Hit Or Sh**: FOX’s SCREAM QUEENS
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
Remember 2009? When we all saw the GLEE pilot (after the Super Bowl for God’s sake), sang along to “Don’t Stop “Believin’” with our mom (just me?), and thought for a brief moment that this bizarre fusion of high school comedy, show tunes, and morality plays could work? Six years and a cancellation later, it sort of did, to increasingly diminishing returns. What is most important about GLEE is not its success as a show, but rather that it introduced mainstream America to the sensibilities of creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, whose pulpy, over-the-top style would go on to launch a thousand ships (multiple seasons of AMERICAN HORROR STORY, THE NEW NORMAL, AMERICAN CRIME STORY, etc.). And now they have returned to FOX to make SCREAM QUEENS, which purports to be the perfect fusion of AMERICAN HORROR STORY and GLEE. Before we jump into it I might as well say…it sort of succeeds… with several huge caveats.
Thankfully, not as huge a caveat as this
SCREAM QUEENS focuses on a sorority at Wallace University (in a town that somehow seems to be both situated in the Pacific Northwest and the East Coast), Kappa Kappa Tau, who has a checkered history with the law and the Dean of Students at the university (played by Jamie Lee Curtis). The episode starts with a mostly disappointing cold open/flashback that details the first death to occur under the roof of the sorority house. A girl gives birth in a bathroom during a huge party (she thought she was just gaining weight because of the “freshman fifteen”) and is abandoned by her friends because they have to sing the 1994 hit “Waterfalls” by TLC (it’s their jam).
They find her dead in the bathtub afterwards, having bled out. I know this was meant to play as funny and then spooky, but it mainly just played as dumb. The jokes don’t land and the performances in the cold open lack the spark that helps to save most of the rest of the pilot.
Smash cut to 2015 and a very villainous Emma Roberts voiceover. Roberts (as her character Chanel) recounts the basic power dynamics of Kappa Kappa Tau and introduces her three friends (all also named Chanel). The plot of the pilot (FOX aired the pilot and its second episode all at once) focuses on the four living members of Kappa Kappa Tau and the fall rush they are running in the hopes of recruiting more members. Due to unfortunate circumstances with the sorority’s maid (a deep fryer accident), they are forced by the Dean to open up the membership process to everyone. One of the rushees, Grace Gardner (relative newcomer Skyler Samuels) is rushing in order to reclaim a part of her mother’s history as a former member of the sorority. She is the show’s (to use the terminology of the slasher films the show apes) “last girl”, and much of the plot of the pilot focuses on her investigating the past crimes of the sorority with her investigative journalist love interest. But in all honesty, the plot of the show is not important, a fact that the show implicitly seems to acknowledge. People come for the stars and stay for the elaborate murders , and the show delivers on both of those aspects. Of particular note is the death of Ariana Grande’s character (yes, she’s in this) Chanel #2, which takes place as she is texting her killer (rather than saying her lines out loud) before being stabbed while tweeting out a scream for help. It’s moments like these that make SCREAM QUEENS seem like it is something worth sticking around for, but they come too few and far between.
The Public Health Department was really upset about that doughnut incident
Ultimately, SCREAM QUEENS employs the silly humor of GLEE, but layers on an extra layer of offensiveness that is supposed to present as edgy (or dare I say, “naughty”), but ultimately distracts from a solid premise and performances from actors that seem like they are having a lot of fun. But such is the nature of a Murphy/Falchuk/Brennan enterprise. Any real earnestness is covered up by sexually charged scenes, an instance of racism, or a stylish montage set to licensed music. I’d love to praise the show for what it seems to be doing in terms of cultivating some kind of female gaze. I’d love to congratulate it on its commitment to an 80’s soundscape that references so many great stingers from slasher films of yore. I’d love to applaud it for some truly creative staging of horror action. But I can’t. Because its attempts at ironic humor, self-awareness, and “look-how-bad-I-am” attitude keep me from connecting and caring about anything thing that is happening. If you hold a torch for Ryan Murphy or if you are attracted to the cool kid school politics of GLEE or the third season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY there might be something for you here. But if this is how you want to start participating in what is this new movement of more silly, melodramatic, and over-the-top prestige television, then you’ve picked the wrong horse to hook your wagon to. SCREAM QUEENS is not smelly sh**, but it is most definitely sh**.
SCREAM QUEENS airs on FOX on Tuesdays