Scream Queens: Come for the Killing, Leave Otherwise

Ryan Murphy’s star-studded horror comedy is watchable only when it’s disgusting.


You can say this about Scream Queens: It has some nice killings.

When he first announced his stunt-like parody of films that splash college girls in blood and make them unsuccessfully beg for their lives, co-creator Ryan Murphy promised a death in every episode. Given that the cast list alone was engineered for max WTF-will-happen hype—among the members are American Horror Story mean girl Emma Roberts, pop stars Ariana Grande and Nick Jonas, less-little Miss Sunshine Abigail Breslin, Gleek goddess Lea Michele, and iconic scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis—this was quite a promise. He overdelivers on it in the two-hour premiere by a factor of ... well, I shouldn’t say.

I also shouldn’t say exactly in what manner people meet their fates on Scream Queens, because the deranged creativity of the slayings make for perhaps its only real horror/joy. There are a few moments of exquisite gross-out, preceded by a feeling of “they’re not really going to show this, are they?”—and then splat, or slash, or vrrrrrrr as the camera holds steady. Even more memorable is one of the more popular cast member’s relatively ungory death scene that involves an SNL-like farce about Millennials and technology. The only warning I’ll offer about the specifics of the pilot’s violence is that Murphy and co-creators Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan seem obsessed with the idea of skin as liquefiable. Excited?

The rest of the show is terrible-bad, rather than terrible-good. Murphy and Falchuk created American Horror Story to riff on genre tropes, and over the course of each season—and by an increasing amount each successive season—plot coherency wanes as mayhem mounts. But early on each year, that show at least attempts to create a universe with some sort of internal logic and believable characters, because without those things true scariness can’t be achieved. But Scream Queens starts out at late-season-AHS levels of disregard for traditionally “good” storytelling. There’s a lot of yadda-yaddaing to get from one splatter scene to the next.

The show is not trying to pretend otherwise. Again and again, characters yell out variants of “this is insane!” or “why don’t we call the cops?” This is supposed to be funny, as is the awfulness of Roberts’s character Chanel, a caricature of mean pretty privileged racist white girls even more extreme than the starlet witch she played in American Horror Story: Coven. When administrators force her sorority to start accepting all comers—even, Chanel says, the “fatties and ethnics” (plus, in a wicked bit of music criticism from the writers, a deaf Taylor Swift fan)—she starts to fight back in brutal ways.

Viewers are likely meant to be as comically unsettled by Chanel’s antics as they are by the murder scenes, and sometimes they will be. But in 2015, “let’s laugh at hatefulness” is a pretty played-out routine—especially when it’s more or less the only humor the dialogue offers. It would be one thing if the show itself didn’t seem to subscribe to Chanel’s worldview, but the cruelty with which it treats some innocent characters and the stereotypical way it portrays others (lazy black security guards? Curtis as a sexually desperate, bitter veteran of ’70s feminism?) just isn’t fun. Murphy etc. would likely reply by saying the show is satire of a genre that’s inherently pigheaded and a system—college Greek life—that often thrives on unfairness. Others might say he’s just reveling in and amplifying racist/sexist/every-ist tropes to a primetime network audience.

Then again, any social damage should be minimal because so much of the show blurs together into a haze of trying-too-hard camp. Theoretically, the hook for viewers is the mystery of who’s the psycho killer behind the red devil mask, but given the way that character motivations and personalities seem to fluctuate scene-to-scene in the premiere alone, it’s hard to imagine getting too wound up by the intrigue. Predicting what will happen on a show this self-consciously wacky is futile. The best way to watch it is probably with a distraction—maybe while swiping through your phone—and then glancing up whenever someone on screen starts to scream.