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Meet Scream Queens, American Horror Story's funnier, less disturbing cousin

Why yes, that IS Ariana Grande on the left.
Why yes, that IS Ariana Grande on the left.
Tanya Pai heads the standards team at Vox, focusing on copy editing, fact-checking, inclusive language and sourcing, and newsroom standards and ethics issues. She’s also a founder of Language, Please, a free resource for journalists and storytellers focused on thoughtful language use.

Do you love slasher movies? Did you also love the TV show Glee and its parade of guest acting spots by pop stars? Do you, when watching a slasher movie, think, The only way this could be a better movie is if it were actually a TV show and featured some of my favorite Top 40 artists as actors?

Well, you're in luck! In September, Fox will debut Scream Queens, a new horror comedy from Glee creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan. It's a scoop each of slasher thriller and dark comedy, drizzled with whodunit mystery and sprinkled with familiar faces, including several people you might recognize from their album covers.

On Tuesday, Fox released a three-minute trailer for the series. Here’s what we know so far.

It’s a horror comedy set in the terrifying world of Greek life

The story takes place at Wallace University in the present day. Twenty years earlier, the college was terrorized by a mysterious killer, who seemed to target the Kappa Kappa Taus, a highly selective sorority on campus.

Now the killer (or a copycat), who disguises him/herself in the university mascot’s red devil costume, is back to frighten a new generation of students. The more pressing issue, though, is that the Kappas are being forced by sorority-hating Dean Cathy Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis) to relax their stringent membership standards and accept every single pledge, a directive president Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts) is less than pleased with. Hazing, murder, and underage drinking ensue.

Ryan Murphy told EW the show is meant to be an homage to 1980s and ‘90s slasher films, as well as a satire of America’s Greek system and the stereotypes of racism and classism that surround it. Curtis's character is a driving force in the latter part, as Murphy explained to EW:

"Jamie Lee plays the dean of the school who has had it up to here with these bitches in the sorority. She’s the dean of students who wants to change the system. She wants to stop the racist status quo that many of the houses in her university have fallen into. She’s a leader and a crusader and might have to shutdown the system by literally killing them all."

In the same interview, Murphy also said he meant for the show to appeal to those who find American Horror Story too gory, saying Queens will have the scares without all the blood and guts.

It reunites some frequent collaborators

Emma Roberts as Chanel #1. (Screenshot via YouTube)

Emma Roberts as Chanel #1. (Screenshot via YouTube)

Series creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan have worked together before. Murphy and Falchuk collaborated on several shows, including Nip/Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story, as well as the upcoming American Crime Story; Brennan was a writer, producer, and director on Glee.

AHS regular Emma Roberts appears to be having the time of her life as Queen Bee Chanel #1 (a part Murphy wrote for her), tossing off bon mots like "Pissy Spacek" and referring to her new potential pledges as "idiot hookers." Glee’s Lea Michele appears thoroughly de-glammed, wearing a neck brace and frumpy outfits.

It will have the same structure as American Horror Story, but with a slight twist

A 15-episode season of Scream Queens has been ordered, with each installment bumping off a new character and offering fresh clues about who the killer might be. As Murphy said to EW, "There’s a real tune-in factor because it’s like, Who’s going to be picked off this week? And also who is the killer?" Emma Roberts, in a separate EW interview, explained that even the cast isn't in on the outcome until filming: "What I love is you really don’t know who is the killer and you don’t know who is going to die."

The series is billed as an anthology, like American Horror Story. But unlike AHS, which starts over each season with entirely new characters, Ryan Murphy has said the characters who survive season one of Scream Queens can appear in the next.

It has echoes of several well-known movies

Scream Queens has been described as Halloween meets Mean Girls, but there are other clear influences, as well. The university setting and Murphy’s penchant for pop culture bromides and meta-humor recall Wes Craven’s Scream movies, and heroine Grace (Skyler Samuels) has some similarities to that franchise's Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). For instance, both have suffered the loss of their mothers.

Nothing's scarier than a clique in matching outfits. (Screenshot via YouTube)

Nothing's scarier than a clique in matching outfits. (Screenshot via YouTube)

The Kappa mean girls, meanwhile, are all called (and outfitted in) Chanel in a clear homage to the titular name-sharing clique in the 1988 classic Heathers. As in that movie, Scream Queens seems to play its violence mostly for laughs — the trailer shows a pledge buried up to her neck in the Kappas’ backyard getting decapitated by a ride-on lawnmower, a potentially gruesome moment immediately undercut by comic relief. And the hyper-stylized costumes and candy colors call to mind another dark teen comedy, 1999’s mostly forgotten (sadly) Jawbreaker.

It’s not a musical, but it has musically talented stars

If you’ve been looking for something to fill the Rodgers & Hammerstein-size hole the end (and/or gradual collapse) of Glee left in your heart, this show may not be what you’re looking for: it does not, by current appearances, include any scenes where characters burst into song.

However, its cast does include several actors who can sing. Glee's Lea Michele is one of the unfortunate KKT pledges, alongside singer/actress Keke Palmer; Ariana Grande plays mean girl Chanel #2, and Nick Jonas appears with his shirt off, if you’re into that kind of thing.

See? No shirt! (Screenshot via YouTube)

Scream Queens also features several other famous faces: in addition to Halloween's Jamie Lee Curtis as the salty Dean Munsch, Niecy Nash appears as a campus police officer, Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin is Chanel #2, and Saturday Night Live’s Nasim Pedrad plays Gigi (her role isn’t totally clear, but she appears to be connected to the sorority).

Scream Queens premieres on Fox in September. Watch the trailer above.