Fox is betting big on Scream Queens, which premiered on Tuesday, September 22. The latest show from the team behind Glee and American Horror Story is as close to a mashup of those two series as anyone could possibly get, and Fox has accordingly promoted the hell out of it in the hopes that the stylish show can break out of a bland fall TV season.
There are moments in Scream Queens' two-hour premiere that are truly fun, witty, and slick. These moments are so good, in fact, that they make the disappointing parts that much worse.
As is fitting for the epicenter of the Glee/American Horror Story Venn diagram, watching Scream Queens is a uniquely frustrating experience. For every crystalline moment of daring or every perfectly snapped insult, there are several cringe-inducing and downright offensive moments that make you question the taste of everyone involved.
Scream Queens combines the school hierarchies of Glee with the purposeful camp of American Horror Story
The show follows Kappa Kappa Tau, an elite sorority that finds itself at the mercy of a serial killer. The terror began 20 years earlier, when one of the Kappas died in childbirth in an upstairs bathtub during a raucous house party. The sisters covered up the death, and now someone is back to make sure they don't forget it.
In the present day, Chanel No. 1 (Emma Roberts) rules over Kappa House and Chanels 2-5 with an iron (and perfectly manicured) fist. The dean of students (Jamie Lee Curtis) hates her guts, and therefore mandates that the sorority begin taking any and all pledges that want to join. This includes legacy pledge Grace (Skyler Samuels), who is skeptical of all things Greek, even as she rushes (her long-dead mother was a Kappa, see...), and enthusiastic probable psychopath Hester (Glee's Lea Michele).
Thus, a struggle for power between the lacquered, bubblegum pink mean girls and the try-hard weirdos is born — and then people on all sides start dying.
Scream Queens follows in the footsteps of both meta horror films like Scream and the anthology aspect of American Horror Story. Someone new will die in every episode, and if the show gets another season, co-creator Ryan Murphy has hinted that it will feature an entirely different mystery.
The show struggles to build out its pop art world, which is populated almost exclusively by the human embodiments of bitchy asides. It shows the most flashes of brilliance when it lets itself be a horror movie, or lets its actors rip into a particularly grotesque scene.
Every actor on Scream Queens is giving it everything they've got
As was true of Glee and American Horror Story, Scream Queens has one hell of a cast. Jamie Lee Curtis is visibly thrilled to be playing the dean, a ferocious character, especially when she gets to stomp all over collegiate plaything Chad Radwell (a perfectly cocky Glen Powell).
Nasim Pedrad, late of Saturday Night Live and Mulaney, brings a welcome jolt of goofy energy as one of the sorority's alums, and when the premiere starts to lag, Niecy Nash busts in as the sorority's appointed security officer and lets her impeccable comic timing rip.
Despite everyone's best scene-chewing, however, the prize performances go to two unlikely candidates.
As the aggressively bizarre Hester, Lea Michele gets to remind people that she is seriously good at playing unhinged characters. She has chased a more glamorous aesthetic since her early days on Glee, likely to purposefully distance herself from Rachel Berry's square wardrobe, but her turn as Hester joyfully undoes that work. Hester's manic mumblings, constantly buzzing energy, and alarming asides make her stand out.
The most pleasant surprise, though, goes to Nick Jonas as Radwell's sneering best friend, Boone. The character is a preppy nightmare who alternates clipped insults with longing glances in Radwell's direction. The role is an interesting one for Jonas, who occasionally seems to deliberately play to the gay community with vague teases of homoeroticism to gain a passionate fan base.
Even as Boone pines for his straight best friend, though, he is at least an explicitly queer character. Jonas's confident performance is one the sharpest in the premiere, especially as he delivers his lines through a silken smirk.
Scream Queens can be truly hilarious when it leans into the comedic notes of horror tropes
Creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan have built careers on crafting a very particular television aesthetic. Their projects are beautifully shot, very specific to their tastes, and filled with electric moments of character clarity. This combination often makes for pilot episodes that feel more actualized than most series ever get. But as latter seasons of Glee, American Horror Story, and even Nip/Tuck demonstrate, the writers can easily go soaring off the narrative rails when given enough room.
