“Good evening, idiot hookers!”
And so one of Emma Roberts’ lines in the first two episodes of Ryan Murphy’s latest TV offering Scream Queens sets the entire tone of proceedings. Scream Queens comes off the back of Murphy (with his collaborators Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk)’s hit shows Glee and American Horror Story, two genre-twisting offerings that turned social outcasts into pop culture icons and plunged a troupe of actors into a variety of horrific roles per season.
The show itself is decidedly simple and dark in premise: following the bloody events of a sorority house party twenty years ago, the Kappa Kappa Tau house of the fictional Wallace University finds itself under siege from a murderous menace in the form of a serial killer adorning the Day-Glo scarlet horns and cape of the college’s Red Devil mascot. The sorority, now lead by the narcissistic, acerbic, and thoroughly rotten Queen Bee Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts) must close ranks against the killer, deal with a group of awkward and unsuitable new pledges, and fight closure against feminist crusader Dean Munsch (horror icon Jamie Lee Curtis).
The show seems a little like an alternate reality of American Horror Story‘s third season Coven, about a group of teenage witches struggling to survive in the modern world; except, rather than Roberts’ villainous Madison Montgomery getting her just desserts as in Coven, she was crowned Supreme and created a kingdom for herself to rule over in an equally white-looking and white-inclusive mansion (both shows’ racial politics are patchy if we’re being kind). Entertaining? Yes. A good thing for people to aspire to? No.
From the start, this show fills a sweet spot of Murphy and company’s, imbuing pretty young things with the cruelest things Fox could let them get away with saying, before we watch several of them justly or unjustly bite the dust before the end credits of each week’s episode roll around. The show is pitched at being ‘Scream’ with a comedic backbone, or Heathers for the slasher generation, and it does strike some great material with playing with tired horror tropes, particularly in series regular Denise (Niecy Nash) who skewers the cliches with common sense in the latter of the double bill to comedic effect.
It’s a true shame then, that a lot of the show doesn’t immediately stick or sit well. The show’s talented cast work with what they’re given well – Emma Roberts is a sinister triumph as Chanel, an ambitious and Machiavellian Barbie doll, while Jamie Lee Curtis plays her role as the Dean with relish, proving to be one of the best things the show has going for it as Munsch plans to destroy Chanel’s self-imposed empire. The other true lead in the show is relative unknown Skyler Samuels as the innocent, wide-eyed Grace Gardner, the inquisitive ‘good girl’ on a mission to learn more about her dead mother and discover the Red Devil’s identity – fortunately Samuels is a talented presence and makes a tired archetype her own, infusing Grace with inherent amiability.
The rest of the cast are thinly sketched out in the first two episodes – Chanel’s minions, simply named #2 (Ariana Grande), #3 (a deadpan Billie Lourd as the best of the bunch), and #5 (Abigail Breslin in a lacking performance… so far) as Chanel herself cannot be bothered to remember their names, get some basic character work as one of them is slain in a tragic yet comedic social-media-based death scene. Keke Palmer is cast as Grace’s new BFF, the ambitious and intelligent Zayday in a role that begs for development although her and Samuels’ chemistry is solid, and Glen Powell and Nick Jonas play two entitled, spoiled, and hilariously homoerotic frat brothers who get involved in the Red Devil mystery.
Sadly, the show is uneven at best and offensive at worst – the new recruits to Kappa receive cruel insults from Chanel that serve to highlight her monstrous nature and yet that we’re supposed to treat as jokes, to name the lightest of Chanel’s offenses. I’m not quite sure if we’re supposed to laugh or rage at the poisonous Chanel, a lead so heinous she calls her plus-sized housemaid (Jan Hoag who needs vastly better work than she receives) ‘White Mammy’ while abusing her physically and emotionally, calls Zayday a ‘hoodrat’, implies that all deaf people have halitosis, verbally brutalises everyone in a twenty-foot radius including eager new recruit Hester (Glee‘s Lea Michele in a possibly genius turn as a death-obsessed neckbrace-wearing nerd) and callously cares only about herself. Roberts does an admirable job in a role that is clearly a star vehicle for her, but Murphy seems to be relishing Chanel’s venom too much – which, for a man who created a globally-successful show about equality and self-love, is a very bitter pill to swallow.
Will I keep watching the show? Yes. For all of its many faults, it is highly entertaining and drops a few neat twists into the first two episodes of the show, as well as infusing some very cool throwbacks to horror staples past (here’s hoping the finale is a Black Christmas tribute in the Kappa house), sparking an interesting new murder mystery storyline (‘#WhoIsTheRedDevil’ will no doubt trend on Twitter before the finale hits) and being very subversively funny in a way that not many other shows can pull off.
However, I sincerely hope that Murphy, Brennan, and Falchuk learn how to balance the comedy and horror with a respect for both their characters and their audience, particularly when it comes to what pours out of Chanel’s toxic tongue. The Red Devil might be a killer, but the real devil doesn’t just wear Prada this time around – she’s got a sorority house full of it too.