Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Pilot Review: Scream Queens

Scream Queens (Tuesdays at 9:00 on Fox)

If you're a fan of Ryan Murphy's previous forays into quirky, off-kilter television (Popular, Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story), then you know what to expect from Scream Queens. The new Fox horror-comedy shares quite a bit of DNA with all of Murphy's prior shows, especially his two most recent creations, all mashed up into one bloated, offensive, messy piece of television.

Working in tandem with his Glee and AHS co-creators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, Murphy has created a parody of the popular 1970s and 1980s B-horror flicks centered around the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority at a private university. Twenty years ago, a pledge died in the house giving birth to a child she didn't know she was having ("I didn't even know I was pregnant. I thought it was just the freshman fifteen."). Now, the KKT house is run by the vacuous Chanel Oberlin (two-season American Horror Story vet Emma Roberts). Her nemesis, Dean Munsch (the original "scream queen" herself, Jamie Lee Curtis), wants to shut down the sorority, but instead agrees to allow KKT to continue if they change their pledging rules to accept anyone who wants to be a member. Then a serial killer in a red devil costume starts picking the pledges and those close to them off one by one.

I assume there's some kind of connection between KKT allowing formerly undesirable pledges to participate in the process and the murders. Or it could be because this class is unlucky enough to be pledging on the twentieth anniversary of the KKT House Party tragedy. Or maybe, as Chanel says at one point, the sisters finally pissed someone off enough to start killing them. But this is both a horror show and a comedy, so making sense isn't high on the priority list, as long as Scream Queens delivers on the laughs and the scares. But it doesn't, at least not consistently. There are no genuinely frightening moments in the first two episodes, though there are a few laughs, mostly visual gags referencing the very films the show is sending up. The most successful is a great scene between one of the sisters (all named Chanel, all the way up to Chanel #5, since the actual Chanel doesn't want to learn their names) and the killer. In a riff on Scream, the two text back and forth, despite being inches apart, their intentions: "I'm going to kill you now." - "Wait, whaaattt?!" It's like Scary Movie (back when those films were clever), and when it hits that absurd tone, Scream Queens works. When it doesn't work is when the humor veers toward the venomous, mean-spirited verbal sparring of Chanel and co.

Murphy proved on Glee's early seasons that he has a gift for writing quirky characters and offbeat dialogue. But in the past few years, especially on American Horror Story, that talent has turned into one for vitriol. There's rarely a moment when Roberts isn't spitting some awful racist/sexist/sizeist/homophobic/spoiled barb at a co-star. She's a manifestation of all that's awful in what Mean Girls coined "Girl World," but her viciousness goes above and beyond anything I've seen before in these kinds of characters. She calls the overweight KKT maid "White Mammy." She thinks gay men are "totally gross." She refers to her new pledge class as "ethnics and fatties." And this type of language is present throughout. It gets really hard to stomach, both because it grows extremely tiresome to listen to nothing but insults after two hours and because it's so relentless and horrible, and it far outweighs the funny moments Scream Queens has.

If there's one thing Scream Queens really has going for it, though, it's the cast. Not only is it stacked with talent, but everyone seems to agree on the kind of show they're all on. Everyone knows the show is ridiculous, nonsensical, and totally silly, which is a step up from the large ensemble casts of AHS, where there's always at least one outlier who thinks s/he is doing Angels in America. Not so here. Everyone gets that this is a parody, and everyone brings their A game to the material, even when it lets them down. Roberts holds down the fort nicely, and Jamie Lee Curtis seems to be having a blast as the two-faced Dean. My favorite performance is turned in by Keke Palmer (recently recurring on Masters of Sex) as the only black pledge in KKT's history. She's sassy and real, pointing out the obvious and the stupid frequently ("Does anyone else hear 'killer' noises?"). Skyler Samuels (AHS: Freak Show) is endearing as Chanel's foil, Grace. Glee's Lea Michele has the most over-the-top character, a death-obsessed outcast in a neck brace, but she's never as crazy as her character would suggest she would be; her big scene in episode two when she helps the Chanels hide a body and provides different methods for disposing of it is a highlight of the premiere. Former stuntman Glen Powell is hysterical as Chanel's on-again, off-again fratboy boyfriend, with a perfectly droll, SoCal line delivery. There are too many others to name, but everyone comes out looking good (except maybe for Niecy Nash, whose guest appearance in episode two is obnoxious and loud).

And that's more than can be said for the show as a whole. It bounces from joke to joke, from setup to setup, but there's little story yet, and what is there is utterly cliched. That's to be expected, considering Scream Queens is paying homage to a genre that is built upon cliches, but the whole thing just feels tired from the get-go. The "past tragedy which resulted in a child who may be committing a string murders" plotline was literally just done on MTV's Scream series, which finished its first season only three weeks ago. Seeing the exact same thing happening on Scream Queens is boring. There's obviously room for these conventions to be subverted, and I fully expect them to, but it makes for a slow start to a show that needs energy to thrive. Without a fresh story or more consistent humor, it's just a string of insults that try the nerves after a while.

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