Producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have a new series together, and I suppose the lazy comparison to make is that it’s like a cross between their previous collaborations ‘Glee’ and ‘American Horror Story’. Honestly, there’s not much of either in it, though. ‘Scream Queens’ is more like the vicious satire of ‘Heathers’ fused with the meta horror deconstruction of ‘Scream’.
I think it was a mistake for Fox to air the first two episodes back-to-back for the premiere, because the pilot is way better than the second episode, and running them both together deflates some of the excitement and fun from the first hour. Still, there’s a lot to like here.
We open with a flashback to 1995. A kickin’ sorority party is almost ruined when one of the sorority sisters, who didn’t even realize she was pregnant, gives birth in a bathtub. The other sisters are disgusted and leave her there while they rejoin the party. (TLC’s “Waterfalls” is playing, and that’s a jam these girls can’t ignore.) By the time they bother getting back to her, the new mother has bled out and died. How inconsiderate.
Cut to the present day, 20 years later. The Kappa Kappa Tau sorority is ruled with a diamond-studded fist by rich uber-bitch Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts). She’s surrounded by a coterie of minions whose names she can’t be bothered to remember, so she just calls them all “Chanel” as well, numbered to differentiate them. Chanel #5 (yes, you get it) is played by Abigail Breslin, while #2 is Ariana Grande. One will survive to the end of the premiere and the other will not.
New to the school is incoming freshman Grace Gardner (Skyler Samuels), who has no memories of a mother that died when she was very young. (Huh, that sounds familiar. But wait, if she’s a freshman she must only be 18, right?) All Grace knows is that her mom was a sister at Kappa Kappa Tau, so she wants to pledge the sorority in hopes of finding a connection. Her father warns her against it, and Grace seems like far too nice a person to mingle with these evil sociopaths, but she’s determined to do it anyway.
The dean of the college (real scream queen legend Jamie Lee Curtis) has it out for the Kappas and wants to see them disbanded, but is stymied by university bylaws and political red tape. The best she can do (with no shortage of delight) is mandate that the sorority must accept any new pledges who apply. This opens the door to freaks and weirdos and (ick!) minorities, and scares off most of the good, wealthy, lily-white candidates. Chanel will not stand for this.
What starts as a prank to scare off the unwanted pledges goes terribly wrong when Chanel pushes the sorority house’s maid, Ms. Bean, into a real vat of boiling hot deep-fryer oil, melting off her face and killing the old woman. What a drag. Now Chanel is stuck with these losers, because they all need to band together to hide the body and cover up the crime.
Shortly thereafter, the body disappears. Coincidentally, right around this time a mystery figure wearing a Red Devil costume starts running around campus killing sorority girls. Chanel is convinced that Ms. Bean actually survived and is now pulling an ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’, but the list of other possible suspects is a mile long, and could include the dean, Grace’s new crush Pete (a barista and also editor of the school paper), Chanel’s asshole boyfriend Chad, or even Chanel herself. Nobody would put it past her to concoct a scheme to take out some competition.
In a particularly hilarious bit, the killer and Chanel #2 text back and forth while standing directly in front of each other, and the girl stops to post about her imminent murder on social media, leaving him (or her) plenty of time to do it.
In the second episode, called ‘Hell Week’, Chanel attempts to maintain business-as-usual by hazing the pledges. This results in one of them getting her head run over by a lawnmower. (It’s a long story.) We’re also introduced to Niecy Nash as inept security guard Denise Hemphill, and learn that Chad’s gay BFF (Nick Jonas) is in league with the Devil and fakes his own death for reasons unclear.
Unlike, say, ‘American Horror Story’, ‘Scream Queens’ is unmistakably a comedy. The humor is very broad and very dark, and more often than not very funny. Emma Roberts plays her debutante nightmare to the hilt, but I honestly have to say that the real breakout character is Hester, the neckbrace-wearing, death-obsessed weirdo pledge played by Lea Michele. As much as the actress grew annoying on ‘Glee’ (and in real life), she’s absolutely hilarious here. Every line she delivers is a riot.
Despite its story ties to the 1990s, the show is inundated with ’80s references, from the deliberately cheesy synth score to the innumerable pop songs on the soundtrack. I wonder if that will be addressed at some point?
If anything holds the show back from greatness, it’s that it has virtually no likeable characters. All of these girls, save for Grace, are enormously hateful, possibly murderous bitches – and even Grace makes a lot of very bad decisions that leave our feelings for her in some doubt. (Plus, there’s the lingering suggestion that she could be the orphan from the opening sequence, which would give her motive to want revenge against the sorority.) Of course, that sort of thing is totally appropriate for a black comedy, but how long can a horror series sustain itself if viewers don’t care whether any of the characters live or die? As I said earlier, the joke started to wear thin over the course of the two-hour premiere. Honestly, I was surprised at how long this thing felt before the first hour was even up.
Quibbles aside, this is mostly a blast and I look forward to more.