September 22, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Scream Queens”


SCREAM QUEENS:  Tuesday 9PM on FOX – Change the Channel

SCREAM QUEENS could have been more accurately titled “Ryan Murphy Presents,” in the manner of the old Alfred Hitchcock show, because it’s essentially his own salute to his favorite tropes and styles.  As Bill Hader’s Stefon might say, it has everything:  Glee, American Horror Story (especially the Coven year), cruelty (barely) masked as anti-cruelty, superficial blasts at superficiality, sadistically cartoonish horror violence, and a rushing current of campiness that floods over it all.  To this he’s added a binge-watch of the Scream movies.  If all of it clashes, whatever:  it’s Ryan Murphy’s Chocolate Factory, whether or not the candy tastes sweet.

The setting is called Wallace University, but really it’s the Kappa sorority, which is a snake pit of comic viciousness.  The queen bee is called Chanel Oberlin, and she’s played by Emma Roberts, who’s already played variations of this role for Murphy on American Horror Story.  Her nearly-as-bitchy cohorts are mostly known by numbers, as in Chanel #5 (Abigail Breslin).  They’re meant to be comic nightmares, horribly mean to anyone who doesn’t meet their standards of physical perfection and coolness, but as usually with Murphy, there’s a definite sense that he’s more on their side than not.

Chanel’s opposite number is Grace Gardner (Skyler Samuels), so sweet and honest that she might as well have “Final Girl” painted on her face.  She’s a legacy at Kappa, but a plot contrivance allows Dean Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis) to order the sorority to open the doors to anyone, so other pledges include the neck-braced Hester (Lea Michele), and African-American (and yes, sassy) Zayday (Keke Palmer), among others, much to the Chanels’ disgust.

Following the cue of a million other teen horror stories, something very nasty happened 20 years ago at the sorority, where a member who was secretly pregnant bled out while giving birth, due to the inattention of her sisters.  (The fate of the child, who of course would now be old enough to attend Wallace, is unknown.)  Now someone is taking a sort of revenge, although so far there appears to be little organization to the killing.  In the 2-hour series premiere (both hours written by series creators Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan–both longtime Murphy associates–with Hour 1 directed by Murphy and Hour 2 by Falchuk), more or less random people are murdered by someone wearing a red devil outfit:  one of the Chanels (played by Ariana Grande) who died because she insisted on texting for help instead of screaming, the sorority cook, a pledge, a security guard.  The traditional horror beats also include Grace’s aspiring journalist and aspiring boyfriend Pete (Diego Boneta), who happens to own a red devil outfit (to play the school mascot at sporting events).

There’s also a lot of very broad comedy, most of it relating to Chanel’s cloddish boyfriend Chad (Glen Powell), and the cowardly security guard who survived the premiere, Denise (Niecy Nash).  Little of it is funny, just as little of the horror stuff is in any way scary or even disturbing.  It’s all just an excuse to reach the next jolt, whether that’s a bloody killing or a slur thrown at one of the women.

Scream Queens seemed absolutely terrible to me in every respect, from arch writing to sloppy performance to unimaginative direction, but it’s clearly the show that Murphy and his team wanted to make, and a series creator with his level of success can’t be dismissed lightly.  (Although there was The New Normal…)  It’s certainly possible that there will be an audience for this, mostly from the young fans who flock to low-rent horror movies like Ouija on opening weekend to giggle at them.  FOX is giving the show a ton of promotion, and while it has to face The Voice at least until mid-November, the competition from NCIS: New Orleans and Agents of SHIELD is far less serious.  It’s one of those series announced as “limited” (15 episodes), but will certainly return next season in some form if it’s a hit.  For me, though, the second hour of the premiere was entitled “Hell Week,” and that described the experience of watching.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."