[This is a review of the two-part Scream Queens series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
If you’d seen any of the promotional material for FOX’s Scream Queens (and there was a lot of it) ahead of the show’s two-hour series premiere, then you were pitched a show mixing laughs with thrills, chills and kills – in the vein of Wes Craven‘s groundbreaking Scream film series. Considering the blend of humor and horror is far from original nowadays, we can’t place Scream Queens in the same company of Craven’s films, but the Ryan Murphy co-created series certainly delivers the show the network advertised; and for fans of Murphy’s past work (American Horror Story, Glee), or either genre he’s playing in, that means there’s a lot of fun to be had in Scream Queens’ two-hour premiere.
Most of that fun comes from a well-calibrated balance of comedy and scares, all springing from a wildly entertaining combination of both of Murphy’s most recent TV projects. And that combo — of Glee‘s sharp-witted dialogue and AHS‘s morose darkness — takes center stage right away, as a bloody bathtub birth also manages to inject some twisted humor, when Kappa Kappa Tau sisters in a 1995 flashback express their desire to dance to TLC’s ‘Waterfalls’ rather than attend to their dying friend. The combination certainly sets the tone for the series, and for the first installment of its two-part premiere, which rushes forward in time to present day.
And as the setting moves 20 years in the future, the series quickly establishes its world and the dynamics within the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority at the fictional Wallace University. While some exposition is handled somewhat clumsily — as Grace (Skyler Samuels) throws her mother’s death into a conversation with her father Wes (Oliver Hudson) to get the rest of us up to speed — the show’s characters deliver that exposition clearly and concisely enough to maintain the show’s momentum and energy.
Brisk pacing and snappy dialogue are to credit for much of that momentum, but the show’s characters are what keep it entertaining throughout both hours. For the time being, some of the pledges and Chanel’s minions — which include Abigail Breslin (Zombieland) as Chanel #5, and Glee alum Lea Michele as Neckbrace — are fairly one-note, but there are more than a few standouts. Emma Roberts manages to steal most of the scenes she’s in as Chanel, the self-proclaimed “queen” of the sorority who is always quick with a devastating insult; while original scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween) gets a fun, if less flashy turn, as the university’s morally-ambiguous dean and Glen Powell (The Expendables 3) appears in an entirely comedic role as Chanel’s egotistical on-again-off-again boyfriend. Talented comediennes Nasim Pedrad (Saturday Night Live) and Niecy Nash (Reno 911!) also bring their great comedic timing and line delivery to the horror/humor mix as sorority attorney/advisor Gigi and security guard Denise, respectively.
Of course, adding to the entertainment factor are Scream Queens‘ cleverly conceived kills, original in their own right but still a nod to the slasher films of the 1980s and ’90s — when moviemakers continued to invent new ways to kill college kids. The lawnmower sequence that had pledges’ heads popped out of the grass, like they were taking part in some sick life-size whack-a-mole game, was actually pretty terrifying and even more gruesome. Then, there was Ariana Grande’s demise as Chanel #2, which was easily one of the biggest laugh-out-loud moments of the premiere, when she struggled to send an emergency tweet instead of actually calling for help as she lay dying. Considering Grande was credited as a special guest star, we knew she wouldn’t last long, but her on-screen death was certainly memorable.
Not only does the show play well, but it looks great doing it, too. In each directing an hour of the premiere, Murphy and Scream Queens co-creator Brad Falchuk (a frequent collaborator of Murphy’s) bring a vibrant and kinetic visual style to the show that has the camera constantly moving while framing its subjects from interesting and arresting angles. Whether Chanel is leading her minions on a determined march down a sorority hallway or Grace is investigating a secret KKT room, the show’s eye-catching appeal also helps to convey whatever feeling or sensation a particular scene or shot is trying to achieve (dread, tension, humor).
That said, Scream Queens will not be for everyone. Even Glee fans may find some turn-offs here, including some truly repugnant lines of dialogue uttered from the lovely Emma Roberts. Her character is devilishly nasty, homophobic and racist; and to portray that character, the show may toe the line of tastelessness for some. For others, this will only help paint Chanel as the bitchy villain who is certainly easy to hate.
However, for the unoffended, Scream Queens’ biggest fault is that it borrows a little too heavily from tongue-in-cheek slashers like Scream. If using a similar comedic tone, pop-culture references, a contemporary soundtrack and the same who-dunnit setup weren’t enough, the show also gives us a central protagonist with a haunted past — one that involves the death of her mother, the true circumstances of which just might play into the most recent slew of killings. It sure sounds like the writers had Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott in mind when they developed Grace.
Similarities to past horror/comedies aside, Scream Queens is successful in its mission to entertain. While it may not have the broad appeal FOX is counting on, it certainly has the performers and creative tools to craft an enjoyable ride. And although the focus for many won’t be on narrative, Scream Queens also has a fun murder mystery to solve. Was Grace the baby in that tub 20 years ago? Could Grace’s barista/love interest Pete (Diego Boneta) be the killer? How exactly is Boone (Nick Jonas) involved? The fact that we are legitimately excited to find out is a great sign for the series.
Scream Queens season 1 continues next Tuesday with ‘Chainsaw’ on FOX.