinpointed in their work that resonates so strongly with the international public? Their new show, Scream Queens, which debuts on Fox on Tuesday, at least partially points to some answers, by mixing and matching – and therefore highlighting — elements of both of their previous successes. The new addition is a different type of madcap comic sensibility. It’s geared toward viewers who can appreciate AHS’s dark humor and flipping of genre tropes, but prefer a more straightforwardly jokey atmosphere, and scares that don’t get much more shocking than Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s.
The show is this year’s second notable entry into the teen horror television lexicon, following MTV’s serial take on the late Wes Craven’s second great slasher film franchise from earlier this summer. The private-university-set Scream Queens is formally more unconventional than MTV’s show, pairing the dark, off-color humor and genre trope-play of AHS with Glee’s light-hearted silliness. Two episodes in, though, we’re missing any musical sequences.
There’s a serious penchant for direct non-sequiturs and very of-the-moment jokes: a sorority pledge who is a noted “candle vlogger,” a sister hurries to tweet that she’s being murdered rather than calling the cops, a security guard pokes fun at the Adnan Sayed case in Serial by asking “Name one bad thing that ever happened at a Best Buy parking lot,” and “Sweet Yeezus” is a racist insult. However, the show is also heavily nostalgic for the not-so-distant past, appropriating the tamer, more self-aware side of slasher horror: Scream Queens’ bread and butter is I Know What You Did Last Summer where AHS’ was Exorcist sequels.
Even more than either of Murphy and the gang’s previous shows, Scream Queens is freewheeling and sloppy plot-wise, and seems to wink at that fact within its script. Characters seem to forget about murder after they happen, motivations change at the drop of a hat, and inconsequential joke scenes last longer than the ones in which a major plot event occurs. The action loosely revolves around the house of the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority, where gruesome murders — from death by deep fryer to beheading by ride-along mower — are the order of the day. The culprit is a figure dressed in a devil costume, the uniform of the university’s mascot. Kappa Kappa Tau’s authoritarian queen-bee Chanel Oberlin (played by AHS’ Emma Roberts), is tailed by submissive, ride-or-die “minions” in the mold of Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf’s (including real life ‘tude-thrower Ariana Grande, who meets her end in the first episode) and has to figure out what is going on, or hide the bodies.
The golden-heart protagonist who (sort of) pushes the plot forward is Grace Gardner (played by AHS: Freak Show/Wizards of Waverly Place alum Skyler Samuels), a freshman who is rushing KKT because her late mother was a sister. Remembering her mother looking happy in all her old college pictures, Gardner believes in a utopian definition of “sisterhood,” and hopes to counteract KKT’s unsavory reputation through some covert maneuvers. In the process, she comes across some of the sorority’s old secrets, ones which bear a strange connection to the new murders: The show opens with a flashback to an anonymous 1995 KKTer giving birth to a child during a party, and being left to bleed to death by her sisters because they don’t want to miss dancing to “Waterfalls.”
There are a lot of characters in Scream Queens’ ensemble cast, and they are drawn as cartoonishly as the players in Arrested Development: They are the sum of their own idiosyncrasies, and not much more than exactly what they tell us they are. SQ’s one-liner-riddled dialogue has an AD-like improvisational quality in some sequences, which is used to heighten both absurdity and discomfort. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s not even clear what the joke was supposed to be.
The exposition is crammed into deliberately stage-y dialogue— a comedic tell-not-show technique favored by American Horror Story as well. Veteran “scream queen” Jamie Lee Curtis’ diatribes are a particularly over-the-top (and funny) example: She plays the jaded, hedonistic divorcee dean who is both attempting to bring down KKT’s dynasty of elitism and destruction, but also seemingly complicit in its past misdeeds (To comically explain the scene’s scenario: “Look what I’ve stooped to, getting sex by blackmailing students on academic probation!”)
Parodying the prejudice and bad behavior of selective university sororities and frats is one of the central jokes of Scream Queens, but as is often the case with this type of meta-humor, this causes some collateral damage: exploitative, un-self-aware “other”-ing and borderline bad taste. For instance, in the sequences surrounding KKT’s unlikely black, lesbian and deaf pledges (the latter sings Taylor Swift atonally — thus, “Deaf Taylor Swift”). There is also Nick Jonas’ well-played closet-homosexual frat boy. The jokes surrounding these side players are hit or miss. There are some pretty token cracks and dialogue assigned to Keke Palmer’s black pledge Zayday; when she makes fun of the insidious white-is-right attitude of Chanel and the rest of KKT, some humor is derived (“All y’all ratchet”), but elsewhere it’s pretty cringe-worthy. Similar criticisms could be levied at the character of Denise Hemphill (played by former Reno 911! asset and Selma actress Niecy Nash), the budget security guard hired by KKT to protect the sisters in the wake of the murders. Luckily, Nash is a seasoned and commanding comic actress who sells and warms up most of her bits; her introductory monologue is one of the funnier moments of the two-hour premiere.
These questionable dynamics between secondary characters, though, shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Such stereotype-juggling has been a constant throughout American Horror Story’s four seasons as well, contributing its distinctively pulpy style (the genres from which it borrows love them some exploitation as well).
The fast-moving, often nonsensically pivoting script calls for its young actors to remain invested at all times, to put the right spin on each among an endless stream of punchlines. The task is nearly Sisyphean, with dense teleplays that seem to be having as much fun with themselves as these. Certain actors step up to the plate — others, like Samuels, less so, though that is as much the fault of the boilerplate writing. Roberts is saddled with a lot — being forced to further the plot, change from megalomaniacal bitch to insecure, repressed former pledge at the drop of a hat, and play over-the-top racism for laughs — but generally clears the jumps.
The main highlights include SNL alum Nasim Pedrad, who plays the 40-something “stuck in the ‘90s” valley girl and countrywide sorority chief Gigi Caldwell with perfect timing (To Curtis: “You can’t revoke our charter, I’m sooo sorry”). Perhaps the best overall performance is given by token hunk Glen Powell as Chad Radwell, Chanel’s erstwhile squeeze (“”Okay well I sort of am your boyfriend, and I’m protecting you by having sex with you”) and archetypal jock-bully (“[I’m] just trying to have a nice day hitting golf balls at hippies”) with an odd fetish for death (“Got my first boner watching [obscure Reefer Madness-esque psuedo-doc] Faces of Death”). He remains loyal to his bro (Nick Jonas), even if he’s “a gay” who he has to cover for on the team.
More than anything ele, Scream Queens is clearly the work of a team that has two hugely, unprecedentedly successful, multi-season programs under their belt: Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan have been given free reign to build their postmodern funhouse mini-empire in whatever way they choose. Unfortunately, the loosey-goosey show ends up being just patchy as the movies it is paying tribute to. Its delightfully absurd moments are peppered with duddy, empty relationship-building scenes, which still feel duddy, even if the very formulaicness of its characters and scenario is part of what is being sent up. Says the mean girl Roberts to her foil Samuels (who will doubtless be the last alive): “You’re so confident without being mean, what kind of antidepressants are you on?”
It remains to be seen whether later episodes will even out the ratio between inspired nuttiness and throwaway, but don’t expect the same level of tight, controlled parody and freshness of approach as the first two seasons of AHS. Scream Queens is more about trying everything once, throwing a lot at the wall and appealing perhaps a bit too much to the creators’ existing fanbase. It can’t possibly all work.