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Scream Queens, Ep. 1.01-1.02, “Pilot” and “Hell Week”

Scream Queens, Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot”
Season 1, Episode 2, “Hell Week”
Written by Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk & Ian Brennan
Directed by Ryan Murphy (“Pilot”), Brad Falchuk (“Hell Week”)
Airs on Tuesdays at 9pm (ET) on FOX

Given all of the momentum that Scream Queens had coming into the fall season, on the back of a marketing effort that began as far back as April, it’s a shame that in so many areas it falls completely short of its potential in the first two episodes. Many of Ryan Murphy’s shows suffer from being overstuffed with his usually creative ideas and this is no different. There are many pieces that entertain but as soon as one part of the ensemble clicks, whether it be the central sorority sisters or the many spokes that spin off the frenzied and threatened world of Kappa Kappa Tau, the focus shifts elsewhere and stalls any sort of momentary flow. Emma Roberts as KKT president and all around horrible human Chanel Oberlin is an able if chilly lead, spouting all of Murphy’s absurdist and abhorrent dialogue (about which, more below) with the requisite hostility. A proper horror romp should of course have a proper villain, but that is usually the one murdering people not the leader of the still living. It is hard to root for any of the potential victims when the default head of the group is just as awful as the mysterious figure slaying “innocent” people left and right in a red devil costume. Between her use of the phrase “white mammy” not more than five minutes into the pilot and her indiscriminate usage of homophobic, racist, and increasingly prejudiced phrases throughout the show, there is no outright redeeming quality in Chanel’s characterization (or Roberts’ performance) that makes it easier to watch. Even the flashback to the school year prior that is meant to endear her on some level to the audience fails to instill any sort of sympathy for this frigid, insipid, and all around horrendous person who treats everyone around her as valueless and lesser-than people.

It would be so easy to shape Chanel so that she is easy to hate in a fun way, so that the audience can laugh with the pledges as they witness this pastel-clad queen bee spiral into an existence of fear and worry. Yet Murphy makes the center of his show, the character that would be the beating heart of this venture if it was at all likely she even possessed one, so hateful that it goes a long way towards canceling out all of the fun of the inherent campiness of the show. Rather than Scream Queens serving as a satirical takedown of the sorority-industrial complex and incorporating horror tropes at the same time, the show revels in derogatory prose disguised as supposed subversiveness. Even worse, it isn’t even funny in the process. If the “jokes” were humorous it wouldn’t forgive the racist elements of course, but to pile laziness on top of an already large pile of sins is only further insulting to the audience. This is not a new feature in Ryan Murphy shows. Most of his career has been built off coming up with incredible ideas and be given free reign to drive his own narrative, only to crash the Ferrari a month later. This time he’s just starting the downfall early by getting into a fender bender on his way out of the dealership.

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The show basks in these characters’ horrid behavior – they might be masquerading as Murphy’s latest version of an antihero but take the mask off and they are everything wrong with faux-satire. The majority of the dialogue is racism and discrimination wrapped in a pretty pink bow and sprayed with the latest designer perfume to make it presentable to network television viewers. Why should the audience root against the methodical picking off of these girls (and their fraternity counterparts at the Dickie Dollar Scholar house) when there is no clear reason to root for them? They are all the worst sorority clichés without nearly enough levity to balance it out. The funniest moment from the first hour, Ariana Grande’s Chanel #2 getting the ax (or the knife, as it were) at the hands of the Red Devil, is so derivative of other horror send-ups like Scary Movie that it doesn’t land nearly as well as it could. Anyone who is even remotely familiar with her touring schedule as a pop star shouldn’t be surprised Grande exits stage left this early in the run so it’s nice that she at least has a fun murder scene. However, the tone is so off from much of the rest of the two hour premiere that her death stands out like a sore thumb. If Queens decides to steer into that territory and bruise some more metaphorical fingers it would vastly improve the rest of the effort.

