Two episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Fox’s Scream Queens wants to be the missing link between Scary Movie and Scream, peppering its wacky humor with a wicked knack for gruesome violence in a way both stomach-churning and gut-busting. And given that co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (reteaming with their Glee co-creator Ian Brennan) never met a genre they couldn’t invigorate with their trademark, devil-may-care theatricality, viewers might tune in optimistic about the series achieving that undeniably admirable goal.
What a shame, then, that the two-hour premiere is so quickly marred by its own mean streak. Minutes into the show, utterly loathsome sorority president Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts), head of the ultra-exclusive Kappa House that finds itself under siege from a killer in a red devil mask, dubs her maid “white mammy because she’s basically a house slave.” Especially in the wake of the VMAs, where host Miley Cyrus employed the same racially charged word, the joke leaves a bitter aftertaste. That’s just the tip of the iceberg – the premiere is overflowing with quips, both throwaway and extended, that are by shades racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, xenophobic and just plain nasty.
Roberts delights in playing Scream Queens‘ evil emcee, delivering the most vile punchlines with a glossy smirk and holier-than-thou remove, and to her credit, the actress embodies Chanel’s intolerance with enough acting savvy to tease a sliver of closely guarded humanity. But somewhere in between the token black sorority pledge (Keke Palmer) being ruthlessly stereotyped as an Angry Black Woman and the sole gay character (Nick Jonas’ preppy frat guy Boone) getting made out to be a predatory weirdo who consistently tries to molest his straight best friend (deluxe douchebag Chad, played by Glen Powell), the punchlines cross the line from silly to excessively spiteful.
Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Scream Queens hits a sour note. After all, Murphy, Falchuk and Brennan lingered on their minority Glee characters with a self-congratulatory, overly theatrical spotlight that always reeked of exploitation, while Murphy and Falchuk’s American Horror Story installments victimize women and minorities with perverse cruelty (although the latter at least pursues bigger themes of institutional corruption, systemic racism and human vice). All three are of the worrying mindset that there’s no harm in spouting vitriol as long as it’s depicted as such – but in Scream Queens, the issue is that said rancor seems to be in service of itself rather than any overarching condemnation of Chanel’s white privilege or warped feminism.
It doesn’t help that Grace (Skyler Samuels), the would-be protagonist, is vanilla-bland and passive in the extreme. Brandishing just about every scream-queen trope in the book (she’s white, conventionally pretty, virginal and carting around a suspect dead-mom backstory), Grace is far less interesting than Chanel, and that feels like a missed opportunity, given that she’s set up as the kumbaya counterpart to Roberts’ fiendish and fashionable hellion.
Murphy, Falchuk and Brennan make it a lot more entertaining to watch Chanel and her lackies (dubbed Chanel #2, Chanel #3 and so on, and played by the underutilized likes of Abigail Breslin and Ariana Grande), but their characterization makes Scream Queens problematic from a feminist standpoint as well. Women hold all the agency (the men are all childish, chiseled chumps – and that’s really great), but the most empowered females are almost all white, skinny, upper-class and outwardly intolerant, wielding their authority with callous egotism.
Scream Queens‘ writing is often sharp, yet also disappointingly prone to denigrating and denouncing other women on the basis of sexuality, race or ethnic background, class status and physical appearance. And without a strong counterpoint to balance out Chanel’s malevolence, her cattiness feels rather the point. Real feminism is not blind to race or class struggle, and feminism that glamorizes a hierarchical structure in which a female elite rules other women with an iron fist isn’t feminism at all – it’s just more oppression. So, while the creators could be commended on a superficial level for getting a series built around women on the air, they’ve seriously stumbled out of the gate in following through on their setup’s promise.
Scream Queens is stylishly, industriously designed, with a killer wardrobe and slick direction (Murphy and Falchuk split helming duties for the premiere, channeling their distinct energies to camera action reminiscent of Craven), and it’s a breezy few hours of television, jam-packed with silly moments, kooky characters and a central mystery some may actually want to see resolved. But in spite of all its familiar faces and flashy marketing, the series is also a hot mess that sets out to be so many things at once – scary, silly, smart and self-aware among them – and fails on every count. What’s left over is about as appetizing as a mouthful of battery acid.
Surprise, surprise - the creators of Glee have delivered another lazy and mean-spirited exercise in reinforcing prejudices under the guise of exposing and erasing them.