Ryan Murphy is the leading man behind a range of successful and dissimilar television shows from Glee (2009) to American Horror Story (2011) and Nip/Tuck (2003). The variety of genres and subjects across those shows, spanning musicals to murder, have bagged Murphy a diverse fan base consisting of everyone from teens to adults. How do you move forward from that miscellaneous array of hits and capitalize on all your fandom once? With Scream Queens (2015), a horror-comedy series about a serial killer terrorizing a sorority, which attempts to dissect and bake together the successful elements of his other shows. At least that's the idea.
Scream Queens premiered with a two-hour episode jam-packed with countless characters, offensive humor, multiple murders, and enough pop culture pastiche to earn it the high ratings it expected. While almost every critical response to the pilot noted how absurd and outlandish the show was, there was a feeling that it might succeed simply because it was so ridiculous. The series isn't going to avoid clichés and tropes; it is going to blatantly exploit every single one of them as obviously as possible.
It not only spoofs traditional horror tropes but also spoofs spoofs of the genre. It wants to not only parody Scream (1996) but equally take jabs at Scary Movie (2000), subverting itself with a multi-layered “self-mocking and proud of it” mindset. When people aren’t getting their heads shaved off with lawnmowers or their faces boiled in hot cooking oil, central character Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts) is mocking the way snobby white girls order complicated lattes and making racial jokes that go so far out of context as to reference the likes of Gone With the Wind (1939).
Inspiration comes from everywhere. Employing Jamie Lee Curtis as the university dean is perfect, as she’s cinema's screamiest scream queen. In the pilot alone, we see nods to Heathers (1988), Prom Night (1980), The House on Sorority Row (1983), Halloween (1978) and Urban Legend (1998) (right, stereotypical newspaper kid and black security lady?), among plenty of others.
The entire cast, Roberts in particular, pulls off dialogue that pushes the limits of stupidity and offensiveness through their conviction to the material. They’re as convincing as can be spouting lines like “she smells like hot dog water and probably sprained her neck giving blumpkins down at the local bowling alley,” referring to a girl in a neck brace (Lea Michele).
There’s the theory that the show’s distinctly abrasive language and surface awfulness is social commentary. IGN writes, “On the spectrum from Glee to AHS, Scream Queens falls somewhere in the middle; it's not scary, and it's also not concerned with highlighting and resolving issues facing young people. Instead, it appropriately lets its writing do its commentary for it, be it about how terribly women talk to one another or about the sorority system or about horror movie stereotypes.”
That’s not wrong. Chanel is such a brute that she refers to her closest “friends” as “minions,” whose names are replaced with iterations of her own (Chanel #2, Chanel #3, Chanel #5 -- Chanel #4 died of meningitis.) It’s a show built for today’s television-viewing audience. The AV Club writes, “Murphy excels at creating marketable television concepts, and Queens is perhaps his surest shot yet. It’s perfectly calibrated for Twitter consumption, between the oh-no-they-didn’t punchlines, act-break shockers, and hashtag-friendly title.”
So calibrated, in fact, that when Chanel #2 (Ariana Grande) finds herself face-to-face with the killer, she texts him her expressions of fear and subsequently live tweets her own death as opposed to calling for help. After being stabbed, she pops up with the energy to fire off one last tweet before perma-dying. There's serious social commentary in that scene, speaking directly to a world of faces stuck inside cell phones and social media.
On a logical level, however, the show has none -- and doesn't seem to care. Inverse writes, “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.”
But is all of this braggadocios murder and insult-waving dialogue enough to sustain a show? Is uncovering the identity of the willy-nilly Red Devil murderer, the show’s sole motivation beyond hearing Emma Roberts call someone a coffee donkey, an engaging enough reason to tune in on a weekly basis?
Scream Queens’ second episode already may hint to that answer. The episode started airing with a 2.5 rating at 9 p.m. and ended with an 0.5 at 9:45 p.m., implying a huge portion of its live audience didn’t bother sticking around for the full episode.
“While Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan’s esprit de corps is palpable and infectious, the dialogue gets tiresome in a hurry,” the AV Club writes. “Each bon mot is a glitter-bowed gift for the people who say the phrase 'political correctness' in a derisive tone, and provocation is easy to resist when too much effort has gone into it. The quips are overworked, and Queens seems like an odd show in which to flout the 'kill your darlings' rule of screenwriting… Queens is instantly forgettable.”
The energy of the pilot is already somewhat lost by the second episode. The series’ vast array of characters implies consistent murdering will be on the menu but also eliminates any audience investment in their survivals. Killing becomes ho-hum as meaningless cartoon humans meet equally buffoonish ends, and while the dialogue still evokes the occasional chuckle, it’s easily dismissed.
“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,” Inverse adds.
Of the second episode, the AV Club writes, “The biggest overall problem with Scream Queens—not jokingly counting the creative team behind it—is its uneven tone and pacing. So far, when things work, they either really work or at least skate by. When they don’t, they really, really don’t.” The AV Club finishes, “It’s pork rinds or ranch chips with chocolate syrup,” but also acknowledges that’s what the show is trying to be.
Scream Queens is either going to be consistently entertaining or quickly tiresome depending on the fussiness of the viewer’s palate. It’s stupid entertainment for stupid entertainment’s sake. In a landscape of generally serious programs, perhaps it’s a welcome break. Either way, it’s certain to be a polarizing experience.
And remember, as Chanel says, “You don’t get STDs from blood oaths. You get STDs from dirty toilet seats and drinking the water in Mexico.”