(This way lie spoilers.)
The gruesome, splashy deaths are hands down the best parts of the two-hour premiere. The best, however, is the grisly death of Chanel No. 2 (pop star and notorious doughnut licker Ariana Grande). While the most noteworthy aspect of Grande's performance prior to her death is the impressive swing of her never-ending ponytail, her murder reveals how good Scream Queens could be with a little careful craft.
Chanel No. 2 gets a suggestive text from an unknown number, and while the messages are menacing enough that we immediately know they're from the killer, she cocks her adorable head and flirts back. She keeps doing this even when the killer enters her room in his signature red devil costume, and when he texts that he's "going to kill [her] now," Chanel blinks at him for a second before texting back: "Wait, whaaaaaaat?"
The entire scene is ridiculous, of course. But it's also exactly the kind of ridiculous that Scream Queens needs, as it sends up both pop culture and horror conventions with a satisfied wink. It's encouraging to see Scream Queens trying to balance the wicked and the mocking in a way that echoes those first stellar episodes of Glee so perfectly.
Unfortunately, Scream Queens also indulges in some of Murphy, Brennan, and Falchuk's least flattering writing tendencies — like pretending that simply having characters engage in aggressive stereotyping and spout off racist jokes counts as heady satire.
For a show that wants to be something fresh and exciting, Scream Queens sure loves its racism!
There is no doubt that Emma Roberts's character (Chanel No. 1) is a horrible person. She berates people for no reason other than to feel powerful, and whenever she sees the faintest opportunity to deliver some appalling racism, she pounces. When giving a tour of the Kappa house, she looks down at the housemaid scrubbing the floors and sniffs, "That obese specimen of human filth scrubbing bulimia vomit out of the carpet is Ms. Bean, but I call her White Mammy because she’s essentially a house slave."
Yes: "White Mammy."
Now, the "joke" here is supposed to be that Chanel No. 1 is awful enough to use a term like "white mammy" and find it hilarious. But as the episode progresses and Chanel continues to spew hateful, racist garbage, an alarming truth emerges: This show loves Chanel. Murphy's direction lingers on her stacked wardrobe, her immaculately assembled outfits, her dead-eyed glare at whomever was foolish enough to cross her. "Yeah, Chanel's a total racist," Scream Queens seems to be saying, "but isn't she spectacular?"
Well, no. Chanel's a total racist, and she's terrible. But the show using her racism as a shortcut to explain the depths of her awful behavior while still finding her delightful is hardly surprising from this team.
After all, many of American Horror Story's recent storylines (especially on its Coven season) have depended on racism to sell its unsavory characters and amp up their shock value, like Kathy Bates's repellent slaveowner/serial killer. Murphy's sitcom The New Normal featured Ellen Barkin as a woman whose primary characteristic was that she almost physically couldn't stop making racist jokes. Glee had a diverse cast, but that often took the form of serving up tired tropes — the "sassy black girl," "the silent Asian," "the fiery Latina" — that rarely grew beyond their most basic descriptors.
But when the central, most lovingly glamorous character of your series is calling the sole black pledge (Keke Palmer) a "hood rat," and running to grab white eyeliner so she can better write epithets on her dark skin, you're not making any kind of interesting commentary. You're indulging gross behavior in the guise of calling it out.
And on top of it all, none of these racist jokes are particularly interesting, funny, or even well-delivered. (Show me a teen who would ever say "white mammy" and I will show you a boring figment of Ryan Murphy's imagination.)
If anything, the most notable thing about the racist text is that it's all so aggressively unoriginal. We've seen it all before — from these very creators! It's a shame that Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan continue to lean so heavily on these boring tropes for no discernible reason beyond shock value.
If they applied even an ounce of the creativity they show in the bombastic death scenes to developing villains beyond generic racism generators, Scream Queens would be a force to be reckoned with. For now, it's a fairly entertaining, but completely confusing, case of whiplash.
Scream Queens airs Tuesdays at 9 pm on Fox.