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Like the killer in a nautically themed slasher movie, Ryan Murphy is out to hook you early.
Dating back to Popular and Nip/Tuck, through Glee and the shock scares that begin every American Horror Story installment, viewers have known very quickly whether or not they wanted to go along with Murphy and his collaborators on each new piece of genre reinvention and provocation.
Oddly, then, the first reaction many viewers will have to Fox’s Scream Queens will be unusual to the Murphy oeuvre: familiarity.
It isn’t that Scream Queens, with its masked killer, victims-of-the-week format and vocally emphatic title, finds itself in the shadow of MTV’s recently completed first season of Scream. No, even in their sleep, Murphy and Glee partners Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan could generate more demented mirth than MTV got out of loosely plundering the late Wes Craven‘s sequel-spawning smash. But one certainly could watch a few minutes of Scream Queens and pass it off as a bubblier coed entry in the AHS franchise.
Fortunately, while Scream Queens boasts overlapping AHS talent on both sides of the camera, the Fox series is lighter, livelier and favors comic gross-out moments over the manipulative primal terrors of its FX cousin.
As with all of Murphy’s productions, viewer enjoyment of Scream Queens will be a referendum on its creator, but the two-hour Sept. 22 premiere, especially its opening half, has a preponderance of the things Murphy and company do best.
Scream Queens begins with a prologue set in 1995, establishing a tragedy at the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority and an affection for TLC’s “Waterfalls,” as well as introducing a baby whose yet-unrevealed identity eventually will be important in the present day.
Jump to 2015, and Kappa Kappa Tau is the tyrannical fiefdom of Chanel (Emma Roberts), who treats her sisters as enabling chattel — Abigail Breslin, Billie Lourd and an underutilized Ariana Grande play minions who have ceded their own names to become Chanels, like erstwhile Heathers — and her house as her entree to eventual media domination. Chanel has the perfect life plan, the perfect outfits and the perfect boyfriend (Glen Powell‘s Chad), but complications arise in the form of the sorority-hating Dean Cathy Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis) and a guy in a shiny red devil mask killing people close to Chanel and the sorority.
Somehow, in the midst of the carnage, Kappa Kappa Tau also is welcoming a dean-mandated, ultrainclusive pledge class that includes legacy Grace (Skyler Samuels); Grace’s presidential-minded roommate, Zayday (Keke Palmer); and a rogue’s gallery including the butch lesbian, a Taylor Swift-loving deaf girl and Lea Michele in nerd-face with a neck brace.
There will be plenty of new shows this fall that struggle to introduce more than a couple small pieces of what we’re promised eventually will be an ensemble, so kudos to Murphy, Brennan and Falchuk for, in only two hours, making sure that viewers remember all of the aforementioned characters, plus Oliver Hudson as Grace’s father, Niecy Nash as a gloriously unqualified security guard, Nasim Pedrad as the president of the sorority’s national chapter, a Jonas I’m 95 percent sure is Nick as Chad’s weight-lifting acolyte and Diego Boneta as the editor of the school newspaper. Scream Queens may be a familiar universe, but at least it’s thoroughly populated.
The Scream Queens creators revel in writing mean girls, and Roberts gives gung-ho commitment to spewing the worst of Chanel’s eviscerating insults — Chanel’s a solipsist, so we’re not supposed to quibble at how floridly racist and misogynistic she sounds — while pausing to give just enough beats of underlying humanity. Playing a no-filter killjoy a la Glee‘s Sue Sylvester, Curtis has a twinkle in her eye that hasn’t been seen since True Lies. The writers aren’t as good with layered male characters, but they often write amusing arch mannequins, and Powell, Boneta and that particular Jonas embody that type well. As the story’s relatively irony-free straight woman and certainly its most sympathetic figure, Samuels seems to confirm the potential a handful of viewers spotted on ABC Family’s short-lived The Nine Lives of Chloe King.
Glee became a big tent show because its underlying message was one of inclusiveness and the embrace of uniqueness. Scream Queens eventually may integrate some of that, but what’s more immediately prevalent is a Coven/Freak Show vision of the world in which demographically unrepresented types are given token voices, but mostly serve as cheap punchlines. Glee might have tried to add dimension to the obese sorority maid or the deaf girl with halitosis, but that’s not really the Scream Queens ethos. Scream Queens presents a world in which the agency seemingly all belongs to women, which is empowerment message enough, even if most of these powerful women are aggressively awful or obtuse. They are “queens,” after all.
The “scream” half of the title is fulfilled amply as well. If AHS wants to make viewers jump and leave them with bad dreams, Scream Queens opts for the occasional nervous chuckle at exaggerated bloodshed or, more often, the knowing laughter of homage — you need never wonder again if Ryan Murphy has seen Psycho — or sometimes straight-up parody, as when the killer and his potential victim have a text-message confrontation only feet apart. Scream Queens has a high body count, but it doesn’t try to convince you that the deaths mean anything other than giggles and gore — which is actually a relief. You invest only in the mayhem, which is ample.
Befitting the hook-’em-early ethos, Murphy directed the first of the two season-opening Scream Queens episodes, and it’s the stronger of the two hours by a wide margin. The pervasive bitchiness seems bitchier, the political incorrectness seems more targeted, and the kills seem more giddy and outlandish. The optimistic viewer would say that Scream Queens episode 2 is just a show settling into a sustainable rhythm after an outsized premiere, while a cynic would point to the propensity of Murphy shows inevitably to decline. Whatever your perspective, if the idea of Glee or Popular spiked with wanton slaughter sounds appealing, Scream Queens initially should have you covered.
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