That’s not to say the premiere has nothing to like throughout its doubled run time, even if the fun moments are few and far between. The gore on display is truly horrifying, from KKT President Melanie’s run-in with a hydrochloric acid-tan to Ms. Bean’s face full of boiling grease to Tiffany’s unfortunate Queen of Hearts-esque exit. Unsurprisingly, Jamie Lee Curtis as Dean Cathy Munsch is giving a better performance than anyone else, yet not so far into the stratosphere that she seems like she’s part of a different show. As the scenery chewing, vengeful, secret-keeping, scorned dean of Wallace University, Curtis proves why she is an icon in the horror world (and everywhere else of course), constantly keeping shaky scenes afloat and flat out saving some of the narrative while she’s at it. Her intimidating stroll through campus while accompanied by a snarky voiceover mid-episode is the epitome of Curtis as authority figure. She is someone that the audience can root for as she attempts to take down the KKT reign of terror via pure spite and loophole exploitation. The all-black costuming and uncaring attitude of Munsch is right in Curtis’ wheelhouse and she is working the camera like she knows how much it loves following her. It is a slight letdown that besides her battle against KKT her three major scenes center around her relationship to various men (Glen Powell’s blackmailing dolt Chad Radwell, Oliver Hudson’s blackmailing and worried dad Wes, and her yet-unseen ex-husband who left her for a younger woman), but if that sets the character up to burn everything around her to the ground then by all means, full speed ahead. Roberts could learn a lot from Curtis in her quest to become a new generation’s queen of horror (Scream 4, American Horror Story: Coven, now this), specifically how to get the audience to want to shake your hand for entertaining them while at the same time wanting to push you down the stairs with the other arm.

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Skyler Samuels, Lea Michele, Keke Palmer

So could Skyler Samuels, come to think of it. The former Disney Channel and ABC Family star does fine in her major network debut, but is too vanilla to fully belong in this cartoonish world just yet. As the spy on the inside initially hoping to knock Chanel off her perch, she plays new pledge Grace Gardner as wide-eyed and idealistic in a way that simultaneously seems not innocent enough and still doesn’t mesh with the hardness on exhibit everywhere else. If the show decided to push Grace one way or the other, she could be the incompetent investigator of the goings on or the secretly dark member of the pledge class; straddling both sides doesn’t work in the early going. Similarly, editor of the school paper Pete (Diego Boneta) doesn’t land as the ulterior motive creep he could be or the boy of awkward sexual advances he is at the moment. The rest of the guest stars and recurring players are doing great work, more than ably setting up the waterfall of exciting guests still yet to come. Abigail Breslin is saddled with a mostly thankless role so far, but is doing it well. Lea Michele is suitably creepy and not at all her usual Broadway belle persona as Hester the “neck brace pledge”. Nick Jonas’ closeted Boone is one of the best side characters of the first few episodes. Even though the ending twist of Boone not being dead is a bit too well-telegraphed before the reveal, the lack of shock is worth it if it means Jonas gets a larger part as the show goes on. The good news is that Scream Queens has a lot of room to grow and a team both behind and in front of the camera that can manage it before too much time is wasted. This is a show that has enough of a well-built mystery to succeed as a whodunnit and more than enough gore to be serviceable as an actual scary story. If only the cast and creators learn to get out of their own way just a bit and let the proceedings breathe, before all of the characters take their last breath.

Errant Stabs

  • The real crime of this pilot is the sheer number of pageboy hats worn by the pledges.
  • Nasim Pedrad is playing a rough draft of a Saturday Night Live character here. That is either great or unfortunate, depending on each person’s tolerance of her SNL tenure.
  • A hearty thank you to the show for granting the audience a scene of Nick Jones working out half naked before his “death”.
  • It shouldn’t be necessary for multiple characters in the 1995 portion of the show to identify TLC and “Waterfalls” as the band and song playing, respectively. One of a few examples of the show not trusting the audience to understand pop culture references.
  • “Everyone is encouraged to wear slash be white.” If racist humor is the method of choice here it could at least have the decency to be quasi-original.
  • The multiple Pumpkin Spice Latte and “Yeah Jeets” references betray someone in the writers room as trying too hard.
  • Now, the tossed off “Pissy Spacek”, that was laugh worthy.

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