Laura Tormos ‘18/ Emertainment Monthly Executive Producer
Scream Queens definitely has one hell of a pedigree, and it completely lives up to it in its two-hour premiere. Inspired by the classic “scream queen” horror films, the new FOX series follows the members and pledges of a sorority house with a dark past as a devil-masked serial killer murders them one-by-one. Obviously, that’s a fairly standard horror movie premise, but Scream Queens sets itself apart with its biting humor, sharp writing, and impressive ensemble cast. The pilot is nothing short of hilarious.
The horror-comedy comes from Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan, the creative team behind Glee (Murphy and Falchuk are also the creators of American Horror Story and the upcoming American Crime Story.) While Scream Queens veers away from some of the high school drama that came to dominate Glee, it still very much features their sniping social commentary about the way teens treat each other–and allows Murphy and Falchuk to further mine their obsession with horror in one happy marriage.
The pilot is chock-full of familiar horror story tropes, but they don’t feel tired like they do when used in actual horror films: they’re fresh and fun and funny. The series opens with a traumatic event that took place at Kappa Kappa Tau 20 years ago, which effectively sets the tone for the rest of the series. In the flashback, a sorority member bleeds out in a bathtub after giving birth unexpectedly (she thought it was the freshman 15.) Her sorority sisters, however, are more concerned about whether they’ll miss dancing to TLC’s “Waterfalls” than they are about her safety, and leave her to die, cocktails in hand.
The girls in the present are slightly less awful, but only barely. Grace Gardner (Skyler Samuels) is the obvious heroine–a young Kappa pledge who wants to join the sorority as a means of following in her dead mother’s footsteps–while Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts) is the most despicable character in the show as the homophobic, racist, ableist president and Queen Bitch of Kappa Kappa Tau. Also up there are her KKT squad of Chanels (No. 2, 3, and 5–No. 4 got meningitis and died) played by Abigail Breslin, Billie Lourd, and Ariana Grande, and her douchebag boyfriend/frat boy Chad Radwell (Glen Powell.)
Scream Queens by no means presents many (or any) of its characters as likable, but you can’t help but enjoy their presence anyway. Even the most morally sound of the bunch, like Grace, can and should be considered as the Red Devil killer. But even with their true intentions unclear, the characters’ shades of grey and likability come in from the performances and comedy chops, which explains why Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan made sure they assembled such a stellar and recognizable cast. Standouts from the first two episodes (other than the obvious Roberts as Chanel and OG scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis as Dean of Wallace University, Cathy Munsch) are Nick Jonas as Boone, a member of the golfing fraternity the Dollar Scholars; Lea Michele as Hester, a neck brace-wearing KKT pledge obsessed with death; and Nasim Pedrad as Gigi Caldwell, the earnest, behind-the-times Kappa sorority chief who clearly has a secret.
If Glee to AHS was a spectrum, Scream Queens would fall somewhere in the middle: it’s not scary, and it’s also not a coming of age, teen dramedy. Instead, it’s fun and campy, letting its writing do its commentary for it–be it about the sorority system or privilege or horror movie stereotypes. By the cast fully committing to Murphy, Falchuk, and Brennan’s vision, the actors can trust that when they play their characters straight, the rest of the comedy will fall into place.
And it does so: really, really well. I’m 100% on board with what I’ve seen in the two-hour pilot, and have little doubt that the rest of the season will live up to its promise. There are already so many questions we need resolved! What does the death 20 years ago have to do with the murders now? Is that now-20-year-old baby a student at Wallace University? What does Boone have to do with the Red Devil killer? Is Grace actually as innocent as she seems?
Here’s hoping they have satisfying answers.
Episode Grade: A